Oil and coral reefs - A sticky situation?

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1. Project summary (maximum 150 words)

Tropical coral reefs are vulnerable to both global scale climate change and local marine pollution. However, the effects of spilled petroleum oils under tropical marine conditions is understudied, despite coral reefs often occurring close to shipping lanes, harbours and oil extraction facilities. My PhD research project aims to (1) determine the sensitivity of corals to petroleum oils and which coral life stage is the most sensitive; (2) investigate how the common environmental stressors of ultraviolet light and elevated temperature can affect oil toxicity towards corals, and; (3) apply this new information in oil spill-models to evaluate the risks posed by oil spills to coral reefs with greater certainty. My project will ensure that stakeholders operating in Queensland’s unique coral reef environments have the best information to protect and manage our reefs and the industries they sustain.

2. How does your project benefit Queensland? (maximum 500 words)

My project benefits Queensland by providing the relevant and high quality information that is currently lacking on the effects of petroleum oils on reef-building corals. This will ensure that the risks of using oils near coral reefs in Queensland are neither under- nor overestimated and that Queensland can lead the way in assessment and management of oil pollution on coral reefs.


Since we do not have access to relevant information on the sensitivity of marine life from coral reefs, data for marine life from temperate marine, and freshwater, environments is currently applied to evaluate the risks associated with using petroleum oil in the tropics. As petroleum oils still underpin many parts of modern day life, and their use and extraction are likely to continue into the foreseeable future (especially in industries such as commercial shipping), there is an urgent need to fill in those blanks for coral reef-specific data. Additionally, Queensland greatly relies on commercial shipping for crucial import and export industries and shipping through the Great Barrier Reef region is predicted to increase substantially over the coming decades. These increases in shipping will also increase the likelihood of oil spills occurring in the vicinity of Queensland's coral reefs.


While different species or types of marine life are affected by oils to varying degrees, coral reefs face additional challenges when it comes to oil pollution as the toxicity of petroleum oils can change depending on the prevailing environmental conditions. Coral reefs are generally found in warm, clear, tropical waters and this means that corals are often exposed to higher temperatures and greater ultraviolet light (UV) intensities than marine life from many other environments. Petroleum oil becomes more toxic with both increasing UV intensity and temperature which means that corals may be affected far more severely than marine life from other environments, for example cold water fish. Therefore, ignoring the potential for UV and temperature to affect oil toxicity to coral reef species is likely to result in assessments that underestimate the risks to tropical reefs.


By testing how corals are affected by petroleum oils and oil compounds, while making sure that the temperature and light I use during experiments are similar to what we observe on the Great Barrier Reef, I can produce high quality information for marine life found on Queensland's coral reefs. This new information will qualify for use in Australian water quality guidelines for maintaining the health of marine environments as well as local management decisions. By also testing how corals are affected by oils and UV at water temperatures predicted for the end of the century, we can also start to predict how the risks associated with petroleum oils towards coral reefs may change in the future as the climate continues to change. This information will also help us understand if corals may be more sensitive to oil pollution during marine heatwaves, which already cause widespread coral bleaching.

3. What STEM promotion/engagement activities do you do/have you done? (maximum 500 words)

I communicate my science and the importance of STEM through social media, engaging with the public both as a tour guide at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and during interactions with people of my community. Additionally, I participate in photo and science communication competitions and present my results at conferences. During my time as a SCUBA diving guide I would also communicate and discuss information about the marine life we were seeing, the ecosystems we were diving in and how what we do affects the environment with students and guests alike.


I have always been passionate about the ocean, science and equality, likely resulting from my upbringing on the west coast of Sweden and my parent's encouragement of being curious and to treat everyone the same way. I try to combine and convey all of these elements when communicating science because I think we need to continue to change peoples perceptions and expectations of what a scientist is and looks like to encourage more women to stay in their chosen STEM career. I also think communicating what we do where it is visible to the public is important, because if no one knows what we are doing then there's really not that much point in doing it. This is why I am participating in this, and other, science communication competitions and post photographs and information about my science on social media such as Twitter (@MikaelaNordborg).


In the future I would like to participate in larger scale science communication and leadership programs such as Homeward Bound and SuperstarsofSTEM, both to increase my skills but also to contribute to raising awareness of the science we do and women leaders in STEM. We need all the best people we can get, regardless of gender or social background, to keep pushing science forward. Unfortunately, as things currently stand, I think many talented people never make it into science, or end up not wanting to stay. If all the kids currently growing up know that they can be a scientist too, even if they happen to be from a working class family, belong to a minority group or to have been born female, then we will be much more likely to successfully respond to the challenges society face.

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Hi! I'm Mikaela, an AIMS@JCU PhD candidate in marine ecotoxicology at James Cook University and the Australian Institute of Marine Science through the collaborative AIMS@JCU Research and Scholarshi...

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