Island University Co-Leads $2M Pioneering Research Project to Revolutionize Coral Reef Conservation and Climate Mitigation

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Ocean acidification is a serious problem. Sometimes called “the osteoporosis of the sea,” it creates conditions that erode minerals that are vital for marine life. The increase in acidity can also degrade coral reefs and cause a loss of habitat, ultimately leading to major economic impacts. The more acidic the ocean becomes, the less capacity it has to absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, potentially leading to increased CO2 levels across our planet and increased global temperatures.  

“Coral reefs provide homes and resources for nearly one-third of marine organisms and food resources for more than a billion people,” said Dr. Keisha Bahr, TAMU-CC Assistant Professor of Marine Biology. “Research on corals across the world indicate they are undergoing severe ecological decline.”

In a pioneering effort at the nexus of coral reef conservation and climate mitigation, a groundbreaking $2 million research project co-led by Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi is poised to unravel the potential benefits and intricacies of leveraging ocean alkalinity enhancement as a potent tool for removing marine CO2 while safeguarding the vitality of coral ecosystems. Funding is provided by the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program on behalf of the National Oceanographic Partnership Program (NOPP).

This work builds on previous and ongoing research funded by the National Science Foundation performed by Bahr and collaborators. For this project, Bahr and partners from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM) and NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center will use an innovative technique involving the addition of alkaline substances to seawater, bolstering the ocean’s buffer capacity against ocean acidification and potentially increasing its ability to absorb more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.

“This initiative holds promise for the advancement of coral reef restoration and conservation and addresses the urgent need for sustainable solutions to combat climate change and its impact on marine ecosystems,” Bahr said. “As the project unfolds, it is expected to provide valuable insights that contribute to shaping the future of marine carbon removal and ocean acidification mitigation strategies.”

Over the next four years, the research project will leverage a series of controlled experiments using various alkaline substances to simulate different scenarios. The exposed corals will then undergo biological processing to uncover the effects the treatments had on the coral’s overall health and identify optimal conditions for coral resilience and survival. Driven by a commitment to environmental stewardship, the project will also meticulously investigate the potential ecological implications of ocean alkalinity enhancement agents on marine ecosystems, from chemical thresholds to trace metal toxicity.

As part of their mission to inclusivity in education, the research team will offer unique training opportunities for people who are underrepresented in the field, community members, and early career researchers. This research will also create valuable paid internships for undergraduate students at TAMU-CC and UHM.

“Our research embraces an interdisciplinary approach that encourages collaboration which actively nurtures the upcoming generation of scientists,” Bahr said. “This approach underscores the importance of collective efforts in tackling our climate crisis and safeguarding the longevity of our coral reefs for future generations.”

This extensive study will primarily occur at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. In addition, corals will be safely transported from Hawaiʻi to TAMU-CC, where Bahr and her research group will carefully examine them to uncover valuable insights.

Project Note

The TAMU-CC portion of the NOPP funding is $419,000. Principal investigators include Dr. Melissa Meléndez, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa (UHM), and Dr. Keisha Bahr, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi (TAMU-CC). Co-investigators include Dr. Christopher Sabine (UHM); Dr. Nicholas Hawco (UHM); Dr. Conall McNicholl (UHM at Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology (HIMB); Dr. Lisa McManus (UH at HIMB); Dr. Hannah Barkley (NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center)