The new research, published in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union, explains the natural biological and geomorphological causes of the more acidic water near Palau's Rock Islands and describes a surprising second finding that the corals living in that more acidic water were unexpectedly diverse and healthy. The unusual finding, which is contrary to what has been observed in other naturally low pH coral reef systems, has important implications for the conservation of corals in all parts of the world.
"When you move from a high pH reef to a low pH neighboring reef, there are big changes, and they are negative changes," said Cohen, a co-author on the paper and lead principal investigaor of the project. "However, in Palau where the water is most acidic, we see the opposite. We see a coral community that is more diverse, hosts more species, and has greater coral cover than in the non-acidic sites. Palau is the exception to the places scientists have studied."
Through analysis of the water chemistry in Palau, the scientists found the acidification is primarily caused by the shell building done by the organisms living in the water, called calcification, which removes carbonate ions from seawater. A second reason is the organisms' respiration, which adds CO2 to the water when they breathe.
"These things are all happening at every reef," said Cohen. "What's really critical here is the residence time of the sea water."
"In the Rock Islands, the water sits in the bays for a long time before being flushed out. This is a big area that's like a maze with lots of channels and inlets for the water to wind around," explained Shamberger. "Calcification and respiration are continually happening at these sites while the water sits there, and it allows the water to become more and more acidic. It's a little bit like being stuck in a room with a limited amount of oxygen the longer you're in ther
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Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution