Mia Delano working at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology. Photo courtesy of UH

Two undergraduate students in the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s Global Environmental Science degree program have conducted original research on coral’s tolerance to changing ocean conditions and the vulnerability of human communities in Hawaiʻi to inundation from projected sea level rise — contributing new knowledge to their respective fields.

Can coral adapt to ocean acidification?

Mia Delano, a senior in the GES program, works with Rob Toonen and Chris Jury at the Hawaiʻi Institute of Marine Biology to understand coral growth rates and the potential for adaptation as ocean water becomes more acidic.

Climate change is leading to a more acidified ocean, changing the way calcifying creatures like corals grow. Because corals are the basis for vast, complex ecosystems, researchers are investigating how reefs might change and evolve in the future.

Delano studied eight species of Hawaiian corals that constitute more than 97 percent of reef cover in Hawaiʻi for their variability in tolerance to acidic water. Delano also investigated whether any of this variation in coral response could be based on genetics. During a six-week experiment, all species showed a reduced growth rate in more acidic water. And all species showed that much of the variation seen in coral response to acidic conditions is genetic and therefore can be passed on and lead to adaptation over generations.

“Three species in particular showed a high variability in growth rate between colonies, meaning that some colonies were significantly more tolerant to acidic environments than were others within these species,” Delano said. “Many scientists have previously predicted that corals won’t adapt to acidification, and we could face a global extinction event. However, my research indicates that some adaptation has already occurred in some species, and that the possibility of further adaptation across distinct species is also possible.”

She said her favorite aspect of the GES program has been participating in such groundbreaking research and becoming familiar with a topic that she is so curious and excited about.

“After graduation I plan to attend graduate school and hopefully continue my research career,” Delano said.

Are coastal communities in Hawaiʻi ready for sea level rise?

Kaitlyn Nelson

Kaitlyn Nelson, who graduated in December with a dual major in GES and ethnic studies from UH Mānoa, studied the relative vulnerability of communities in Hawaiʻi to inundation from projected sea level rise in the next century.

Nelson and mentor Justin Hospital who leads the socioeconomics program for NOAA’s Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center, determined relative risk factors of inundation for each community in Hawaiʻi to estimate physical hazard risk and estimated a community’s adaptation capacity. By combining these two assessments, Nelson was able to determine which communities were most vulnerable as sea level rises.

Kekaha-Waimea area on Kauaʻi and Honolulu on Oʻahu exhibited the highest risk of inundation to sea level rise.

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