How to Research Climate Change

MOP students team up with NOAA

News Writer Gina Selig

Photographer Adrienne Gurbindo

“Before the Flood,” a documentary on climate change produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, recently debuted on the National Geographic Channel. In the film, DiCaprio, a newly designated United Nations Messenger of Peace, sounds the alarm about global warming and other environmental ills. Focusing on corporate and political interests, the film aims to spur individual changes in behavior and reduction in carbon footprints.

Americans constitute five percent of the world’s population, but consume twenty-four percent of the world's energy. On average, one American consumes as much energy as two Japanese, six Mexicans, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians, and 370 Ethiopians.

Already, one part of Hawai‘i’s biodiversity that has been negatively affected by a changing environment are coral reefs. However, there is still hope. Agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have marine scientists around the world collaborating to help.

Due to the partnership with NOAA and UH Hilo’s Marine Option Program (MOP), many students have been able to participate in significant environmental research. Students Ashley Pugh and Kailey Pascoe are just some of the MOP participants that were selected for the prestigious Pacific Reef Assessment Monitoring Program (RAMP) cruise.

It is not often that we think of coral reefs as producers of oxygen, but in fact they are often deemed “rainforests of the sea.” As some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on earth, they occupy only 0.2 percent of the ocean and provide habitats for over 4,000 species of fish. From a financial standpoint, reefs have an annual global economic value of $375 billion. In recent years, however, coral reefs are in trouble. The average temperature of tropical oceans have increased by 0.7˚ C which, combined with natural variations of ocean temperatures, have caused extensive coral bleaching around the globe. Even in Hawai‘i, this is a problem. In late September and early October 2014, Hawai‘i experienced a huge spike in ocean temperatures; coral bleaching was seen across the state. In addressing such crises, research cruises such as NOAA’S RAMP cruise offer data to be collected from scientists and select marine science students. From monitoring the health or recovery of the reef and the effects of climate change, they help collect valuable scientific data.

Ashley Pugh and Kailey Pascoe
Ashley Pugh(left) and Kailey Pascoe(right)

Ashley Pugh, one of the MOP students, helped conduct scientific research on local corals.

“I was an intern on the 33-day long fourth leg - August 29 to September 29 - of the 2016 RAMP cruise with the Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP),” Pugh said. “We went up into the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and this year stopped at French Frigate, Pearl and Hermis, Lisianski, and Kure Atoll. Several days were spent around each atoll to do surveys. There were five teams of researchers under CREP; Benthic, fish, tow, oceanography, and Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (ARMS) team. In addition to that, there were a couple visiting scientists from California doing data collection for their own research. The Benthic team was the team that I was on and we conducted surveys for monitoring benthic cover, coral community composition, size, damage, diseases, and species recruitment, as well as collected water samples and a CTD profile for the oceanography team. I don’t know all the details for each team but in general the fish team counted and sized fish, the oceanography team collected samples and focused on water parameters and possibly wave action characteristics, the tow team performed large area surveys for benthic cover and fish while being towed from the back of the small boat, and the ARMS team focused on measuring the microorganisms such as snails, crabs, and shrimp that would accumulate on devices they had placed in previous years and were then retrieving. There were three people on the benthic team including two professional researchers from CREP and myself, one of two QUEST interns aboard the research vessel. Emily Wallingford was the other intern that came out of UH MOP’s QUEST course and she was part of the fish team.”

Scientists have many ways of carrying out surveys, but most coral reef studies involve undertaking transects - surveys along a straight line - at various depths across the reef, in order to gather detailed information from different habitats. Divers will swim along transects in a given direction and will survey the reef at different points, marking each point using GPS so that the transect can be repeated to gather data over time.

“My days started at about 5:30 a.m. each morning, and the morning routine included: lunch and water preparation for a day out on the small boat, getting together personal and team gear/ survey equipment (mostly prepared and ready to go the night before), evaluation of conditions and safety meeting, breakfast, and then small boats loading and deployment,” Pugh said. “My boat was typically the last of the five small boats that were deployed off the ship each day, so I got about an extra 30 minutes each morning which I mostly spent reading for the UHH classes I was missing lecture for, or entering data I didn’t get to the night before. We were out on the small boats from about 8:00am-4:30pm each day during which we usually did four, occasionally five, dives worth of surveys. After we were back on the ship each evening we had to rinse gear, eat dinner, enter data, analyze and staging SCUBA tanks, and prepare all gear for the next day’s dives.”

Completing the summer program - Quantitative Underwater Ecological Surveying Techniques (QUEST) 264 and 364 - was essential for preparing Pugh, she explained.

AshleyPugh with dive buddy doing underwater surveys. Photocredit: DioneSwansonofNOAAsCoralReefEcosystemProgramCREP
Ashley Pugh with dive buddy doing underwater surveys. Photocredit: Dione Swanson of NOAA's Coral Reef Ecosystem Program CREP

“The dives weren’t too challenging, I felt well prepared coming from QUEST and the scientific diving training that UHH provided me,” Pugh said. “I do have a directed study project in the works that will use data from the cruise I was on and past cruises that have collected data from the monuments atolls. That’s something I’ll be finishing up and presenting on next semester. I’m doing a presentation for the MOP seminar course this semester on the overall internship experience as well.”

As Pugh sees it, her previous knowledge of marine ecosystems was a key driver for her to pursue ventures like MOP and RAMP.

“I really loved tide pooling on the California coastline whenever I got the chance to visit,” Pugh said. “I didn’t grow up near the ocean, so in high school I remember thinking I’ll just study the ocean and that way for the rest of my life I’d have to be near it. As far as what keeps my motivation going, I think that marine scientists or any scientist for that concern are really fortunate to have the understanding of how the things around them function. Knowing what a pivotal point we are approaching with climate change and the damage it's causing to coral reef ecosystems makes me feel like, as marine scientists, I have a duty to use what I have learned and continue to build upon it in order to contribute to research and marine conservation. Just as importantly, I love the field of study. I get a lot of joy each time I attain a deeper understanding of the way things work such as biological processes, organism relationships, etc. My favorite memory of the experience was the feeling of being somewhere so far from human development and seeing the curiosity of the wildlife, many of which probably had seen very few if any humans before myself and dive buddies.”

Kailey Pascoe, the other MOP participant who spoke with Ke Kalahea, has a different perspective as a graduate student. Pascoe is enrolled in the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science (TCBES) program at UH Hilo; she shared her experience on a different RAMP cruise she completed with the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in August 2015. Born and raised in Hawai‘i, she knows well how corals have been adversely affected.

“I was born and raised in Kahaluʻu on O‘ahu, and resided in Kāne‘ohe Bay my entire life until pursuing college,” Pascoe said. “Throughout my time living on the Hawaiian Islands, I have seen our reef ecosystems go through obvious and distressing changes. Therefore, my passion for conserving coral reefs developed at a young age when I began observing how susceptible these vibrant and diverse habitats are to environmental stress. From then I have wanted to dedicate the rest of my life to studying how these reefs are changing in Hawaii and how I can solve the problem.”

Motivated to make a difference, Pascoe was ecstatic to be accepted into the program - especially to be diving for the largest U.S. marine monument.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

“The Hawaiian archipelago consists of an inhabited main Hawaiian Islands and a remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument was established on June 15, 2006, and as the single largest U.S. conservation, it encompasses the NWHI. Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and NOAA’s Coral Reef Ecosystem Program (CREP) lead the Reef Assessment and Monitoring Program (RAMP). In which provides long-term monitoring data that supports ecosystem approaches to management and conservation of Hawaiian coral reefs. For the last 15 years, RAMP has conducted scientific scuba surveys through the research vessel. The NOAA ship Hi‘ialakai is a multipurpose research vessel conducting coral health, fish stock abundances, and maritime heritage archaeology surveys."

Pascoe explained the value of working in MOP, which has seen many alumni work for various state and federal agencies, including NOAA.

“Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument employees were previous MOP students. So they have collaborated with MOP to choose students from QUEST to join the NOAA research cruises. Selected graduates of QUEST are able to get that experience as an intern working for NOAA and being in the field using their skills from QUEST. I was privileged enough to be picked as one of those students. I was able to live my dream to dive and conduct research in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands off the NOAA ship Hiʻialakai. During the Month of August 2015, we surveyed seven of the NWHI islands. Because of this internship and experience, I had been hired by CRED to attend another research cruise as a benthic diver throughout the Main Hawaiian Islands for three weeks. We survey the Hawaiʻi Island, Maui, Lāna‘i, Kaho‘olawe, and O‘ahu during the month of September 2016. There was a total of five interns, in which all five interns completed QUEST and are members of MOP. I was the only benthic intern, three were on the fish team and one was on the maritime archaeology team.”

Pascoe’s experience was similar to Pugh’s; the days started off early, and there was much to do.

“Morning routine started at 5 a.m., preparing lunch and water for the day, “ Pascoe said. “All scuba gear, food/water and survey equipment had to be set up in designated areas to later be loaded on small boats. Usually I would spend my mornings quality checking my data, making sure there were not any mistakes and that everything was eligible. Breakfast starts at 7:00am and you have 30 mins to eat and head outside to the stern of the ship for a dive and safety briefing for the day. All scientists, diver safety officers, doctors and NOAA Corp would attend this meeting and discuss weather and plan of the day. Weather permitting all small boats are offloaded one at a time starting at 8 a.m. Each team fish, coral, and archaeology have separate small boats. These small boats are craned off the side of the ship. Once this happens, each team goes off to their designated survey area and starts their day of surveying. Depending on coral cover at each site there can be up to five or six dives a day. Usually all small boats head back around 4:00pm and get loaded back onto the research ship. All gear needs to get rinsed and survey equipment. Dinner starts at 5:00pm. This is where people take their time to eat and relax a bit. Soon after dinner, I start to do data entry for about two hours, depending if there was lots of coral. I enter all my data into their database and upload all pictures. After this is complete it is usually around 7:30pm or 8:00pm. I then prep scuba gear, survey equipment for the next day and check my scuba tanks for oxygen percent. Soon after prep for the next day is complete, sleep is next on the agenda.”

Pascoe expressed her gratitude for being a part of this cruise; the experience allowed her to excel in research and make connections for possible jobs.

“There are so many great memories throughout this experience,” Pascoe said. “Diving in such pristine waters of the NWHI is a true eye opener. Constantly surrounded by sharks and ulua (giant trevally jacks). There are massive table corals at French frigate shoals and Maro Reef. But the shoals of Lisianski was one of my favorite dives. The coral reefs are vibrant, diverse and corals are so large in size. There are predators surrounding you on each dive swimming around you in circles. Large schools of fish. This experience has definitely impacted my career. I have been hired again to help out with main Hawaiian Island cruises with CRED this past September. I recently started the Tropical Conservation Biology and Environmental Science Master Program. Fully funded through Hauʻoli Mau Loa Foundation for all my work in conservation and scientific scuba diving. I will be incorporating RAMPʻs long-term monitoring benthic or coral health data into my thesis. This experience through the RAMP cruise has influenced my research and I hope to obtain a job threw the monument in the future.”

The global warming alarm has already been rung. Resources are depleting and coral reefs are degrading. It is so often thought that the problem is too big to make a change. However, as individuals, even small actions can have huge impacts. Simple changes from switching to reusable bags and biodegradable plastics can have enormous benefits. Making the same changes can even impact species such as the corals that are in a crisis today. UH Hilo MOP students such as Pugh and Pascoe have made huge impacts in the field of marine science. Participating in the prestigious RAMP cruises, they were able to conduct surveys for monitoring benthic cover, coral community composition, size, damage, diseases, and species recruitment. There is hope for the environment as there are many citizens, scientists, and students like Pugh and Pascoe who dedicate their time today to help create a better future tomorrow.