A RESEARCH team running the world’s first underwater laboratory on the Great Barrier Reef has confirmed the natural treasure is in great danger.
Led by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, from the global change institute of the University of Queensland, the team has been studying how coral is affected by increasing acidity in sea water caused by carbon emissions.
They began the world-first experiment on a two-square-metre patch of the reef off Heron Island in May and found damage to the reef more serious than expected.
They will soon remove the four experimental chambers – two simulating future carbon dioxide levels and two with control conditions. They are using more than 20 precision instruments to monitor the changing water chemistry. The experiment simulates the predicted levels of carbon emissions in 2050.
Team member David Kline said the group had noted that in only eight months the part of the reef with the higher CO2 levels already looked quite different. ”What is growing there has changed, the types of algae are different and, based on our research, we would expect that the growth rate of the coral would have slowed,” he said.
”If people’s CO2 emissions continue as they have, the future of the reef is very grim. I would suggest that coral reefs will be highly altered and perturbed ecosystems by 2050 if we do not make a massive effort to curb our emissions. The findings back up much of the previous research that finds ocean acidification will have serious impacts on reefs.”
The research is funded by an Australian Research Council program and the Pacific Blue Foundation, a Californian non-profit charitable trust. Dr Kline said the findings would be submitted to scientific publications including the American journal Science.
When the study was announced in May, Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said the project had been ”quite an engineering feat”. While similar studies have been done in aquariums this is the first on an ocean reef. Electronics and power sources are on a float, with mooring lines and anchors, and 100 metres of electronic cables needed to power the laboratory’s computer, which regulates how much carbon is being added to the reef.
The equipment is automated but researchers visit the float to check the gear every three days.
Professor Hoegh-Guldberg said scientists could use the data to predict at what point the reef would fade away. ”The corals are disappearing at a rate of 1 or 2 per cent a year … If you multiply that by 20 years, that’s 40 per cent.”