Southern Cross University projects receive research funding

Published in the November 2016 issue

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A project to develop a floating, mobile fisheries and oceanographic observation system is one of three Southern Cross University projects which received funding from the Australian Research Council.

Southern Cross University received a total of $1.16 million through the Discovery Projects and Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities (LIEF) schemes.

Photo: Dr Dirk Erler drilling for a coral core on the reefs surrounding the island of Rarotonga, Cook Islands (Credit: Sander Scheffers). Unlocking the history of nitrogen cycling trapped in coral skeletons A team of scientists will try to understand why coral reefs in the Pacific are in decline. The study, being led by Southern Cross University, will employ newly developed techniques for measuring nitrogen isotopes trapped in the skeletons of tropical corals. The study, entitled ‘What is driving the decline in coral reef health on the island of Rarotonga?’, was recently awarded $44,600 from the Australia and Pacific Science Foundation (APSF) and is being led by Dr Dirk Erler, a geochemist from the University’s Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research. The project will be based in Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands, and aims to identify the major causes of declining coral reef growth in the Muri lagoon. Tourism is the major economic driver for the country and declining coral reef health could jeopardise this crucial industry. The major anthropogenic (pollution caused by human activity) issues facing the lagoon are agricultural run-off, including soil erosion and fertiliser release, and discharge of groundwater contaminated with domestic effluent. Climate variability could also be a major factor in the reef’s health. “The challenge is to isolate the direct impacts of human activity from those of climate variability on reef health,” said Dr Erler. Corals reefs lay down distinct seasonal growth bands and it was in these bands that an archive of local oceanic conditions was contained. “We will use 100-year-old coral skeletons to reconstruct the history of the temperature, salinity, turbidity and nutrient status in the Muri Lagoon, Rarotonga. Furthermore the coral skeleton provides a direct measurement of growth and reef health. Putting these pieces together should yield a map of how and why the reef has changed over the last century,” said Dr Erler.

Photo: Dr Dirk Erler drilling for a coral core.

The two projects which received funding through the Discovery scheme are: ‘Unravelling the history of nitrogen cycling within the central Great Barrier Reef’, led by Dr Dirk Erler, $332,110; and ‘Resolving unexplored interactions between antimony and the sulfur cycle’, led by Professor Ed Burton, $276,000.

Professor Isaac Santos is the lead investigator for the project ‘A fisheries and oceanographic observing system for the continental shelf’, which received $552,000 through the LIEF scheme, plus an additional $505,000 from industry partners, bringing the total funding to $1,057,000 for the project.

Professor Santos, who is based at Southern Cross University’s National Marine Science Centre in Coffs Harbour, said Australian oceanographic and fisheries research had been hampered by the lack of appropriately sized and equipped research vessels required to investigate continental shelf waters and beyond.

“We will develop an automated floating facility that can provide data to support ongoing research programs in oceanography, marine chemistry, climate change, ocean acidification, coastal hydrology, and fisheries in the continental shelf and beyond,” Professor Santos said.

“This will bridge a major gap in fisheries and oceanographic research capacity to make observations in a critical region of the Australian marine environment, and further develop the University’s close ties with NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI) fisheries colleagues and universities performing oceanographic research.”

The project is being done in collaboration with the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Curtin University of Technology, Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales. Southern Cross University researchers involved in the project are Associate Professor Brendan Kelaher, Dr Douglas Tait, Associate Professor Symon Dworjanyn and Associate Professor Kai Schulz.

Dr Erler, from the Centre for Coastal Biogeochemistry Research, aims to test the commonly held view that nutrients have had a major negative impact on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) since human settlement of the Queensland coast in the 1800s.

“The government is planning to spend billions on nutrient prevention programs, but the long-term effect of nutrients on coral reefs may not be as acute as the impacts associated with climate change,” said Dr Erler.

The project aims to clarify how nutrient discharge over the past 200 years compares to other impacts such as temperature increases that have only recently caused major bleaching events on the northern GBR. The project is in collaboration with Princeton University in the US and the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

The third project to receive funding (in collaboration with the University of Bayreuth in Germany) aims to unravel unexplored interactions between the sulphur cycle and fundamentally important aspects of antimony geochemistry in the Earth’s critical zone.

“The outcomes are expected to provide crucially important perspectives on antimony geochemistry in anoxic soils, sediments and groundwater systems,” lead investigator Professor Burton said.

“This understanding should lead to more accurate geochemical risk assessments and better site treatment strategies for environmental antimony contamination.”

Professor Geraldine Mackenzie, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Research), congratulated all the successful researchers.

“This is a great result for our researchers and further evidence of our outstanding research expertise in oceanography, fisheries and geochemistry. I also congratulate our researchers who have been successful in funding bids, led through collaborating institutions,” Professor Mackenzie said.

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