Two ocean research groups at University of California, Santa Barbara have received multimillion dollar grants from the National Science Foundation to assist in their long-term research concerning coral reefs and kelp forests. The Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research and the Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research programs are two programs located at least partially on the UCSB campus, and each has received a grant close to $1 million a year to fund its projects and research as well as supplies and salaries.
“This is an amazing thing,” Principal Investigator at Moorea Coral Reef Long Term Ecological Research Russ Schmitt said about the $960,000 the program will be receiving for the next four years.
MCR LTER studies the coral reefs around the French Polynesian island of Moorea and aims to discover how the coral reefs there recover so quickly from damage by pollution, species invasion, and natural disasters. Though coral reefs take up only a tenth of a percent of the sea floor, Schmitt assures they are a vital part of the ocean ecosystem.
“From a biodiversity point of view, they are spectacularly important,” said Schmitt. “They are the rainforests of the marine environment.”
The reef at Moorea is particularly special because, despite being invaded by the Crown of Thorns starship and the offshore coral being mostly destroyed by a cyclone, the coral has managed to recover far quicker than expected. Whereas most coral takes several decades to return to its pervious levels, the reefs at Moorea return to their former glory usually within a decade. While the parrotfish and its tendency to eat algae before it can blossom into kelp fields is one of the likely causes, the other reason remains unsure but hypothesized.
“Despite the fact that the reef has been literally wiped out, baby corals have been able to repopulate at an enormously high rate,” he said. “That means adult corals somewhere else are producing coral larvae that are somehow ending up at Moorea.”
The research at the MCR LTER will focus on the effects of global warming, changes in seawater chemistry due to ocean acidification, the impacts of human’s fishing, and longterm impact of natural disasters like cyclones.
Back in Santa Barbara, the Santa Barbara Coastal Long Term Ecological Research program is examining the local kelp forests to determine the effects of human activities including pollution on the forests and rainwater runoff as well as acidification and a rise in ocean temperature. Principal investigator Dan Reed said the kelp forests serve a crucial function in ocean ecosystems.
“Kelp are what is considered by ecologists to be a foundation species, species that are of overwhelming importance to the community,” said Reed.
Kelp forests provide a habitat for hundreds of ocean species who hide among the kelp stalks and with human involvement and interaction in the area increasing, Reed and his team are researching the long term effects on the ecosystem.
The grants from the NSF ensure that the data accumulation and research currently employed by these two programs, which span several fields of studies and disciplines, will continue into the future.
“I think UCSB,” said Reed, “is known for its very interdisciplinary research, open borders, and collaborative spirit.”