How Does A University Conduct World Class Research In A Post-Hurricane Environment?

research CHALLENGES lead to creative SOLUTIONS

Researchers at the University of the Virgin Islands have been challenged to devise innovative solutions to post-hurricane conditions. After the entire top floor of The University of the Virgin Islands’ Center for Marine & Environmental Studies building was destroyed, most marine researchers were left without offices, lab space or a classroom. Conducting the level of world-class research that we are accustomed to from our scientists at  CMES became very difficult, but not impossible.

The imacts of hurricanes irma & maria are still being felt

Documenting the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria had on the reefs around St. Thomas became possible through collaboration with researchers from the University of Mississippi, University of Alabama, and the University of Texas at Arlington. Dr. Marilyn Brandt, a Research Associate Professor in UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies, is a Co-Principal Investigator on a project funded by the National Science Foundation to document how marine benthic communities are responding to the two devastating storms. While the project documents the entire reef community, including corals and fish, there is a specific focus on how sponge and algae communities have been affected. Sponges and algae can change more quickly than corals and fish populations and are therefore better indicators of changing reef conditions. 

Leading the project is Dr. Deborah Gochfeld, a Research Scientist from the University of Mississippi. Also part of the lead research team are Dr. Julie Olson, a Professor of Biology at the University of Alabama, and Dr. Andia Chaves-Fonnegra, a Post-doctoral Associate at UVI’s Center for Marine and Environmental Studies. Drs. Gochfeld and Olson have a long history of collaborating with Dr. Brandt on coral reef-related projects in the territory. Working alongside the faculty for the 10-day mission were UVI staff and graduate students as well as graduate students from Dr. Laura Mydlarz’s laboratory at the University of Texas at Arlington, who sampled the corals to determine their physiological stress levels.  Ms. Leslie Henderson, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef Initiative Coordinator from the VI Division of Coastal Zone management also joined the research group for the first half of the mission. 

THE RV WALTON SMITH

Because of the significant damages to CMES, the University of Miami’s Research Vessel, the RV Walton Smith, was brought to the territory for the researchers to use as a work platform.  The large green ship with an A-frame on the back could be seen around the island from December 2-13. The ship housed researchers, staff, and students, and provided SCUBA diving support needed to reach the coral reef monitoring sites. Research vessels like the RV Walton Smith are not cruise ships, and provide very basic accommodations for the researchers, but for the faculty, staff, and students from UVI who like the rest of the US Virgin Islands community have mostly been without power for the last 3 months, the hot showers, air conditioning, and laundry facilities provided by the boat were a luxury. 

FINDINGS

The research team found significant damage at all of the coral reef sites, but also signs of resiliency. Many corals and sponges were toppled or detached from the reef, but most were still alive, and given the right conditions, will grow back. However, the presence of a very high abundance of tall fleshy seaweeds may be a sign of excessive nutrients and sediments entering the water from land. These seaweeds can overgrow and kill corals. Fish communities have also changed; new species such as the small cherubfish that is typically found only in deep waters have been found at sites where they haven’t been seen in over 15 years of monitoring.

The RV Walton Smith will return to the territory in March of 2018 and the research team will revisit the sites to assess how recovery is occurring. “If we can provide protection for the reefs from runoff from land, they will recover” said Dr. Marilyn Brandt. 


for Dr. brandt, it's a balancing act

Dr. Marilyn Brandt is back to work after maternity leave with her second child. Leaving 3-month-old Hazel and 4-year-old Liam for two weeks with her husband, fellow UVI scientist Dr. Tyler Smith, was a challenge for the entire family. As head of a predominently female research lab, Dr. Brandt is accustomed to considering home/life balance for her team.

 
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 Research vessels like the RV Walton Smith are not cruise ships. They provide very basic accommodations for researchers. But for the faculty, staff, and students from UVI who like the rest of the US Virgin Islands community have mostly been without power for the last 3 months, the hot showers, air conditioning, and laundry facilities provided by the boat were a luxury. 

Research vessels like the RV Walton Smith are not cruise ships. They provide very basic accommodations for researchers. But for the faculty, staff, and students from UVI who like the rest of the US Virgin Islands community have mostly been without power for the last 3 months, the hot showers, air conditioning, and laundry facilities provided by the boat were a luxury. 

 Dr. Julie Olson, a Professor of Biology at the University of Alabama and Co-Principal Investigator for the research cruise, takes data on the abundance of sponges and macroalgae on St. Thomas reefs.

Dr. Julie Olson, a Professor of Biology at the University of Alabama and Co-Principal Investigator for the research cruise, takes data on the abundance of sponges and macroalgae on St. Thomas reefs.

 A brain coral being overgrown by an aggressive ascidian (sea squirt) on a St. Thomas reef. Many corals were damaged or weakened by the hurricanes, threatening their ability to resist competitors on the reef. Researchers will document the outcomes of these competitions over the next year in order to identify what is driving coral reef recovery.

A brain coral being overgrown by an aggressive ascidian (sea squirt) on a St. Thomas reef. Many corals were damaged or weakened by the hurricanes, threatening their ability to resist competitors on the reef. Researchers will document the outcomes of these competitions over the next year in order to identify what is driving coral reef recovery.

The cruise was a lot of hard work but also fun. All Virgin Islands participants were female which made for a unique and gratifying experience. The dives were long but productive with everyone contributing and working together.

Research projects such as this one are important to local management because they increase the territorial capacity to understand the natural resources we manage. In particular, this cruise was important as it will provide valuable time-sensitive information about category 5 hurricane impacts to coral reefs that would not have been collected otherwise. Information from the cruise has already helped to advise underwater restoration efforts by identifying key areas where impacted endangered and threatened corals could be stabilized.
— Ms. Leslie Henderson
 Dr. Andia Chaves-Fonnegra, a Post-doctoral Associate at the University of the Virgin Islands, sets up an experiment to determine how coral reefs in the Virgin Islands are responding to the passage of the hurricanes.

Dr. Andia Chaves-Fonnegra, a Post-doctoral Associate at the University of the Virgin Islands, sets up an experiment to determine how coral reefs in the Virgin Islands are responding to the passage of the hurricanes.

 Brown fleshy seaweeds, which are an indicator of excessive nutrients and sediments, are currently overly abundant on St. Thomas reefs, possibly due to too much runoff. This project will document how these seaweeds and other organisms like sponges change through time and what will be their effect on the recovery of corals on the reef.

Brown fleshy seaweeds, which are an indicator of excessive nutrients and sediments, are currently overly abundant on St. Thomas reefs, possibly due to too much runoff. This project will document how these seaweeds and other organisms like sponges change through time and what will be their effect on the recovery of corals on the reef.

 Researchers documented many types of damage to St. Thomas reefs including toppled corals and changes in the actual structure of the reef. In this photo, a large section of the reef broke off and was flipped over by the storms. Sea rods and sea whips that typically grow upwards can be seen on the bottom.

Researchers documented many types of damage to St. Thomas reefs including toppled corals and changes in the actual structure of the reef. In this photo, a large section of the reef broke off and was flipped over by the storms. Sea rods and sea whips that typically grow upwards can be seen on the bottom.

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