Thursday, September 1, 2016

Coral growth history: measuring the pulse of the reef

Measuring the density of a coral from the 1700's
As per usual, I'm terribly behind on the updates I promised (sorry!).  So I'm sure you've been at the edge of your seat, wondering what the heck I was doing all the way over in Queensland, Australia!! ;)                                                 
Well wait no longer-- I've got nothing but time here in the Galapagos thanks to jet lag, missing luggage (stuck somewhere between Houston and here :/) and a terribly unsuccessful adventure around town for remaining gear (summed up by the common response: "es complicado").  SIGH.

Jokes aside (I know you weren't REALLY at the edge of your seat), I'm really excited to tell you about my time at the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).  It has been a pipe dream of mine to visit AIMS for many years now and it was pretty surreal to finally make it a reality.


AIMS is a leading center for marine science, including a jaw-droping Sea Simulator (SeaSim) facility, where there are a number of projects investigating the impact of temperature, light, pH, sediment and other types of stress on corals.  

But what brought me here was the world-class coral core archive and facilities run by my collaborator Dr. Janice Lough.  Janice is a leading expert in reading the history of coral growth written in their skeletons.  These histories provide a window into the impacts of environmental stressors, such as temperature and acidification, on coral health.  And because coral growth is tied to climate, these growth histories can also provide insight into past ocean conditions (particularly temperature).

Over the last few decades, Janice and her collaborators have collected samples from all over the Great Barrier Reef, Western Australia and a number of other key sites to investigate past climate and it's impacts on reefs from these growth histories.  Their floor to ceiling cabinets filled with these coral samples are also an incredible archive and resource for the larger community.  My first day in the lab left my head spinning with research possibilities (and thinking-- "when I grow up-- I want THIS" ;)).

I died and went to coral archive heaven ;)

Coral growth is a function of both its extension upwards and the density of its skeleton.  So to study coral growth, Janice and Neal Cantin have developed and refined two methods for measuring the density of the coral skeleton using x and gamma radiation.  These methods work in similar ways.  Like x-rays, gamma rays are high-energy photons produced during radioactive decay. We bombard the coral sample with x or gamma radiation and measure the amount that returns to the collector.  The absorption of the radiation depends on the type of material, its thickness and....its density!
X-ray image showing the seasonal density variations

Close up of the gamma density setup

Which brings me to the more laborious, less glorious part of my work over the past ~month: measuring thickness! So what did I really do at AIMS?  Many 'o hours turning the crank to drive a digital caliper, measuring thickness at 0.125 cm increments down the coral sample.  So exhilarating that my first ever (5.8 magnitude) earthquake didn't even phase me. ;)

Measuring thickness of a sample with digital calipers

But from these meticulous measurements, I will produce robust estimates of coral growth in fossil corals from the Galapagos dated to the late 1700's!!  Combined with modern Galapagos corals, these records will allow us to test the impact of ocean temperatures, pH, and other environmental conditions on coral growth at a site where corals experience strong variations in both climate and acidity from year to year.  Will these historical fluctuations make corals from the Galapagos more or less susceptible to ocean warming and acidification?  I hope to find out!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Iakwe/Yokwe: "You are a rainbow"

This is the way you say "Hello", "Love" or "Goodbye" in Marshallese.  But directly translated, "Iakwe" (or "Yokwe") means "You are a rainbow".

And this deeper meaning says so much about their culture.  

Rainbow over Arno lagoon
After only a few days of being on the islands, you can quickly see how the rainbow has become a cornerstone of their language.  Frequent tropical rain showers give way to beautiful rainbows over the turquoise waters.

Although somehow I captured so few pictures of these beautiful rainbows, their beauty remains clear in my memory.   

But that's not what has really stuck with me from this trip.   It's the people and their incredible generosity.

I want to say "Kommol tata" ("thank you very much") to Tamara, Karl, Cary, Rodney, Tanta, Kalena, Flo, Emma (and the other MIMRA folks!) for making our work possible.  An especially big thanks to Tamara, who was instrumental in helping us make local connections and arrangements!  

Can't wait to work with you all more next year!!

Monday, July 4, 2016

"Majuro Corals" off "Mount Majuro"

Mount Majuro.  The highest point on Majaro Atoll.  

The garbage dump.

Today we went surveying off of the south side of Majuro, near the airport and the garbage dump, and found (drum roll please): lots of garbage! 

Slipper lobster?  NOPE.  That's a used diaper waving in the surge.  Gross.

The scientists at the Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority call the pieces of trash "Majuro Corals."  There were some incredibly huge Acropora tables holding on, but much of the reef consisted of dead coral framework.  

We talked to the expert "garbologist" (as he called it), Alice Leney, who helped Tarawa Atoll with their garbage control by creating a bottle and can recycling program with monetary incentives called "Kaoki Mange" ("Return the Rubbish").  

He said not only are there not any incentives like that here, but infrastructure and space are an issue. The US sent American-sized garbage trucks to Majuro, which are completely impractical for the much smaller-scale operation needed on the island.   

People are working hard on this issue here on the island to try to solve these problems.

In the mean time,  rubbish ends up on the top of mount Majuro.  A mountain with bounds.  After mount Majuro can climb no more, they've proposed to dredge up more reef to create more "land" for another land fill.

Most places in the world, we can go about our daily lives blissfully unaffected by the magnitude of trash we produce as a society.  We throw our rubbish in the garbage, a trash man comes and picks it up, and that's the last we ever see of it.  

But Mount Majuro isn't unique.  We're just fortunate to have a place to put it.  For now. 

But the impacts of our rubbish are here and now.

Inspired by the movie "American Beauty"

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Fossil hunt/biking adventure on Arno atoll

Please pinch me...

I must have died and gone to heaven.  In Arno.

On Monday and Tuesday I "toodled" around Arno Arno on a fixie beach cruiser with my local guide Tonta is search of fossil corals. Besides a brief moment when I was chased by a scary looking dog, it was one of my favorite bike rides (and for that matter days) of all time.  Riding over palm fronds along a faint car track, it was basically mountain biking "island style".

Tonta and I rode side-by-side in the two single track bike trails created by the few trucks on the island over the years. Every so often, we would have to dismount our bike or ride slowly through/ under a softball or volleyball match between the local boys and girls.

Then suddenly the thick canopy of palms opened up to a sight of the turquiose lagoon as we rode to the end of Arno Arno, where we spent much of the day in search of coral.   I baked under the tropical sun in the guam dress that I wore out of respect for the local culture, but I loved every second of being in this enchanting place.  Plus, I've never looked so nice while sweating my buns off working in the field ;)

I arrived back to our house just as a tropical rainshower started pouring on me. It was admittedly quite refreshing given that I was covered from head to toe in glistening sweat.

Arrived back to our hut completely stoked and soaked :)

As I dashed under the tin roof, my colleagues handed me a fresh coconut.  An extremely refreshing treat after a long, hot day; the perfect end to a perfect day.


On Tuesday we biked towards the other end of the island along a thin strip of the atoll-- the turquise lagoon on our one side and ocean on the other-- looking for fossils.

But the highlight was definitely when Tanta and I rode down the lagoon beach to avoid the angry dog.  It was quite a work out and absolutely gorgeous. colleagues Simon, Sara and Emma had an exciting day surveying the reef (to say the least!).  They caught a ~120 lb yellowfin Tuna, which Emma ended up helping reel into the boat!  While they were all laboring as a team to bring in their catch, a pilot whale was breaching nearby.  You can read more about their crazy adventures on Sara's blog.

I was bummed to have missed what was quoted as "the most insane 10 minutes of their lives", but my time spent on land was incredibly rewarding in itself.  In some strange way, I was thankful for my surgery, because it gave me the chance to take advantage of the opportunities on land that I otherwise wouldn't have had.

Life is good.  And science is awesome.

I'll have to save the details for another day...

Saturday, June 25, 2016

"Iokwe aolep jān Majuro"

"Hello (love) everyone from Majuro".

First view of Majuro out the plane window
We arrived safely in the Marshall Islands today after a great week in Hawaii at the International Coral Reef Symposium.  As the wheels hit the one lane tarmac, closely straddled by the lagoon on one side and the ocean on the other, I breathed a sigh of relief.  Not only was it a bit "exciting" to land on such a narrow piece of land all but being engulfed by the water due to extensive dredging, but I was also so thankful to have arrived despite all odds.

We've been planning this project/trip for the last 3 years or so, and it hasn't been an easy road.  But we fought through all of the hurdles that came our way, and we were finally making it happen. 

Until my appendix decided that it wanted out.   A week and a half before our departure date, and less than a week before my trip to Hawaii, I found myself in an emergency appendectomy.

Maybe we were trying to force the shoe to fit?  Or I had pissed off some field work gods?

One organ less and three incisions later, I found myself on the road to recovery.  The seemingly slow road to recovery.  2 weeks has never felt so long.
It may be laproscopic surgery, but these incisions were still quite sore and swollen!

Tomorrow we head to Arno, which is an outer island about 1.5 hours away by boat.  We'll spend the next four days surveying the reef there.  But this time, I'll have to watch from the boat.  Scuba diving definitely doesn't fall into the category of not lifting more than 10 lbs or not soaking in standing water.  Sigh.

Hopefully I'll be healed enough to dive by the end of the trip.  Continued healing thoughts, please!

But in the mean time, it's a great learning experience for my new graduate student Emma Reed, who I know will do a great job surveying alongside my extremely experienced colleague.

I'll write more when we return (must catch some zzzzs!).  But in the mean time, enjoy some pictures from our flight in!

View outside our hotel

Thursday, May 12, 2016

If it’s too good to be true…

maybe, for once, it isn’t?!?


Over the past 5 trips to the Galapagos, I’ve come to accept the reality that it is inevitable that something will go wrong (and more likely many things).   Like with weddings, all you can do is hope the problem is not a show stopper.

For instance on our first trip, they refused to let us on the plane with all of our field gear and we had to send it via a cargo plane from Quito, delaying our trip by a week and causing us to start the planning and paperwork from scratch (and cancel our return flights home for an unknown future date, not knowing when our gear would actually arrive).  Fortunately, our bags eventually arrived and we carried on with our “plan B”.   I navigated the language barrier through the pile of paperwork, logistics and quarantine completely naïve to the many subtleties of the process (signatures, stamps, formalities). In retrospect, it is nothing short of a miracle that it all got done.  The wonderful people at the Charles Darwin Research Station were entirely to thank for that.

Our gear in quarantine

Then there was the second trip, when I naively thought that things would go smoothly since I knew the process. HAH.  After the luggage snafu of the first trip (and since we would be drilling coral cores using a hydraulic drill) we sent all of our gear from the states…6 months in advance!! That should be plenty of time, we thought.  Wrong again.  We arrived in the Galapagos without our gear, and once again had to play the waiting game…

And then there was the trip where we didn’t get our permit or transuéntes (which allow us to enter the Galapagos as scientists) in time for our trip.  So we had to leave our passports at the airport…

And that other time when the director of the Galapagos National Park threatened to take away our permit (due to a mistake with the paperwork)…

You get the point—it’s always something.  And usually a show stopper.  Someone here summed it up well recently: “They think that by making things more difficult, they’re being efficient.”

It always felt like you were cruising along jumping the known hurdles, only to find out that they had moved 6 inches from last year, and you trip and fall on your face.


But not this time!  Maybe the 6th time is the charm, but this trip has gone shockingly smoothly.

The trip started out on the wrong foot, when (as per usual) they called us to the back of the airport within minutes of our flight’s departure to check the bags containing our equipment.  The extra large duffels full of electronics, metal rods, and other assorted equipment always draw their attention.  It isn’t clear to me why they ALWAYS wait until the last minute to check, but it never fails.  Once again, we find ourselves sprinting back to the gate behind the gate agent, arriving 5 minutes before our departure…

But our bags were not as fortunate.

Our pile 'O gear

As our bags were being inspected, they had filled the rest of the luggage space with cargo for the islands—including someone’s new, widescreen TV.  By the time our bags arrived, there was no more space, and our bags were left behind.

Then, and only then, they decided our bags were dangerous (after the opportunity to look again).  Fortunately, after a bit of negotiating by our Ecuadorian student volunteer, I signed off on an agreement that there was nothing dangerous in our bags and we were told they’d be on tomorrow’s flight.

A day delay? That’s nothing in this game.  As long as they come tomorrow, as they had nearly all of our gear!  We wouldn’t get very far without them!

The next day we finished our paperwork, met with the director of the GNP (who ALWAYS finds some sort of problem), and did quarantine-- and it all went swimmingly.  There were NO issues.  And he even said I could do my talk in English (thank goodness!).  Those of you who know my fluency in Spanish know how painful that would’ve been for the audience…  I can get by in conversational Spanish, but I certainly can’t give a science talk!!!
Our gear being inspected before quarantine


May be I jinxed it, as I woke up this morning feeling the start of a bad cold.

Hopefully I'm not breaking our new rule of field work: (6) No Zika.

After our gear finishes in quarantine in this morning, we head to Genovesa and Bainbridge on the Pirata to collect our samples from the 2015-2016 El Nino event.  The locals have all given reports of a “weird” El Nino, in which there wasn’t as much rain as expected.  In March, they say that the water temperatures also rapidly cooled, suggesting that the upwelling has recommenced in the region.

I’m anxious to see what we’ll find…

(to be continued)

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant Number (NSF AGS-1561121). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.