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Museum educator joins NOAA deep-sea expedition

For two weeks in November, Museum coordinator of teacher education Mike Dunn and Cleveland County science teacher Beverly Owens will join a team of scientists to explore a deep-sea coral ecosystem that dwarfs the shallow reefs off the Florida Keys. While these habitats are now part of the largest marine protected area off the continental U.S. coast, scientists have barely begun to understand the riches of these fragile “rainforests of the deep sea.” The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Coral Reef Conservation Program is sponsoring the expedition, named Extreme Corals 2010.

According to Owens, who teaches at Crest Middle School in Shelby, "Participating in this expedition will allow me to learn about unique organisms and habitats in a manner that would be directly applicable to my teaching, demonstrate the relevance of science to my students, enhance my instructional activities, and convey my enthusiasm for science." Dunn and Owens will post daily journals and pictures online at deepcoral.wordpress.com. The Museum has collaborated with NOAA since 2001, developing educational materials for related workshops and outreach efforts, and often sending a Museum educator and a North Carolina teacher out to sea to work directly with the scientists.

Dr. Steve Ross, University of North Carolina Wilmington, and Dr. Sandra Brooke, Marine Conservation Biology Institute, are co-chief scientists for the expedition. Among the handful of explorers who first shed light on deep-sea coral habitats off the south Atlantic coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, Ross and Brooke will lead a multidisciplinary team to more closely study these ecosystems in the “Coral Habitat Areas of Particular Concern” established this year by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council (SAFMC) and the Department of Commerce.

On this expedition, researchers aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald H. Brown will conduct exploratory research on rugged reefs a half mile deep under the Gulf Stream. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will provide its remotely operated vehicle (ROV) system, Jason/Medea, which has explored deep-sea hot vents on tectonic plate boundaries, oil and gas seeps and deep-sea communities in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The Ron Brown departs Pensacola Nov. 9 for a newly discovered deepwater coral site off Tampa. Final dives are planned off Miami, Cape Canaveral, and Jacksonville before returning to Port Canaveral Nov. 23. The Jason ROV will conduct video transects and other photographic documentation, deploy gear and take samples of invertebrates and fishes. By using the unmanned submersible, each dive can be up to 12 hours long. In addition to monitoring ROV operations, the scientists will conduct multibeam sonar surveys, water bottle casts, conductivity-temperature-pH-oxygen water column profiles, and mid-water net sampling for fish, larvae and plankton.

NOAA and the SAFMC are most concerned with mapping coral habitat and associated fishery species, in and outside the new protected habitat area, a designation that excludes destructive fishing practices from the managed areas. Ross noted that this research is possible only with the use of relatively new technology.  “Until recently, we did not have maps of deepwater habitats with enough resolution to detect deep-sea coral mounds,” said Ross “We also lacked almost any kind of ecological data for these reefs.”

Deepwater coral mounds are constructed primarily by a species of stony coral called Lophelia pertusa. Reef-building deepwater corals are delicate branching forms that form large mounds on the seafloor over thousands of years, providing habitat for an abundant and diverse community of fishes and invertebrates. Deepwater corals grow more slowly than their shallow-water counterparts, millimeters per year, so a colony may take many decades to recover if damaged by human activity, if recovery is even possible.

While exploring and mapping deepwater coral mounds can be daunting, simply due to the huge area they cover, Brooke said that expeditions like this one are developing greater understanding of the areas and conditions that are most hospitable for Lophelia. “Since we cannot hope to explore the entire seafloor, our ability to predict where corals are found is an important tool for agencies tasked with protecting these ecosystems,” she said.

Researchers will be examining deepwater corals for the effects of changing environmental conditions, such as water temperature, currents and ocean acidification. Skeletons of some corals can be analyzed like tree rings to look at past environmental conditions, providing a record for thousands of years from recently collected samples.  This information is critical as we face the prospect of major changes in ocean currents as a consequence of continued global climate change. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey will assist with dating and chemical analyses of coral skeletons.

NOAA’s mission is to understand and predict changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and to conserve and manage our coastal and marine resources.