Saving the oceans: 'Mission Possible'

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Giant trevally along a shallow reef in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Photo by Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries.

25 February 2009

Pioneering marine scientist sees hope despite increasing ocean acidity.


By Daniel Glick

for the Daily Climate

BOULDER, Colo. – In science, “Aha” moments take many forms. For Joanie Kleypas, a flash of scientific revelation made her, literally, sick to her stomach.

kleypas-250An oceanographer and coral reef geologist, Kleypas was attending a conference in 1998 with an eclectic group of scientists, pondering the ecological consequences of climate change. Everybody knew that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were on the rise. So were global air and ocean temperatures.

Widespread coral bleaching during the 1997-98 El Nino event had turned vast coral forests white, a clear response to temporarily higher ocean temperatures. Kleypas also knew that oceans, which act as “sinks” that absorb atmospheric CO2, were changing in ways that any high school chemistry student could understand: As CO2 is added to water, it makes carbonic acid, lowering its pH.

Kleypas regards her scientific accomplishments almost as if she was the first to realize an epidemic was about to wipe out her entire village – but couldn’t stop it.

The dual whammy of warmer waters and increased acidification hit her like a shark attack. When she realized her beloved coral reefs would be drastically affected if these trends continued, she hurried to the bathroom and threw up.

The uncomfortable rest room moment led to a groundbreaking paper with an innocuous title and a huge impact: “Geophysical Consequences of Increased Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Coral Reefs” published in Science in the spring of 1999 with five of her colleagues.

finger-coral-250tThe paper and her subsequent work made her a reluctant expert on how climate change is affecting vast undersea rainforests that harbor some of the planet’s richest biodiversity. “I didn’t go into reefs to work on climate science and dying ecosystems,” she says today, from her office in the National Center for Atmospheric Research here in Boulder, Colo. “But I saw this as a really big deal.”

Today, she regards her scientific accomplishments almost as if she was the first to realize an epidemic was about to wipe out her entire village – but couldn’t stop it. But others recognize her important contributions to understanding the rippling consequences of climate change.

Robert Buddemeier, one of Kleypas’ mentors and a senior scientist at the University of Kansas, says that Kleypas’ early work remains seminal, far-sighted, and alarmingly accurate.  Her ability to work across scientific disciplines allows her to create unusual and productive collaborations with remarkable results – like her groundbreaking coral reef paper.  “It required a special kind of synthesis,” he says. “It’s going to turn out to be one of those spectacular citation papers.”

The loss of biodiversity is like having a football team with only tight ends.

- Joanie Kleypas, NCAR

Raised on the beaches of south Texas, Kleypas recalls her early scuba diving experiences as brazen acts on the wrong side of stupidity.  As a teen, she and her brother would share a scuba tank and regulator by “buddy breathing” in the murky Gulf of Mexico waters. The oceans became her love, and Kleypas headed to the Great Barrier Reef to study them.  In 1991, she received her doctorate in tropical marine studies from James Cook University in Townsville, Australia.

She first noticed clues that something was amiss during her watery fieldwork. “Every now and then we’d come across a coral graveyard,” she recalls, and nobody knew why the corals had died. The Crown of Thorns starfish, a mortal enemy of corals, wasn’t the obvious culprit. And at the time global warming wasn’t considered a problem. “Everybody thought climate change would be great for coral reefs,” she said, since coral reefs loved tropical water, and warmer water could only be better.

pelicans-450Leaving Down Under, she found herself with an unlikely oceanographic post-doc in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. She optimistically concluded that land-locked NCAR gave her access to both coasts and the Gulf of Mexico – even if the closest salt water was in Utah.

Her work first focused on how coral reef growth might accelerate climate change by producing calcium carbonate, which causes CO2 to be released to the atmosphere. This “coral reef hypothesis” met with increasing doubts, as it became more apparent that coral reefs were being more affected by climate change than the other way around. Meanwhile, at Buddemeier's prompting she started asking more questions about changing ocean chemistry. “Ocean acidification wasn’t on the map,” she says. “Rising ocean temperatures were.”

She delved into new fields, geochemistry and geology and atmospheric science, all the while wondering why she left the coastline behind. “No reef scientist in her right mind would leave the reefs,” she says, with its accompanying Jimmy Buffett, laptop- and-flip-flops lifestyle. But there she was in Colorado, pondering how changing oceanic chemistry would affect the world’s undersea rainforests, filled with stag and brain and elephant corals that support hundreds of thousands of fish species.

***

Today, Kleypas is one of the world’s experts on the effects of climate change on the world’s coral reefs, testifying to Congress and presenting papers around the world. She believes that societies must immediately and drastically reduce worldwide carbon emissions, but is also training her research to see if there are ways “to bolster coral reef health so they can weather the climate crisis.” She hopes to understand what factors have influenced historic reef die-offs, and use the information to help predict which reef systems might respond best to conservation strategies like creating marine sanctuaries and curtailing land-based activities that affect reef health.

She literally dreams of being able to breathe underwater and prefers to simply sit and watch a reef for the hour a tank of compressed air will allow her to stay there.  “This ecosystem is arguably the most beautiful and dynamic on Earth,” she says, her eyes the exact aquamarine of shallow reef waters.

hawkfish-350Like many scientists, she struggles to find ways to impart the importance of biodiversity to humans in ways both poetic and prosaic. Losing a third of the coral species on a reef, she says, “is like losing a third of the colors from a Van Gogh painting.”  Reaching for a different demographic, she adds, “The loss of biodiversity is like having a football team with only tight ends.”

At the 11th annual International Coral Reefs symposium, held last July in Ft. Lauderdale, Kleypas deployed wit and science in equal measures. 

With so much doom and gloom dominating the data, she knew she needed to leave attendees with a hopeful and optimistic message.

Kleypas put together a video spoof that featured the conference organizer pretending to be Mr. Phelps of “Mission Impossible” fame, complete with exploding messages and thumping soundtrack. The message: Saving reefs was still “Mission Possible.”

She didn’t downplay bleak news that coral bleaching had affected nearly half of the world’s reefs, or that one in ten had become “ghost towns.”

But Kleypas ended with a note to a John Lennon tune that sent smiles around the room.

“All we are saying,” she implored, “is give reefs a chance.”

Daniel Glick, a former Newsweek correspondent, is co-founder of the Story Group.

© Daniel Glick. All Rights Reserved.

To reach Daily Climate editor Douglas Fischer email dfischer@dailyclimate.org

Finger coral and stocky hawkfish photos taken at Kure Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. California Brown Pelicans at the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary. Photos by Claire Fackler, NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries.

Portrait of Joanie Kleypas by Douglas Fischer.

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