Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 9 to reflect that the trip to St. John will not include relief efforts. The team worked to coordinate such efforts, but plans changed due to scheduling complications.
Published November 8, 2017
A UB geologist will journey to the Caribbean island of St. John this month to study the impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria on coral reefs in the region.
“We won’t know the extent of damage on the reefs until we are able to get into the water,” says Howard Lasker, professor of geology in the College of Arts and Sciences, who departs for St. John on Nov. 18 aboard the F.G. Walton Smith, the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science’s research vessel. “Hurricanes create huge waves in the ocean, and these go crashing onto the reefs with great force. Sand also gets tossed around, so it’s like sandblasting. These direct physical impacts can cause a lot of harm.”
With his collaborator, Peter Edmunds from California State University, Northridge, Lasker has been researching reefs off St. John’s southern coast for several years. The team has been documenting which coral species live there today, and examining photographs dating back to 1987 to determine how the composition of reefs has changed.
The focus is on understanding the balance between hard, stony corals, which form the backbone of ocean reefs, and softer, more flexible gorgonian corals — tree-like species that form an underwater forest of sorts, providing habitat for small fish and other aquatic life.
The hurricanes add an unexpected variable to this work.
“It’s interesting because it’s a natural experiment,” Lasker says. “It’s not an experiment that you could in good conscience conduct yourself, but we can learn a lot from studying the recovery if there has been any damage.”
Coral reefs act as habitats for fish and other wildlife, providing food for communities worldwide and generating tourism dollars for seaside economies. Investigating how traumatic events like hurricanes affect these important resources is particularly vital in a time of global climate change, he says.
Lasker’s November trip to St. John is funded by a $126,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, which is also paying for his time aboard the F.G. Walton Smith.
His team will include Angela Martinez Quintana, a UB PhD student in Lasker’s lab; Jacqueline Krawiecki, a recent UB master’s graduate from the lab; and Douglas Penninger from the Georgia Aquarium.
The hurricane caused severe damage to the Virgin Islands Environmental Resource Station — Lasker’s usual home base on St. John — so the team will be based aboard the F.G. Walton Smith and take smaller boats out to dive sites along St. John’s southern coast.
Lasker is unsure what they will find, but in general, he compares the effect of storms on coral reefs to the effect of wildfires on forests.
“Hurricanes have always occurred,” he says. “They can cause extensive damage, but then the populations start to recover. It’s analogous to forest fires: After a number of years, the forest starts returning. There’s a period of disturbance, and then the system recovers.”
But scientists still have a lot of questions about how coral reefs bounce back.
For example, few researchers have looked in detail at the plight of soft corals — Lasker’s area of expertise. There are some clues that these species may fare better than their stony counterparts after a disaster, but more research needs to be done to understand how storms, warming waters and ocean acidification can alter the composition of reefs and whether these changes are permanent or short-lived, Lasker says.