SCIENTISTS WITNESS SUDDEN DEATH OF MARIANAS REEF

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By Katie Worth

HAGATNA, Guam (Pacific Daily News, Sept. 29) - The ash-filled death of the coral reef surrounding Anatahan, the volcano in the Northern Marianas Islands that spewed its black guts into the air this May, was a morbidly fascinating scene to witness, oceanographer Rusty
Brainard said.

A sheet of soot coats the sea floor. The ocean water is so thick with scum that your hand nearly disappears from view when your arm is extended. Confused fish wander aimlessly in search of their old homes. The stench of sulfur saturates the air. And millions of flies, their
populations perhaps boosted by the massive death of animals and plants on the island, swarm the ocean's surface.

This was the macabre panorama National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists viewed when they debarked from their research vessel and dove into the waters to see how Anatahan's eruption had affected the ocean around it.

The stop at Anatahan was one of the most interesting on their voyage so far, Brainard said. He is the chief scientist on the ship Oscar Elton Sette, which has been hopping from island to island in the Marianas chain for the past several weeks, on the first-ever attempt to
comprehensively map and document the archipelago's reefs.

What made the visit to the dead coral kingdom so interesting, Brainard said, is that it's the first time scientists have been able to document the sudden death of a thriving reef, and will, over the next several decades, be able to observe its rebirth.

"It was so strange to see what just a few months before had been what we think was a very mature, fully functioning reef ecosystem," he said. "The recovery is not going to be quick. Parts of the reef suffered extensively."

The Sette spent two days at Anatahan. The first day was near the beginning of the voyage, and Brainard described it as "miserable" because visibility was so low that very little research could be done. Every movement underwater seemed to stir up more ash, and hundreds
of flies covered anyone that was outside the water.

One of the objectives of the researchers is to get a look at an island's reef and the life on it, so two biologists in dive gear are dragged behind a slow-moving boat on camera-equipped "sleds." The scientists are supposed to stay a few feet above the ocean floor, but
Brainard said this was nearly impossible the first day because the visibility was so poor, and they were afraid of slamming into a boulder or something else protruding from the reef.

Brainard said the experience was so bad that the crew almost didn't come back later in the trip.

"We almost had this fear of the place because it had been just such a horrible day the first time, and so we had a group meeting, and while nobody really wanted to go back, we all saw the scientific value," he said.

But as luck would turn out, the visibility was much improved and the research they were able to do was significant, Brainard said.

Brainard said the northern and western sides of the island seemed to have had most of the thriving reefs before the eruption, and incidentally that was where the wind blew most of the ash.

The eruption didn't seem to kill all the fish, he said, and many of them are still wandering around near where they used to live on the reef, seemingly confused.

Brainard will present more of the trip's findings at the Coral Reef Task Force meeting, scheduled to begin this weekend on Saipan and continuing on Guam. The crew intends to return to the Marianas islands every two years to do further research and document any changes.

"It'll be real interesting to see how that mystery unfolds and to watch that evolution now that we have the very beginning documented," Brainard said.

September 29, 2003

Pacific Daily News: www.guampdn.com

 

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