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Coral Reef in Palau Thriving in Acidic Waters

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution scientists try to determine how Nikko Bay corals thrive in acidic waters.

January 6, 2014

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Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are studying coral reefs in the island nation of Palau and how they thrive in acidic environments when in other areas of the world they would be dead or dying. According to a report on PRI, scientist Anne Cohen and her colleagues are studying 17 reef systems around the world and the reef in Nikko Bay on Palau, which is teeming with a wide variety of corals and other marine life. What is important to note is that this spot in the ocean is the most acidic site that they have found. What is also interesting is, according to Cohen, as you leave the barrier reefs and head offshore to the island's bays, the level of acidity gets higher, and the coral cover and diversity increases. Cohen and her colleagues are trying to determine how these corals thrive in waters that should actually be melting their calcium carbonate skeletons.

Palau water sample device
Palau water sample device can capture 48 water samples over multiple days. Screengrab courtesy PRI/Youtube

They take water and coral samples. They log growth rates and signs of stress from the higher acidity and are searching for reasons as to why these corals can thrive in this environment. They look at genetic adaptations or other characteristics that may hold the keys that will help the world's coral reefs to survive a more highly acidic sea. Cohen's team have visited Nikko Bay six times in their quest to find the answers with regard to how these corals survive the highly acidic, yet totally natural waters. In other areas of the world that are exposed to ocean acidification, coral reefs are dying. Some scientists predict that by the year 2100, coral reefs worldwide could be wiped out, yet in Nikko Bay, the water is already as acidic as scientists have predicted for the rest of the world's oceans by the end of the century.

"Climate change is really happening. You come to Palau, we go into these areas where we’re seeing conditions of the future, right there," she told PRI. "And yet, we have these communities that appear to have figured it out. That’s like the biggest diamond in the desert."

While the answer to these corals thriving has still eluded Cohen, one thing she would like to see is the coral reef ecosystems of Nikko Bay moved to the top of the global coral conservation list.

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