Jeremy Abcug '19 and Ginny Johnson '20
Summer Research Scholars with Lisa Greer, Summer 2018
With the ever-increasing threat of global climate change, and an onslaught of anthropogenic factors, nature as a concept and a tangible entity has perhaps never been more under attack in human history. The effects can be seen in nearly every ecosystem imaginable, but coral reefs remain an archetypical example of this environmental degradation, with global cover and abundance levels dropping by up to 98% in some cases. Yet, despite the worldwide sense of gloom and doom, ongoing studies of Dr. Lisa Greer have proven the reefs of Coral Gardens, Belize to be a refuge for the endangered Acropora cervicornis (Staghorn Coral), with cover levels remaining stable, and even growing, up until 2016. However, climate fluctuations and variability coming from a strong El Niño and the hard-hitting Hurricane Earl wrought sharp declines in coral cover in late 2016, giving a true test of the resistance and ability to reestablish themselves to the coral. Over the summer, we had the privilege of traveling to Belize to work with and help continue the vital work of Dr. Greer in hopes of seeing signs of improvement.
I don't think either one of us will ever forget our first plunge into the Caribbean waters, oxygen tank on back and regulator in mouth. The combination of anxiety and incredible excitement to briefly live in the underwater world was almost too much to bear. But, once underwater, previous feelings melted away, and any trials or tribulations from the SCUBA certification process (and we have plenty of now funny stories) became less than trivial. Sharks, rays, manatees, fish beyond number and imagination; we were now visitors within their home. Everything seemed to slow underwater, yet time passed at a supernatural pace - our first visit underwater was a brief one, lastly only 40 minutes. Yet these 40 minutes were enough to spark an unquenchable thirst for diving and seeing how the other, more aquatic half, lives. Our week in Belize saw us become much more comfortable in the water, with the latter of our 8 dives lasting nearly two hours each, but we also became deeply submerged within Belizean culture, marveling at how a reef could have such an impact on a people. More than just income from tourism, the largest barrier reef in the northern hemisphere seemed to influence nearly every aspect of their daily life, from food to clothing to spirit.
Our week in Belize was incredibly eventful, fun, and rewarding. Packed to the brim with dives, being on the water nearly every day from morning to late afternoon, and plenty of other coral-related activities (including getting to meet marine geologist and coral expert Dr. Al Curran), there are plenty of highlights we could drone on about endlessly. But the most important part of the trip, the corals themselves, were less than spectacular. Of course words cannot describe how awestruck and floored we were by the corals and their extraordinary formations; with their innate ability to provide shelter and food to other marine organisms, it was truly everything learned in the classroom brought to real life. Yet to the trained eye, and as Dr. Greer remarked and we later saw for ourselves when looking at previous years' photo-documentation, the corals were hurting. As we saw from our calculations, after the sharp decline in coral cover in 2016, three of the five transect areas studies continued their dramatic decline, while one has levelled off and remained stable, and the other has begun to increase slightly in recovery.
The story our data tells isn't the brightest or the most surprising, as it reaffirms the drastic decline in coral reefs we are seeing in waters across the globe. However, hope still does remain for a reestablishment and eventual recovery for these corals, as the two transects that were able to remain stable or grow also happen to be the historically largest and richest areas studied. Yet while further research is needed to monitor the situation in Coral Gardens, Belize, the study has undoubtedly given us invaluable experience in the field, sparked an incredible love for the sea, and rekindled our passion for the fight against global climate change.