Whakaari/White Island – seawater of the future?

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University of Otago researchers are leading research into the potential for Whakaari/White Island to be used as a natural laboratory to better understand future marine ecosystems - likely to be warmer and more acidic than those of today.

The volcanic island is surrounded by many submarine vents, which release carbon dioxide into the water creating a decrease in pH alkalinity, and an increase in temperature. These conditions reflect what seawater of the future could look like if the climate continues to warm and carbon continues to be absorbed into the ocean – creating ocean acidification.

Initial findings show the waters to be slightly warmer than average, and considerably more acidic than typical seawater. A reaction to this is in shellfish such as kina, which were observed to have a thicker shell and spines than kina found in other areas.

“This is quite surprising, and we believe that is going on is they are diverting energy from growth and reproduction to make a thicker shell and spines because they perceive they need this in this environment.

“This is just the beginning of our research but we’re noticing already that the creatures around White Island/Whakaari are adjusting to the different environment,” says Professor Abby Smith, from the University of Otago’s Department of Marine Science.

Professor Smith says that most of the other places in the world that have been looked at for this type of research are either in the tropics or in the deep sea. White Island/Whakaari is unusual because it is in a temperate environment with a rocky kelp forest.

A benefit of studying a natural environment over a synthetic laboratory is that the whole ecosystem can be monitored, instead of just one species. It is hoped further research will build on the baseline of data already obtained, to create a clearer picture of how organisms adapt to the warmer and more acidic conditions our marine environments are expected to become as the climate continues to change and carbon continues to be absorbed into oceans.

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