Real-time observations of benthic ocean chemistry on two coral reefs in West Hawai‘i

PI: Steven Colbert, Associate Professor of Marine Science, UH Hilo
Co-PI: Jim Beets, Professor of Marine Science, UH Hilo


Underwater picture of instrument on shallow ocean floor next to coral reefBenthic observatory deployed at Puakō, HI, July 2015.

Project Summary
    Ocean acidification represents a shift in the fundamental chemical balance of the oceans. Acidification is driven by carbon dioxide from human use of fossil fuels and agricultural activities dissolving in surface seawater, causing chemical reactions that reduce the pH of seawater. Exposure to lower pH can affect physiology as well as calcification rates in many benthic organisms, including coral. A baseline measure of ocean acidification from the seafloor, where our reefs are growing, is needed to effectively evaluate inter-annual differences or climate related changes. Carbon dioxide dynamics were assessed at three sites: Hōnaunau-Keei, Pelekane Bay-Puakō, and Wai‘ōpae. A benthic observatory was deployed to measure temperature, salinity, oxygen, carbon dioxide and pH to study fundamental processes of photosynthesis, respiration, and calcification occurring on reefs. At all sites, aragonite saturation, a measure of how easily organisms can produce calcium carbonate, was lower than typical open ocean conditions, and lower on average than at most coral reef sites worldwide. At Wai‘ōpae, greater daily variability of pH reflects more vigorous carbon cycling. Changes in management to reduce the acidity of groundwater inputs or increase herbivory on the reef could help stabilize these conditions, benefitting the corals. In fact, the quality of groundwater flowing into to the coastal ocean statewide could be managed better. The inputs typically have less total inorganic carbon than seawater, creating conditions that make it difficult for organisms in the coastal waters to precipitate calcium carbonate. Coral reefs on Hawai‘i Island are currently exposed to ocean acidification conditions that previous predictions suggested would not occur for 40 more years. Statewide measurements of total inorganic carbon at the reef and in groundwater are needed as a part of regular water quality monitoring to determine how conditions change over seasonal time scales and to assess the impact of acidification on reefs.