World's First Coral Reef Climate Lab Opens

How will coral reefs react to climate change? This state of the art coral reef lab aims to find out. (Image credit: David Kline.)

The world's first coral reef research station for studying the predicted damage from climate change to these important ecosystems has opened on the southern Great Barrier Reef along Australia's east coast.

Coral reefs are often examined in order to gauge the ocean's health . The state-of-the-art lab will run controlled experiments to see how mini-coral reefs will react to acidification and warming similar to what's predicted over the next 50 to 100 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The lab houses 72 aquaria and 12 miniature coral reefs where researchers can raise or lower the temperature and carbon dioxide levels to see how ecosystems respond in comparison to the real-time conditions of the adjacent deepwater of Wistari channel near Brisbane, Australia. The lab was built at the University of Queensland's Heron Island Research Station, as a part of the Climate Change Mesocosm (CCM) project.

Reef Aquaria supplied with conditioned water. (Image credit: David Kline.)

"While similar to the Free Ocean Carbon Enrichment (FOCE) project, recently featured in Sir David Attenborough's documentary 'Death of the Oceans,' the CCM differs in that it regulates the temperature, in addition to the acidification levels above and below the current ambient conditions of water on the reef," said Sophie Dove, who runs the lab, in a statement.

The lab features four 1,980-gallon (7,500-liter) custom airtight tanks called sumps, or reservoirs, which will allow researchers to fine-tune the temperature and carbon dioxide levels the coral are exposed to. Coral bleaching , a condition where the colorful reefs turn white, has been linked to spikes in temperature or other stresses.

The researchers will use the lab to see how coral reefs react to four different ocean conditions: preindustrial, current or control ocean conditions, higher CO2 and higher temperatures, and extremely high CO2 and extremely high temperatures.

Mirta Zupan working on aquaria. (Image credit: David Kline.)

Juancho Movilla measuring pH levels. (Image credit: David Kline.)

The similar FOCE project noticed during its 8-month run that corals exposed to the higher CO2 levels look different and grow slower, said David Kline, co-leader of the project. They also have different algae growing on them.

"We expect to see similar results from the CCM experiments where reefal organisms respond to the dual influences of acidification and temperature," Kline said.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.

Brett Israel was a staff writer for Live Science with a focus on environmental issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from The University of Georgia, a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, and has studied doctorate-level biochemistry at Emory University.