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An Underwater Lab for Forecasting the Ocean's Future

Researchers created an underwater lab-in-a-box near the Great Barrier Reef, allowing them to tinker with ocean water in its natural state.

The effects of climate change are hard to predict, at least with total precision. How quickly will rising temperatures wipe out forests? Will there be more volcanic eruptions and earthquakes? How will the oceans change as they absorb more carbon dioxide? Considering that increasing ocean acidity threatens to destroy coral reefs, that last question is pretty important. Researchers have come up with a creative way to answer it: building an underwater mini-lab off the coast of Australia.

Why not just bring ocean water into a lab? If only recreating ocean conditions was that simple. Building off an idea developed at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Stanford and University of Queensland researchers created a lab-in-a-box that sits a few feet under the ocean surface near the Great Barrier Reef, allowing them to tinker with a sample of ocean water and corals—all without affecting the surrounding ocean. Turn up the acidity of the water in the box, and you’ve got yourself a tiny model of how the oceans might react to climate change.

Coral reefs are ecology rich, providing habitat for more than a million species. They’re also great for generating economic activity and protecting people from storms (which are becoming more severe and frequent with our changing climate). Studying reefs via tiny underwater labs is a long way from actually being able to protect them, but it’s an important first step. With nearly 40 percent of Americans still skeptical about the existence of climate change, any more data on how it will affect the planet can only help us prepare and innovate.

Photo via Stanford University

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