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Seawater of the future: Otago researchers “blitz” White Island

Jelly fish

Friday 13 November 2015 10:41am

White Island blitz image
White Island is home to a unique marine environment.

In early December, an Otago-led group of chemists, biologists, geologists, botanists and marine scientists from around the world are planning a “blitz” on Whakaari (White Island), a marine volcano off the coast of Whakatane. Their aim: find out as much about the island’s currents, water, algae, and marine animals as they can in just four days.

The scientific expedition will take place the first week of December, with fishing boats, divers, snorkelers, a variety of equipment and samplers travelling 48 km offshore to White Island to study its unique marine environment.

Expedition leader Associate Professor Abby Smith of Otago’s Department of Marine Science says White Island is special because the volcano heats up the surrounding water and bubbles carbon dioxide into it through vents on the flanks of the volcano.

“This creates a marine environment that is warmer and more acidic than ‘normal’ seawater – the same kind of environment we can expect to see as CO2 in the air is absorbed by the oceans over the next several decades. In effect, the conditions create ‘seawater of the future’,” she says.

Scientists have been looking at the effects of warming and acidification on plants, animals and even ecosystems in the lab, but there are serious limitations to that kind of study.

Having a real-life lab, where animals and plants have lived their whole lives in seawater of the future, makes a big difference, she says.

“We need to know more about how this kind of environment varies over time. We hope to find out where the water is warmest, and where the bubbles make the water the most acidic. The best way to find out more about White Island is for us to go there together.”

The White Island “blitz” is being organised through the University of Otago Ocean Acidification Research Theme. Most of the 17 scientists involved are from University of Otago and University of Auckland. They will be joined by researchers from New Caledonia, Australia, Belgium, and the UK.

This work will form the baseline for further investigations, allowing scientists to plan future studies more effectively.

In the days leading up to the expedition, the Whakatane community will have the chance to meet the scientists involved in the “blitz” and hear more about the expedition through a series of community engagement events beginning 30 November.

“We hope the community events will increase understanding of, and interest in the coastal marine environment and lead to improved stewardship. And we hope to recruit some citizen scientists to help us collect valuable data about distribution, abundance and biodiversity among seashore species that will support local management and improve understanding of environmental change.”

For further information, contact:

Associate Professor Abby Smith
Department of Marine Science, University of Otago
Chief Scientist of Expedition
Tel 03 479 7470

Sally Carson
Department of Marine Science, University of Otago
Community Engagement Coordinator for Expedition
Tel 03 479 5842
Mob 021 279 5842

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