Researchers at the Central Caribbean Marine Institute will team up with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the effects of environmental conditions on coral reefs.
The sophisticated ICON monitoring station measures a broad range of local atmospheric and ocean conditions, which is then transmitted in real-time to NOAA.
That station’s installation will be followed in 2009 by CO2 instruments that will give researchers a better understanding of ocean acidity and carbon dioxide concentrations.
A recently released study in the journal Science forecast that increasing carbon emissions could cause severe structural damage and even death to the world’s coral reefs within 50 years.
CCMI researchers have recorded a drop in coral cover on Caymanian reefs from about 27 per cent in 1999 to about 16 per cent today.
The decline is particularly distressing, they say, because reefs on Little Cayman are not subject to the same human induced stresses that reefs in more populated, less developed countries are.
‘We know what is happening here is clearly a result of global changes,’ said Carrie Manfrino, president of the CCMI and its director of research.
But because the site is exposed to little human induced stresses, the research center is poised to play a leading role in helping the world better understand the effects of climate change and increasing carbon emissions on coral reefs.
‘What Little Cayman represents is a very special little dot on the map because we have this reefs system that is relatively undisturbed, but we are still seeing big declines,’ said Ms Manfrino.
The effect increasing carbon emissions and ocean acidification are having on coral reefs is still not well enough understood, she said.
‘What we are trying to do now is understand the ocean’s chemistry so we can really pinpoint what the problem is.’
About one third of the world’s carbon emissions, are absorbed by the oceans, which are becoming more acidic as a result.
Researchers say oceans are now 30 per cent more acidic than they were at the start of the Industrial Revolution. With oceans currently absorbing 22 tons of carbon dioxide a day, they could be 150 per cent more acidic by the end of the century.
While Ms Manfrino’s team say they are a long way from fully understanding what is causing the decline in coral cover, they are confident that carbon emissions and climate change are playing a big role.
Still in our control
While changes at the global level seem to be having an impact, Ms Manfrino says there are many things people can do locally to help ease stresses on reefs.
‘This is not out of our control,’ she said.
‘It is a change in culture; we need to think differently about our impact.’
She implored people in Cayman not to succumb to the attitude that the islands and its residents are too small to make a difference.
‘If we don’t think we have an impact, we are pretty ignorant. Each and every one of us does have an ecological footprint,’ she said.
‘We all have a moral responsibility to do what we can,’ she added.
Ms Manfrino encouraged residents to check out the recently published Green Guide to the Cayman Islands for tips on what they can do to reduce their ecological footprint.
Marine Park changes would help
She also threw her weight behind Department of Environment Director Gina Ebanks-Petrie’s recent assessment that the Cayman Islands needs to beef up its marine park legislation to reduce local stresses on reefs.
‘We need a management system that builds the resilience of our reefs,’ she said.
Ms Manfrino paid tribute to the DoE and its forward thinking marine park system – one of the oldest in the Caribbean – but she agreed that the system needs to be more responsive to the rapidly changing science researchers are presenting.
‘Because we were so progressive, we still have some of the best reefs in the world. Even though we have lost a lot and it is under a lot of stress, we are seeing recruitment and regeneration, and that’s only because we have these protected areas.’
Ms Manfrino said the cost of losing the islands’ coral reefs is too high to contemplate.
‘Ordinary citizens that are living in the Cayman Islands depend on us having a healthy ocean. If we pollute the water, it is the water we use to make our drinking water. If we don’t have any more lobster and conch then we would lose some of the cultural traditions we have.
‘A loss of coral reefs would mean a loss of culture, a loss of heritage and a decline in living standards.’