Physical and Biological Drivers of Coral Resilience to Climate Change

The coral reefs of the central equatorial Pacific experience repeated, extreme heatwaves associated with El Niño events. Yet these reefs continue to thrive and exhibit a remarkable capacity for resistance and recovery. 

These oceanic reefs are situated in an oceanographically dynamic region defined by stark gradients in thermal stress and primary production. Combined with their relative isolation from other reef systems and minimal local human impacts (e.g., overfishing) these ecosystems offer critical insights about the future of coral reefs and their ability to survive in a changing ocean.

This work combines long-term benthic monitoring efforts across multiple archipelagos with in situ environmental measurements, remote sensing, hydrodynamic modeling, and coral physiology to uncover the mechanisms of coral resilience to thermal stress in this dynamic region.

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Pelagic Subsidies to Coral Reef Ecosystems

Coral reefs are often thought of as self-sustaining ecosystems that thrive in nutrient-poor tropical waters. But these highly productive ecosystems are more tightly linked with offshore oceanographic processes and pelagic productivity than previously thought. 

I am interested in how corals and reef fish communities modify their trophic ecology to exploit pelagic resources and determining the physical pathways that deliver these subsidies to nearshore reefs.

 

My research combines field surveys, remote sensing, and hydrodynamic modeling with bulk and compound-specific stable isotope analysis to examine spatial and temporal variation in the pelagic contributions to coral reef food webs. I work across natural environmental gradients within islands and across archipelagos on remote reefs in the central Pacific and Indian Oceans.


 

Physical and Biological Drivers of Coral Resilience to Climate Change

The coral reefs of the central equatorial Pacific experience repeated, extreme heatwaves associated with El Niño events. Yet these reefs continue to thrive and exhibit a remarkable capacity for resistance and recovery. 

These reefs are situated in an oceanographically dynamic region defined by stark gradients in thermal stress and primary production. Combined with their relative isolation from other reef systems and minimal local human impacts (e.g., overfishing) these ecosystems offer critical insights into the future of coral reefs and their ability to adapt to rising ocean temperatures.

This work combines long-term benthic monitoring efforts across multiple archipelagos with in situ environmental measurements, remote sensing, hydrodynamic modeling, and coral physiology to uncover the mechanisms of coral resilience to thermal stress in this dynamic region.

The Roles of Nutrients in Coral Reef Functioning

Coastal pollution is a globally pervasive stressor on coral reefs. The impacts of nutrient pollution, in particular, are multifaceted and can have wide-reaching consequences. Nutrient enrichment from sewage or terrestrial runoff can facilitate algal proliferation, compromise coral physiology, and exacerbate the effects of thermal stress. 

Notably, some of the world's healthiest, most productive reef ecosystems are situated in the upwelling region of the central Pacific where high inorganic nutrient concentrations are exceptionally high. So what are the roles of nutrients in reef ecosystem functioning and how do they positively or negatively impact corals? 

This work explores how different coral species acclimate to a broad range of inorganic nutrient concentrations in an effort to uncover the consequences of nutrient enrichment on coral holobionts from the levels of gene expression and microbial community dynamics to whole organism photophysiology. 

 

kelp Forest Biogeochemistry and
macroalgal Ecophysiology

Kelps are among the world's largest and most productive autotrophs. Their complex physiology and morphology enable prodigious growth that sustains some of the most diverse coastal ecosystems.

My research seeks to understand how photosynthesis, carbon translocation, and nutrient uptake modify the stable isotope composition of kelp tissues. This information provides critical insights into kelp physiology and improves our ability to disentangle the structural vs. energetic contributions of kelps to kelp forest communities.

 

 

 

 

 

 

© 2020 by Michael D. Fox

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Email: mfox [at] whoi.edu

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