Exploring a Coral Reef Success Story

A researcher explores the Bonaire coral reef system. (Photo courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)While coral reefs around the world are increasingly threatened by pollution, climate change and development, scientists in Bonaire are investigating a coral reef success story.

Aimed at kicking off the International Year of the Reef, the Bonaire 2008 expedition launched earlier this month and runs through Jan.30. A team of researchers from several universities is surveying the coral ecosystems off the island of Bonaire to try and understand why those reefs remain so healthy while others in the Caribbean are suffering.

Photos and videos from the expedition are being posted at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Ocean Explorer Website. NOAA is sponsoring the investigation.

Researchers are studying both the shallow and deeper-water regions of the Bonaire reef systems, using both divers and robotic devices called Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, or AUVs.

Three AUVs will explore the reef’s “Twilight Zone,” a little-understood area that lies about 65 to 150 meters below the ocean’s surface. The devices will measure features like water currents, temperatures, acidity levels, dissolve oxygen levels and more, enabling scientists to develop a “detailed snapshot” of the reef system at all levels.

“We believe this is the first science expedition using multiple AUVs to chart Bonaire’s reefs and likely the first to do so on coral reefs anywhere,” said Mark Patterson, expedition leader and a researcher with the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William & Mary. “This is important because of scale, AUVs obtain wide-area data, allowing scientists to pinpoint further investigation.”

Will researchers find the key to the Bonaire reef system’s health, and will it help us find ways to protect and save other reefs around the world? With some scientists predicting 98 percent of the world’s coral reefs could be doomed by 2050, the answers can’t come soon enough.

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