Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Warwick Academy Explores Threats to Our Ocean

 By Lara Funk

Last week an enthusiastic group of 15 Warwick Academy students visited BIOS to learn more about marine science issues facing Bermuda.  The students are in their final year of the International Baccalaureate Program, an internationally recognized college preparatory program that challenges students to become critical thinkers and thoughtful members of an increasingly global society.  Jessica Young of Warwick Academy instructs the students in Environmental Systems and Societies, an interdisciplinary course examining the interactions of culture and the environment.  JP Skinner, Director of BIOS’s Ocean Academy, eagerly welcomed the group and led them on a tour of BIOS.  The students had the opportunity to see some of BIOS’s research labs such as the Coral Reef Ecology and Resilience lab and the Reef Ecology and Evolution lab.  The students were very impressed by the science going on at BIOS, one commented, “there is so much more science and research going on here than I thought.” 

Students also visited scientist Ruth Curry of the Mid-Atlantic Glider Initiative and Collaboration(MAGIC) lab.  Here the students were given the opportunity to meet “Anna”, BIOS’s first Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) glider.  Anna is a remotely controlled glider that makes dives in the ocean, taking measurements of a variety of oceanic parameters.  Via physical and biochemical sensors, Anna is capable of measuring aspects of the ocean such as pressure, temperature, salinity, dissolved oxygen, and dissolved organic matter at a variety of depths.  She then transmits this data via satellite back to the team at BIOS, and is programmed for her next assignment. 

Ruth Curry was proud to show off Anna’s new sticker, a badge celebrating her achievements during Hurricane Gonzalo in October 2014.  As HurricaneGonzalo approached Bermuda, Anna was sent directly into its’ path in order to help scientists better understand the oceanic conditions during a hurricane.  The data that she collected was the first of its kind, and forever earned Anna a place in the history of AUV’s. 

The second part of the morning for the Warwick Academy team focused on marine debris in the Sargasso Sea. Behind a table brimming with hundreds of different types of plastic objects, JP explained how plastics get into the marine environment and the harmful effects of such pollution on the marine ecosystem.  Some of the items he pointed out included large, black cylinders used for catching octopus off the coast of Africa, shot gun shells, and lobster pot tags from North America. However, as JP explained, the most deadly type of plastics floating in the world’s oceans and rivers are not these large pieces of plastic debris.  Instead, what we need to focus on are the small, ‘micro’ sized plastic pieces known as microplastics.  These tiny plastic pieces come from items like cosmetic body scrubs, or result from the degradation of larger plastic objects.  Because they can be accidently ingested by living organisms, these small pieces of plastic can harm wildlife. Chemicals associated with plastics, like polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB’s), also enter the food chain and can be detrimental to health as they become more concentrated at higher levels of the food chain, a process known as biomagnification.

The last stop on the tour for the Warwick Academy group was to visit Lais Lima, an intern working with BIOS’s Dr. de Putron. Lais explained her research in understanding the effects of temperature variation on the starlet coral.  Lais explained how corals are very sensitive to changes in water temperature, and can undergo coral bleaching if exposed to extreme temperature variation.  In this bleached state, the coral is weak and vulnerable to disease and possible death if normal conditions do not return.  As the climate changes as a result of increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, coral bleaching episodes are expected to increase.  This research seeks to better understand how corals deal with extreme conditions.
(c) National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

Warwick Academy’s visit ended with a snorkel trip to observe some examples of coral bleaching. Our boat, Polaris, headed out towards North Rock where there was word of a coral bleaching event. Kyla, BIOS’s Ocean Academy Program Assistant, led the group in search of examples of coral bleaching.  The students were able to observe some corals that were stressed, and also explore the reef with their buddy team.  Kyla managed to find a West Indian sea egg and sea cucumber, and taught the students about the two species.  After a fascinating snorkel, the group headed back to BIOS, with a greater appreciation of the challenges that face our ocean and coral reefs.

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