Carbon dioxide levels in the Earth’s oceans rise in direct relation to the amount of CO2 present in the atmosphere.
Prior to the Industrial Revolution, these ratios were essentially balanced; however, as humans produce CO2 in increasing quantities, more atmospheric CO2 is available to dissolve into the ocean.
This rise in ocean CO2 levels in turn causes a decrease in pH levels, especially at the surface. Referred to as ocean acidification, this has the potential to alter the physiology of many organisms, including corals.
Anna Tansik, a doctoral candidate in Marine Sciences, studies corals and the effect that ocean acidification has on their physiology.
Tansik explains that ocean acidification is a serious problem for corals since their limestone skeletons may become weaker and/or dissolve under the climate conditions predicted on Earth by the end of the century.
Losing the world’s coral reefs would be extremely detrimental.
Coral reefs contain the most diverse ecosystems on the planet, in addition to protecting coastlines from the damaging effects of wave action and tropical storms.
Additionally, coral reefs have been estimated to contribute hundreds of billions of dollars to worldwide economies.
“I came to UGA for the opportunity it presented to study corals and ocean acidification,” Tansik says.
“UGA has a strong group of research labs working on corals, their symbionts, and reef systems. I’ve also been afforded the opportunity to work with a large range of excellent scientists.”
Tansik’s doctoral research, led by advisor Dr. Brian Hopkinson, has two interconnected parts.
“The experimental portion of my research focuses on how corals take up and process carbon for use in photosynthesis,” Tansik explains.
Using methods that have been used for decades for phytoplankton, Tansik was able to determine coral enzyme activity rates, carbon uptake, and what the carbon environment is for the corals and their symbionts.
“This research has established baselines for previously undefined elements of the coral’s physiology, as well as providing evidence for how the corals interact with their algal symbionts,” she says.
Tansik is also working on a model of carbon flow through the coral.
Using the quantitative data collected from her experimental research, the model can be used to evaluate different hypotheses regarding ocean acidification.
“It allows us to see what might be driving calcification, how different parts of the coral are linked for carbon, and how logical changes to the coral’s physiology might change calcification and photosynthesis.”
The results of these experiments provide points of comparison in determining how the changes in CO2 levels are causing an increase in carbon uptake and processing.
“By artificially changing conditions in our lab, I hope to understand further how the carbon system varies from those baselines that I’ve been able to determine in my experimental work.”
“Humanity cannot be good stewards of this planet if we do not understand how we impact it, and policy cannot be set without the science,” Tansik says.
After graduation, Tansik plans to remain in an academic setting as a postdoctoral researcher or a lecturer and hopes to become a faculty member one day.