FSU researcher makes deep-sea coral reefs discovery in depths of the North-Pacific

From Eurekalert

Public Release: 14-Jul-2017

Florida State University

IMAGE: Associate Professor of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science Amy Baco-Taylor is next to a submersible in which she has conducted research. view more Credit: Florida State University


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Scientists have long believed that the waters of the Central and Northeast Pacific Ocean were inhospitable to deep-sea scleractinian coral, but a Florida State University professor’s discovery of an odd chain of reefs suggests there are mysteries about the development and durability of coral colonies yet to be uncovered.

Associate Professor of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science Amy Baco-Taylor, in collaboration with a team from Texas A&M University, observed these reefs during an autonomous underwater vehicle survey through the seamounts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

In an article published today in the journal Scientific Reports, Baco-Taylor and her team document these reefs and discuss possible explanations for their appearance in areas considered impossibly hostile to reef-forming scleractinia, whose communities are formed by small, stony polyps that settle on the seabed and grow bony skeletons to protect their soft bodies.

“I’ve been exploring the deep-sea around the Hawaiian Archipelago since 1998, and I’d seen enough to know that the presence of these reefs at these depths was definitely unexpected,” Baco-Taylor said.

Areas like the North Atlantic and South Pacific are particularly fertile habitats for deep-sea scleractinian reefs, but a combination of factors led scientists to believe that the accumulation of deep-sea coral colonies into healthy reefs was exceedingly unlikely in the deep waters of the North Pacific.

Low levels of aragonite, an essential mineral in the formation of scleractinian skeletal structures, in the region make it difficult for the coral polyps to develop their rugged coral skeletons. In addition, North Pacific carbonate dissolution rates, a measure of the pace at which carbonate substances like coral skeletons dissolve, exceed those of the more amenable North Atlantic by a factor of two.

In other words, these reefs simply should not exist.

“Even if the corals could overcome low aragonite saturation and build up robust skeletons, there are areas on the reefs that are just exposed skeleton, and those should be dissolving,” Baco-Taylor said. “Even if the species could survive in the area, we shouldn’t be finding an accumulation of reef.”

In the study, Baco-Taylor and her team articulate two potential reasons for the improbable success of these hardy reefs. Higher concentrations of chlorophyll in the areas of pronounced reef growth suggests that an abundance of food may provide the excess energy needed for calcification in waters with low aragonite saturation. Suitable current velocities in the area may also help the reefs to flourish.

But neither of these factors tell the whole story.

“Neither the chlorophyll nor the currents explain the unusual depth distributions of the reefs, why they actually get shallower moving to the northwest along the seamounts,” Baco-Taylor said. “There’s still a mystery as to why these reefs are here.”

The unexpected discovery of these reefs has prompted some to reconsider the effects of ocean acidification on vulnerable coral colonies. At a time when stories about the wholesale demise of reefs around the world are sparking alarm, these findings may offer a glimmer of hope.

“These results show that the effect of ocean acidification on deep-water corals may not be as severe as predicted,” said David Garrison, a program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research. “What accounts for the resilience of these corals on seamounts in the Pacific remains to be determined.”

The reefs observed during this research occur primarily outside of the local protected Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which means they exist in areas where destructive trawling is permitted and active.

Nicole Morgan, an FSU doctoral candidate and a coauthor of the article, said that locating these survivalist reefs is crucial because it gives scientists a chance to preserve them.

“We want to know where these habitats are so that we can protect them,” Morgan said. “We don’t want important fisheries to collapse, which often happens when reefs disappear, but we also want to protect them because they’re vulnerable, and we don’t want to destroy habitats.”

The discovery of these puzzling reefs shows that there are still gaps at the edges of our scientific understanding waiting to be filled. The success of hypothesis-driven exploration, like the kind that produced these findings, demonstrates the importance of continuing to strike out into the unknown.

“These results highlight the importance of doing research in unexplored areas, or ‘exploration sciences’ as we like to call it,” said Brendan Roark, associate professor of geography at Texas A&M University and Baco-Taylor’s co-principal investigator.

If there are additional reefs sprinkled across the Northwestern Hawaiian seamounts, Baco-Taylor wants to find them. Further study of these reefs could reveal important secrets about how these organisms might endure in the age of climbing carbon dioxide levels and ocean acidification.

“If more of these reefs are there, that would run counter to what ocean acidification and carbonate chemistry dictates,” Baco-Taylor said. “It leaves us with some big questions: Is there something that we’re not understanding? How is this possible?”


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July 16, 2017 5:09 pm

Reefer madness!

Reply to  BallBounces
July 16, 2017 9:59 pm

Have these scientists never heard of my “Hydraulic Theory” for ‘cold-water coral reefs’ (also ‘called deep-water coral reefs’). The first time it was published was in 1998 (Hovland et al., 1998, Palaios), and also in my book “Deep-water coral reefs: Unique biodiversity hot-spots”: Hovland, 2008 (Springer Praxis, 278 pp). The theory is that nutrients are leaking up from the sub-sea floor. They are either of a hot-water nature (geothermal or hydrothermal) or they are of a petroleum-related nature, e.g., hydrocarbons leaking into the benthic and deep-water environment. Hydrocarbons like methane, propane, butane are well-known nutrients for primary produsers in the ocean:
I find it strange that scientists from FSU do not recognise this vector of nutrients, as they have amongst them one of the world leaders in the study of natural deep-water petroleum seeps: Dr Ian MacDonald. However, I know that my theory is often disregarded as a good cause by marine biologists, as it is a ‘controversial’ theory. However, I don’t really care, as Nature itself is perhaps the most controversial system around…

July 16, 2017 5:14 pm

“How is this possible?” shows that a glimmering of the scientific method might still yet survive the climate change madness.
Corals have been around for a very long time. For scleractinians, that’s since shortly after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction, most severe of the Phanerozoic Eon.

Ian W
July 16, 2017 5:17 pm

The unexpected discovery of these reefs has prompted some to reconsider the effects of ocean acidification on vulnerable coral colonies. At a time when stories about the wholesale demise of reefs around the world are sparking alarm, these findings may offer a glimmer of hope.

The oceans are a little less caustic, they are not anywhere near acidic.

Reply to  Ian W
July 17, 2017 4:34 am

So would you like to write “the effects of ocean decaustification on vulnerable coral colonies” or something? Well, why not. However, I think “decreasing pH” would do the thing.

Reply to  Hugs
July 17, 2017 7:08 am

No, “neutralization” is precisely accurate and perfectly sufficient for describing the current situation…

July 16, 2017 5:22 pm

“Is there something we’re not understanding?”
“The trouble with our Liberal friends is not that they’re ignorant; it’s just that they know so much that isn’t so.” ~ Ronald Reagan

Bryan A
Reply to  Dejavu
July 16, 2017 9:15 pm

Their problem isn’t that so much that they think they know what they don’t know but that they don’t know what they think they know

Reply to  Bryan A
July 16, 2017 9:20 pm


Reply to  Bryan A
July 17, 2017 4:44 am

That is a general human trait, after all.

Peter Morris
July 16, 2017 5:25 pm

Mysteries? In the deep ocean?!?
Who could have possibly predicted such a thing?

Reply to  Peter Morris
July 16, 2017 5:53 pm

Nobody. Nothing new about predicting anything.
Yes scientists discover things unexpectedly. Yes it happens. It has been happening “an apple falling on my head”
Great. Best of luck to her.
Go Girl!

Reply to  Peter Morris
July 16, 2017 11:20 pm

Certainly not the MSM. No front page articles proclaiming “Ocean acidification might not be as bad as we thought”.
Funny that.

July 16, 2017 5:42 pm

no mention of ph.. 7.4 maybe??

Reply to  embutler
July 16, 2017 6:06 pm

More like 8.3

Reply to  Donald Kasper
July 16, 2017 6:41 pm

And what depth were they, or are they?

Reply to  embutler
July 16, 2017 6:35 pm

The pH was 7.8 and the depth ranged up to 2300 feet with a length up to 2400 feet.

July 16, 2017 5:44 pm

What no “Settled Science” Whatever is going on ?

July 16, 2017 5:52 pm

Maybe the depths at which these observations were made might be discussed?
“We want to know where these habitats are so that we can protect them,”
And may we all suppose you’re just keeping that to yourself for the sake of suspense?
Talk to Richard Pyle. He spend a whole lot of time down there. He’s probably seen your hydrocorals before.

DD More
Reply to  Bartleby
July 17, 2017 11:15 am

What many of us want to know is, “What was the Depth of the Sea Floor when the coral reef was growing.
Can she have forgotten the Hawaiian Ridge-Emperor Seamounts chain, which extends some 6,000 km from the “Big Island” of Hawaii to the Aleutian Trench off Alaska. Even Wiki knows things rise and sink as it passes over this area.
Aging – The chain has been produced by the movement of the ocean crust over the Hawaiian hotspot, an upwelling of hot rock from the Earth’s mantle. As the oceanic crust moves the volcanoes farther away from their source of magma, their eruptions become less frequent and less powerful until they eventually cease to erupt altogether. At that point erosion of the volcano and subsidence of the seafloor cause the volcano to gradually diminish. As the volcano sinks and erodes, it first becomes an atoll island and then an atoll. Further subsidence causes the volcano to sink below the sea surface, becoming a seamount and/or a guyot.

Reply to  DD More
July 18, 2017 8:06 am

But the reefs become shallower to the north.

Michael Jankowski
July 16, 2017 5:53 pm

That depth range is supposed to have some of the lowest pH levels. Oh nature, why won’t you just follow our models?

Reply to  Michael Jankowski
July 16, 2017 6:48 pm

yeah, but it’s rotten coral.

Moderately Cross of East Anglia
Reply to  gnomish
July 17, 2017 1:36 am

Skeptic Coral

Reply to  gnomish
July 17, 2017 2:13 am

No, that’s ice. Rotten ice. Remember?

John MacDonald
July 16, 2017 5:59 pm

How can you write about unusual depths and fail to use a single number to describe those depths?
I’m flumoxed.

Reply to  John MacDonald
July 16, 2017 6:15 pm

“I’m flumoxed.”
You aren’t alone on that one John.

Reply to  John MacDonald
July 16, 2017 6:21 pm

Depths on seamounts of 535–732 m.

Reply to  Gloateus
July 17, 2017 10:55 am

At those depths you won’t find any photosynthesis occurring, so these corals don’t have any symbiotic algae?

Walter Sobchak
July 16, 2017 6:02 pm

“In other words, these reefs simply should not exist.”
Life finds a way.

Kaiser Derden
Reply to  Walter Sobchak
July 17, 2017 11:28 am

no, life didn’t find a way … life was always there … their theory is bad … a proper theory would have expected to find them …

July 16, 2017 6:11 pm

PS: Richard holds some sort of tenure at the University of Hawaii last I knew. ichthyologist; means “fish guy”.

Reply to  Bartleby
July 16, 2017 6:28 pm

And in my humble opinion? Richard is a bit brighter than most. But I’m stupid so everyone is a bit brighter than most.

July 16, 2017 6:20 pm

(W)e report the discovery of live scleractinian reefs on six seamounts of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and Emperor Seamount Chain at depths of 535–732 m and aragonite saturation state (Ωarag) values of 0.71–1.33.

Reply to  Gloateus
July 16, 2017 6:30 pm

Thank you.
That’s well beyond the “twilight zone” explored by Pyle. I sincerely appreciate your contribution.

Reply to  Bartleby
July 16, 2017 9:00 pm

De nada, amigo, and long may you and all in your camp wave!

Reply to  Bartleby
July 16, 2017 9:45 pm

I love the concept of beyond the twilight zone.
Corals are after all animals, and they can move into and out of zones whether full light, twilight or no light at all.
And they have photosynthetic symbionts attuned to various levels of sunlight.
Only “climate scientists” imagine that science is ever “settled”.

July 16, 2017 6:53 pm

Bligh Reef Alaska and Bligh Reef Australia.
Looks like Bligh visited Australia (having survived after the Mutiny), not Alaska, after or before.
Cook did visit Alaska! Exquisite maps! All Cook needed was an accurate Chronometer and Telescope. He had both and knew how to use them! A far cry from the Climate Science Conflagration that engulfs the World Today (a false conflagration) … “There Is No Climate Crisis!”.
Bligh Reef Alaska would later become a site of a grounding of an Exxon Tanker, and the prostitution conflagration after.

Reply to  JBom
July 17, 2017 1:25 am

Cook could not find a way from the pacific through the arctic to the Atlantic.must have been more ice then

David A
Reply to  Dave
July 17, 2017 6:25 am

Not sure about the ice. I am 100% certain there were fewer satelites and ice breakers.

July 16, 2017 6:59 pm

The resilience of coral reefs is utterly shocking…

J Mac
July 16, 2017 7:14 pm

Interesting to me that, upon finding these deep water coral reefs in an area where ‘destructive trawling’ is allowed, there is no mention of any trawling damage to the reefs but the immediate reflex is ‘they must be protected’.

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  J Mac
July 17, 2017 3:50 am

Who is trawlng at a depth of 700m? What for? Plastic?

July 16, 2017 7:22 pm

As I understand the global warming logic: because the reefs shouldn’t exist, they can’t exist, and they don’t exist.

July 16, 2017 7:32 pm

“Wholesale demise of reefs around the world….” will, in due course, be relegated to the same bin that ‘wholesale retreat of glaciers around the world’ ended up. Although there was measureable bleaching of coral associated with the last Nino event, the extent of such bleaching has been substantially overstated, Dying coral reefs evoke a much better emotional response than retreating glaciers.
In any regard, if we want to talk about coral bleaching, we will have to back away from rising sea levels.

Reply to  Asp
July 16, 2017 10:36 pm

Bleached coral is not dead, it has merely expelled it’s algae symbiont temporarily.

Larry D
Reply to  Menicholas
July 17, 2017 2:01 am

>>… expelled it’s algae symbiont temporarily.
Preparing to load a different symbiont, perhaps? Adjusting to an environmental change.

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  Menicholas
July 17, 2017 3:55 am

It doesn’t seem to occur to the experts that there might be symbionts that run on petroleum energy or sulphur power. Who says they have to be photosynthetic? It should be pretty obvious that reefs growing at 700m depth are not powered by photosynthesis. They do not even have to by powered by photosynthetically produced material falling fro above (which is another possibility).

July 16, 2017 7:33 pm

We learn something new everyday. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll eventually understand the environment we live in.

July 16, 2017 7:38 pm

The “success of hypothesis-driven” research? What was the hypothesis? They say that their knowledge base obviated the presence of these reefs because they simply couldn’t exist there. So this was a totally unexpected find – simple luck. It also goes against prior hypotheses of the necessary conditions for their survival. Exploratory expeditions are great, and a necessary part of science. Kudos for that. Now I want to see evidence that the minor changes in pH have had any effect on corals – measured – not programmed.

July 16, 2017 7:45 pm

There are many species of deep water coral whose biology is incompletely understood.

It leaves us with some big questions: Is there something that we’re not understanding?

I think it’s a rhetorical question. The whole purpose of science is to find things we don’t understand. It’s called job security. 🙂

July 16, 2017 7:46 pm

If in your everyday life you don’t notice new and perplexing things, you’re just not paying attention.

July 16, 2017 8:52 pm

“The discovery of these puzzling reefs shows that there are still gaps at the edges of our scientific understanding waiting to be filled.”
I looked up the definition of ‘hubris’ and it gave this sentence as an example!
Firesign Theater was probably more scientifically accurate when they came up with the title for one of their comedy albums:comment image

Reply to  jclarke341
July 16, 2017 11:17 pm

“Did we just pass a gas station?
No. but the Fox did…”

john york
Reply to  jclarke341
July 17, 2017 2:17 pm

Hubris indeed! Just think how science/knowledge will explode when we reach the rest of the solar system.

John F. Hultquist
July 16, 2017 9:37 pm

In other words, these reefs simply should not exist.
There’s still a mystery as to why these reefs are here.

In the first line, the ignorance of the researchers is transferred to the reefs. Beautiful.
In the second line the term “mystery” is used incorrectly. The virgin birth of Jesus is a mystery. I don’t know the square root of 603,729 but it is not a mystery — I just don’t know the answer.

Dan Davis
July 16, 2017 9:50 pm

Square root of the number 603729 is 777 – did you just pick that randomly?!?
The discovery of the deep reefs used the “blind squirrel” technique.

Reply to  Dan Davis
July 17, 2017 11:16 am

No, perhaps not the blind squirrel approach. Blind squirrels are actually looking for acorns and occasionally find them. These explorers were out looking about not necessarily for deep coral reefs and they stumbled onto something interesting. That would more correctly called serendipity.
Serendipity is the basis of many great “discoveries” and is not new to deep ocean exploration. The discovery of deep ocean vents (black smokers) and the finding of new species was such an event.
The take away from these types of discoveries is “how little we actually know.”

Bill Parsons
July 16, 2017 9:51 pm

Interesting. Manuscript of this article was co-written by Kathryn Shamberger. She authored the paper Anthony Watts posted in January, 2014, which revealed the “surprising versatility” of western pacific reefs (around Pelau) to survive lower pH.
It’s expected that every article, and every author must pay her obeisances to the Great Global Warming Gods (as does this article), but, it appears to me that there are a few inquiring minds at work.
Thanks, Gloateus, for posting link to the full article:

Bill Parsons
Reply to  Bill Parsons
July 16, 2017 10:08 pm

Another point providing “a glimmer of hope”: as “THE END IS NIGH” alarmists now occupy every street corner (Small print on their signs reading, “Any amount will help”), their irrational alarmism has become so commonplace that it bores.
It remains to be seen, but it appears Ms. Shamberger is a researcher turning to the infinitely more interesting questions about species adaptation, rather that setting out to prove collapse of ecosystems and catastrophe for the planet.

July 16, 2017 9:59 pm

One should destroy all coral life for the reality to fit the models. And hurry, before we all die.

July 16, 2017 10:05 pm

This is almost as good as discovering extinct species.

Smart Rock
July 16, 2017 10:44 pm

IIRC those Hawaiian seamounts are the eroded roots of older volcanoes of the Hawaiian chain. As such they are made up of basalt, which is fairly permeable and moderately reactive with sea water, and there’s probably just enough residual heat to initiate a very mild convective circulation. And all the nutrients the little buggers need will be seeping out of the underlying rock. Including aragonite (which is just CaCO3)
Not so mysterious if you know a bit of geology.

July 16, 2017 11:22 pm

And if methods of “climate science” were used in other sciences, this discovery would be eliminated because it didn’t fit the known model of deep sea corals.

July 17, 2017 12:43 am

The survival of the fittest in action: fight, adapt or perish.
While coral fighting can be observed even in an aquarium, why wouldn’t some natural corals choose adaptation instead?

Human society scale socialist kleptocracy experiments have been predestined to doom and the misanthropogenic fossil conservative version is no exception.

Chris Schoneveld
July 17, 2017 2:23 am

What is the size, aerial extent and depth of these reefs?

July 17, 2017 3:53 am

“The success of hypothesis-driven exploration, like the kind that produced these findings, demonstrates the importance of continuing to strike out into the unknown.’
Hypothesis-driven exploration? as opposed to aimless wandering about

Crispin in Waterloo
Reply to  Jeanparisot
July 17, 2017 4:07 am

Is this a recommendation to conduct antithesis-driven exploration? Sort of like skeptical re-analysis, eh?
Rule No.1 : Never assume anything.
Rule No.2 : Check everything.
This discovery about deep coral reefs was not the result of hypothesis-driven exploration. It was an accidental discovery. Giving up the idea that we understand ‘how everything works’ is the humble pie that precedes new and wondrous feasts of comprehensions about the natural world.

July 17, 2017 7:03 am

The answer to this ‘mystery’ is that the filter-feeders (e.g., the corals) are living of nutrients and primary producers seeping up through the seafloor nearby. The ocean crustal seafloor is quite permeable along cracks, and exotic fluids will leak upwards, stimulating bacteria and other primary producers to grow. This represents a local and reliable source of food, that feeds into the corals by currents along the ocean floor.

D. J. Hawkins
July 17, 2017 8:05 am

The success of hypothesis-driven exploration, like the kind that produced these findings, demonstrates the importance of continuing to strike out into the unknown.

How is this about “hypothesis-driven exploration”? The conventional wisdom is “no corals here”. What hypothesis could spring from that “wisdom” that would convince someone to engage in a course of action counter to it?? Baco-Taylor was going out on a bit of an academic limb just poking around at those depths for coral, spending likely hefty sums. Kudos for that risk-taking, also to the grant providers willing to provide the backing.

July 17, 2017 8:27 am

“Exploration science”???? What is this new fangled terminology? What kind of hoodoo magic does it suggest? AS if scientists should consider ALL possibilities, even the impossible, especially after a consensus of “thought” has occurred!! Pfffhhhhttt!
Clearly this girl wasted taxpayer dollars and only discovered a freakish anomaly that must be ignored/ adjusted out of the record and denied because if the “prevailing scientific consensus” is that it shouldn’t be there…then it really cannot be there at all!
*warning, this post may contain high levels of snark and may be found offensive to some

john york
July 17, 2017 2:15 pm

“In other words, these reefs simply should not exist.”
Your blood will boil if you travel at 60 mph.
The sun revolves around the Earth.
Polynesians could never have sailed from east to west.
Piltdown Man is really real.
Bees simply cannot fly.
Clovis People are the oldest known inhabitants of North America.
Stonehenge was a site for Druid celebrations.
Dinosaurs are reptiles, no, bird like, no, their own class, no, maybe something else.
Amazing how science keeps expanding our knowledge.

July 18, 2017 8:07 am

“these puzzling reefs shows that there are still gaps at the edges of our scientific understanding waiting to be filled.”
Or giant holes right in the middle of our understanding.

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