Undersea Discoveries: Coral Colonies Offer Clues on Ocean Conditions


While on the vessel Bell Shimada, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science Branwen Williams and Devyn Parks ’15 survey the choppy ocean waters as they embark on an ambitious study of deep-sea corals off the Channel Islands.

“It’s amazing that you could derive so much information about the history of an entire ecosystem just from studying one type of coral,” says Parks of the scientific endeavor. Parks’ fascination with research on coral colonies inspired her senior thesis on this subject.

Williams and Parks are two of several researchers participating in a larger expedition overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that seeks to assess and monitor the health of deep-sea coral colonies.

Using sonar technology, researchers update deep-sea typographical maps originally drawn up in the 1930s. They aim to maximize their time on this scientific exploration to glean as much information as possible while measuring the ocean’s health.

During these maritime outings, researchers rely on a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to collect samples of coral deep within the crevices of the Pacific Ocean’s depths. Manipulated from the boat’s deck, the ROV gathers precious coral specimens, as scientists prepare to inspect the samples.IMG_2446

“My specific goal was to determine the approximate ages of these coral colonies, to determine their growth rates, and identify their source of nutrients,” says Williams, whose research at the W.M. Keck Science Department of Claremont McKenna College, Pitzer College and Scripps College specializes in assessing the acidification of the ocean.

Scientists recently spent a week on the science cruise in the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary to study samples of deep-sea corals. Much like trees, new branches of coral form rings as they grow. Scientists analyze the width and chemical compositions of these rings to determine the ocean’s conditions centuries ago and then compare those findings with contemporary data.

“Back in the lab, my students and I prepare the samples for analysis and then we’ll send the samples to collaborating labs to measure their radiocarbon and stable isotopic compositions,” Williams explains.

Parks was first introduced to the wondrous world of deep-sea corals in her junior year, while shadowing a student in Williams’ lab. Parks, whose role was to assist the other scientists with their samples, wrote a blog about her experience; to read her blog, click here. The Los Angeles Times also recently wrote about Williams’ aquatic research.