UB Researcher to head to St. John to study Hurricane impact on coral reefs

AMHERST, N.Y. (WIVB) – A University at Buffalo Geologist is heading to the Caribbean to study the impact of hurricanes Irma and Maria on coral reefs in the region.

Professor Howard Lasker tells News 4 he wont know the extent of the damage on the reefs of St. John until he jumps in, later this week.

He leaves on Friday for a place he’s studied for years.  But this time, he’s expecting to see something very different under the water.

From over-fishing to pollution, Professor  Lasker has been studying coral reefs  for years. He said, “We could see total devastation. But so much depends on which way the waves come in relative to that shore.”

After major storms, like Maria and Irma hit, some types of corals will recover, but others will not.

This trip he’ll hope to find out why that is. Lasker says investigating how traumatic events like hurricanes affect these resources is crucial, especially in a time of global climate change.

He said, “We’re not going to save the reefs, but but we will understand them in a lot more detail.”

The hurricane caused major damage to the environmental resource station,  Lasker’s usual home base on St. John.

So the team will be based on a boat, and take smaller boats out to dive sites. Lasker said, “We’ve always worked out of a laboratory, but that laboratory is out of action because, at the very least they don’t have power and damage they have to repair.”

He’ll look to find out the reef may bounce back from a devastating storm. But, it’s a bitter sweet trip, the research happens in the middle of an island in recovery.

He said, “Here are people whom are really struggling to rebuild.”

But scientists still have a lot of questions about how coral reefs bounce back.

For example, few researchers have looked in detail at the plight of soft corals — Lasker’s area of expertise. There are some clues that these species may fare better than their stony counterparts after a disaster, but more research needs to be done to understand how storms, warming waters and ocean acidification can alter the composition of reefs, and whether these changes are permanent or short-lived, Lasker says.

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