Ocean Acidification: Building on a Foundation at the Flower Garden Banks Sanctuary NOAA Ocean Acidification Program

Looking up at high-rise buildings, towering cathedrals, or the great pyramids at Giza; the feats of man seem unimaginable. The key to these massive architectural achievements is laying a quality foundation. Dr. Xinping Hu, an associate professor at Texas A&M Corpus Christi University, knows that a solid foundation is very important in science as well. Together with his co-investigators at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Lab (AOML), Texas A&M University, and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Dr. Hu will be building upon a foundation of data collected both at and near the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico to better characterize the changes in ocean chemistry over space and time in these waters.

There are many facets to a strong structure, architectural or scientific. Having the right tools and site to build, along with a skilled team of craftsmen, and an insightful foreman are all integral to conduct impactful science.

The site:

Flower Garden Banks NMS is a habitat for many commercially important fish species as well as home to the northernmost tropical corals in the contiguous US. Situated off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the sanctuary includes underwater communities that rise from the depths of the Gulf of Mexico atop three underwater “mountains” called salt domes. These salt domes act as small underwater “islands” rich in Caribbean reef life divided by miles of deeper water. Nutrient runoff from the Mississippi river and hypoxia (low oxygen levels), can intensify the impacts of ocean acidification. Acidification, a shift in our ocean’s chemistry driven by an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, due to the burning of fossil fuels and other human activities. These impacts could be detrimental to important species in the region that many fisheries rely on.

The foreman:

As an under-studied area, there is still a lot to understand about this complex region.

“Determining the seasonal effects on ocean carbonate chemistry and knowing where to focus future observations can lead to a better understanding of what may be happening in the waters around the sanctuary and in the broader northwestern Gulf of Mexico”, Dr. Hu shares.

The craftsmen and their tools are vital to construction; the builders transform the raw materials and design into a palpable and cohesive structure. This project’s team could be called ‘master craftsmen.’ Dr. Steven DiMarco at Texas A&M University specializes in ocean monitoring. He will be measuring ocean chemistry and the physical characteristics in this region over time and space, using remotely operated vehicles called wave gliders along with sensors deployed at sanctuary sites that Hu will maintain. Both DiMarco and Hu will also look at nutrient levels, carbonate chemistry, and circulation patterns from the surface to depths of hundreds of meters from aboard a research vessel.

New data from a research survey of the Gulf of Mexico which will be lead by Dr. Leticia Barbero at NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory during the summer of 2021 will also be layered in. Dr. Robert Hetland of Texas A&M University and Dr. Lei Jin of Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, will be combining the chemical signals from field observations into a model that will enable the team to look back in time to see how well the model tracks with previous observations. If the model is working, or closely representing the natural world, it can be used to predict variations of ocean acidification signals over time and space. This will allow monitoring design and implementation to be optimized in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Felimon Gayanilo, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, also a liaison with the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, is an integral member of the project team that manages the information collected and shares ideas about future monitoring plans.

“It will be the first time I have worked with many of these people and across disciplines in this way; the products that will come from that breadth of knowledge are really something to be excited about,'' says Dr. Hu.

When asked why this research is so important, Dr. Hu shares that, “Coral reefs in the tropics are the most diverse ecosystems and are important economically and environmentally. Our results can help fisheries and managers prepare for the future by understanding the impacts to come.”

With his team and their skills, this project will help build a better understanding of the ocean chemistry patterns in the northwestern Gulf of Mexico including the Flower Garden Banks NMS, where more observing information is needed, and serve as a blueprint for managing other important marine ecosystems.


Title image: A peek at life by a mooring in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (Credit: FGBNMS) Image 1: The (E/V) Nautilus at see in the Gulf of Mexcio (Credit: Nautilus) Image 2: Life in the depths of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (Credit: FGBNMS) Image 3: A water sample collected during an ocean acidification cruise (Credit: NOAA) Image 4: A CTD being hoisted back on board during a NOAA OCean Acidification Cruise in the Gulf of Mexico Image 5: Brain coral captured at Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary (FGBNMS) Image 6: Dr. Leticia Barbero, NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory retrieves instrumentation during a research survey in the Gulf of Mexico (Credit: NOAA)