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Award Detail

Doing Business As Name:The University Corporation, Northridge
  • Peter J Edmunds
  • (818) 677-2502
Award Date:10/26/2017
Estimated Total Award Amount: $ 73,296
Funds Obligated to Date: $ 73,296
  • FY 2018=$73,296
Start Date:11/15/2017
End Date:04/30/2019
Transaction Type:Grant
Awarding Agency Code:4900
Funding Agency Code:4900
CFDA Number:47.050
Primary Program Source:040100 NSF RESEARCH & RELATED ACTIVIT
Award Title or Description:RAPID: Hurricane Irma: Effects of repeated severe storms on shallow Caribbean reefs and their changing ecological resilience
Federal Award ID Number:1801335
DUNS ID:055752331
Parent DUNS ID:055752331
Program Officer:
  • Daniel J. Thornhill
  • (703) 292-8143

Awardee Location

Street:18111 Nordhoff Street
Awardee Cong. District:30

Primary Place of Performance

Organization Name:California State University, Northridge
Street:18111 Nordhoff Street
Cong. District:30

Abstract at Time of Award

Coral reefs have long been recognized for their diversity, and unique functional roles, but these features have been undermined by decades of disturbances that cast doubt on their ability to survive. Against this backdrop, 2017 brought two hurricanes of unprecedented magnitude to the Caribbean, both of which damaged coral reefs that already were degraded compared to those of a few decades ago. While the impacts of these storms on some of the few coral reefs protected within the US National Park and National Monument systems is particularly unfortunate, it also creates unique opportunities to understand the impacts on coral reefs that have been studied in detail for decades. This project builds on these opportunities by leveraging 31 years of coral reef monitoring research, much of which has been supported by NSF, to describe the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on coral reefs in St. John, US Virgin Islands. That the analyses will reveal severe destruction is a forgone conclusion, but what remains unknown is how present-day reefs will respond to severe versions of a well-known disturbance (hurricanes), and how these effects will impact their long-term survival. Post-storm surveys and new analyses will be used to determine whether ongoing declines in coral abundance have influenced the way coral reefs respond to storms, notably to enhance post-storm mortality, and reduce the capacity to recover from such event. To achieve these outcomes, a team of researchers from California State University, Northridge, will use a cruise on the R/V Walton Smith to survey the reefs of St. John using photography and in-water counts to generate data that will be analyzed throughout 2018. The benefits of this research will extend beyond scientific discoveries to include leveraged support for other scientists participating in the cruise, evaluation of the status of natural resources in the VI National Park, the delivery of relief supplies from Miami to St. John, and the creation of unique research and training opportunities for graduate students who will participate in all phases of the project. Coral reefs have undergone dramatic changes in community structure since they were first described in the 1950's, and the current onslaught of threats from rising temperature, declining seawater pH, storms, and numerous other events has cast doubt on their persistence in the Athropocene. With such profound changes underway, time-series analyses of community structure are on the cutting edge of contemporary studies of coral reefs. In the Caribbean, the impact of two category 5 hurricanes underscores why time-series are important, as they are the only means to describe the impact of such events, and critically, create the context for testing hypotheses regarding impacts and consequences of disturbances. This project addresses the impacts of Hurricanes Irma and Maria on the coral reefs of St. John, US Virgin Islands, which have been studied since the 1950's, and for the last 31 years largely with NSF LTREB support. This support provides descriptions of the population dynamics of the important coral, Orbicella annularis, and the coral community dynamics in adjacent habitats. Any study of the effects of these storms will demonstrate that large waves kill corals, but here intellectual merit is acquired through testing of general hypotheses: (1) storm impacts on O. annularis will be colony-density dependent, (2) delayed coral mortality will be accentuated compared to previous storms, (3) the resilience of coral communities to physical disturbances has declined since 1989, and (4) evolutionary rescue will mediate reef recovery for select corals through large initial population sizes, density-dependent population growth, and recruitment. These hypotheses will be tested using a 14 day cruise on the R/V Walton Smith to collect critical time-sensitive data, followed by a year of analysis of new and legacy photographic data.

Publications Produced as a Result of this Research

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Edmunds, Peter J. "Three decades of degradation lead to diminished impacts of severe hurricanes on Caribbean reefs" Ecology, v.100, 2019, p.. doi:10.1002/ecy.2587 Citation details  

Edmunds, Peter J. and Tsounis, Georgios and Boulon, Ralf and Bramanti, Lorenzo "Acute effects of back-to-back hurricanes on the underwater light regime of a coral reef" Marine Biology, v.166, 2019, p.. doi:10.1007/s00227-018-3459-z Citation details  

Project Outcomes Report


This Project Outcomes Report for the General Public is displayed verbatim as submitted by the Principal Investigator (PI) for this award. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this Report are those of the PI and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation; NSF has not approved or endorsed its content.

This project was a rapid response to the Category 5 hurricanes that impacted St. John, US Virgin Islands, in September 2017. The project leveraged 31 years of research focused on the long-term changes in the reefs of St. John, specifically to evaluate the effects of two storms that are without precedent on the scale of human memory. The legacy research captured the effects of three previous storms (Hurricanes Hugo in 1989, and Luis and Marilyn in 1995) on the same reefs, and therefore it was possible to place the destruction of 2017 in an historic context. Funding from this award supported surveys of reef damage within two months of the impacts of the storm, and over the following 12 months, a follow-up survey in the summer of 2018, and analysis of the data and samples obtained. Together, the results have made three contributions to the understanding of coral reefs, the threats they face from storms, and the prognosis for their future.

 First, in contrast to the expectation that storms pose risks of catastrophic damage to coral reefs, the stony corals on the present reefs were resilient to storms. This is not good news, however, as this resilience has come through adversity and the death of corals over 30 years. So much coral has died since 1987 that there was relatively little left to be lost when Hurricanes Irma and Maria arrived in September 2017. There is a salutary message in this discovery, for conservation biologists often seek to manage reefs for high resilience, yet St. John shows how this outcome can be obtained through characteristics that are undesirable (i.e., little coral). Second, through the fortuitous deployment of an underwater light meter that survived the hurricanes, it has been possible to show the multi-week impacts of storms on underwater light regimes. These events were so large that they temporarily turned these coral reefs into a light-impaired habitat with negative implications on the organisms dependent on light for food. Finally, by reconstructing the effects of the storms on the sizes and mortality of colonies of the common coral, Orbicella annularis, it has been possible to reveal the hidden effects on coral populations. While the percentage cover of this species was unaffected by the storms, reductions in the sizes of colonies moved them to a smaller size range in which the risks of dying are high, thus depleting the population of unique individuals. Overall, these storms had only minor effects on the cover of stony corals on reefs that already had been depleted of coral over 30 years, and these effects are unlikely alter future coral cover. By removing unique coral genotypes, however, the storms may have built in a delayed effect to the coral populations, such that the future small populations could show enhance susceptibility to disturbances such as diseases.

 Major hurricanes provide unwelcomed disturbances affecting humans and nature in catastrophic ways. They also provide opportunities through natural experiments to better understand processes shaping the natural world. But completion of the present research also provided unique opportunities for early students and scientists to develop skills in a real world situation that has no classroom parallel. The post-storms surveys were completed from the R/V Walton Smith, and the team brought personnel together from universities and the US National Park Service. Graduate students from California State University, Northridge, learned from hands-on experience to be better biologist, ambassadors of science, and humanitarian visitors in an area affected by a major natural disaster. These experiences were expanded through 2018 as the science progressed, team members reflected on their experiences, and participants brought their contributions to fruition and carried their experiences to high schools through classroom presentation. Overall, the experience of conducting research on the ecological impacts of a natural disaster, effectively while the disaster was still unfolding, has done much to encourage a small cohort of students to pursue STEM careers.


Last Modified: 05/03/2019
Modified by: Peter J Edmunds

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