Scientists Use ‘Lab-in-a-Box’ To Study Coral Reefs

In what is being called the first controlled ocean acidification experiment ever conducted in shallow coastal waters, an international team of experts has created a miniature laboratory in the Great Barrier Reef in order to simulate anticipated future conditions in the waters of the region’s ecosystem.

The researchers, including Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment Senior Fellows Jeff Koseff, Rob Dunbar and Steve Monismith, created a so-called “lab-in-a-box” in two to six foot deep waters off the coast of the Australian reef, Woods Institute Communications Writer Rob Jordan reported on Wednesday.

The device allows them to study the effect of possible influences on the ecosystem, including increasing acid content and carbon dioxide levels, Jordan said. For now, it is being used to isolate and observe the reactions of increased acidity in an isolated patch of corals, without other parts of a reef being adversely affected by the experiment.

“Installing systems like this at reefs and other aquatic environments could be instrumental in helping us identify how ecosystems will change and which locations and ecosystem types are more likely to remain robust and resilient,” Lida Teneva, a Stanford doctoral student involved in the research, said. “From this, we can determine which habitats to focus our conservation efforts on as strongholds for the future.”

Their work, which was funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), the Queensland Government, the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Pacific Blue Foundation, is detailed in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Oceans absorb more than a quarter of all atmospheric carbon dioxide, concentrations of which are increasing at a rate twice as fast as at any time in the past 800,000 years or more,” Jordan explained. “This leads to increasingly intense water acidification and widespread coral reef destruction. The potential loss is tremendous: reefs provide aquaculture, protein and storm protection for about 1 billion people worldwide.”

“Standard in situ studies of ocean acidification have multiple drawbacks, including a lack of control over treatment conditions and a tendency to expose organisms to more extreme and variable pH levels than those predicted in the next century,” he added. “So in 2007, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute developed a system that allows for highly controlled semi-enclosed experiments in the deep sea.”

This latest study modified that system, allowing it to be used in coral reefs and creating what is known as the Coral Proto — Free Ocean Carbon Enrichment (CP-FOCE) system. The CP-FOCE utilizes a network of sensors in order to monitor water conditions, maintaining the experimental levels of acidity, allowing the research team to work directly in the natural environment while avoiding the issues typically involved with such studies, Jordan said.

Image 2 (below): A researcher conducts ocean acidification experiments off Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia. Credit: David I. Kline