UMaine marine scientist, National Geographic 'risk taker' to study effects of climate change in West Antarctica

Rhian Waller will look at 'Cold Corals in Hot Water' through a two-year study being funded by the National Science Foundation
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Tuesday, September 17, 2013 - 3:00pm
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UMaine assistant research professor Rhian Waller prepares to dive in the Southeastern Alaskan fjords in March 2011 (above and below). (Photo courtesy The University of Maine/Rhian Waller)

WALPOLE — In the wake of dramatic glacier retreat and ice shelf collapses on the Western Antarctic Peninsula, University of Maine marine scientist Rhian Waller will explore how Antarctic corals, which provide habitat for thousands of connected species, are coping with the warming ocean water.

Recently lauded by National Geographic magazine in March as a "risk taker" among today's 21st-century explorers, Waller, UMaine's ice water diver and assistant research professor in the School of Marine Sciences, has pressed the limits of diving during more than 40 expeditions around the planet. In a submersible, she once plunged to a depth of 3,600 meters for corals on the New England Seamount chain in 2005. She also frequently scuba dives in temperatures of 35 degrees Farenheit and below in the name of science.

The UMaine marine scientist is now turning her attention to the impact that changing temperatures in the ocean water are having on Antarctic coral and the species that rely on it. Waller recently received a National Science Foundation grant totaling $381,384 for the two-year project titled "Cold Corals in Hot Water — Investigating the physiological responses of Antarctic coral larvae to climate change stress."

"Cold-water corals are important ecosystem engineers that benefit many organisms, including commercially important species such as rockfish, orange roughy (deep sea perch) as well as young cod, and many crab species," Waller said in a news release.

She added: "Accelerated climate change is likely to effect in presently unidentified ways the many benthic (organisms living on or in sea or lake bottoms) marine invertebrates that live within narrow temperature windows along the Antarctic Continental Shelf...Understanding how the coral larvae react will help scientists predict future changes in those benthic communities around the planet."

In this first systematic study of the larval stages of polar cold-water corals, Waller will examine whether larvae can develop normally in the next century. Scientists predict water around the Western Antarctic Peninsula, which has warmed nearly 1-degree Celsius the last 50 years, could warm at a more accelerated pace during the next 50 years.

The Western Antarctic Peninsula, she said in the release, is experiencing "rapid climate change at one of the fastest rates of anywhere on the planet."

While she is based at the Darling Marine Center in Walpole, Waller will be far from home during the course of the study and will begin conducting climate change experiments on coral larvae at Palmer Station on Anvers Island in Antarctica, just north of the Antarctic Circle, in November 2014.

Waller's findings will be placed on a research website and distributed via social media. She will also make presentations in local schools once the study is complete.

More information on Rhian Waller and her work is available on her National Geographic Explorers Journal blog. The National Geographic "The New Age of Exploration: Risk Takers" piece from the magazine's March issue is available online at ngm.nationalgeographic.com/125-exploration/risk-takers-gallery.