Coral Metabolism and Climate Change

A team of Rosenstiel School researchers and alumni published a new study on the intra-and inter-specific variation of metabolic factors of corals in Florida. Their study is important to better understand if some coral will be more resilient than others to climate change.

“Knowing which coral species will be ‘winners’ on reefs of the future will help people be aware of what reefs might look like in the coming decades,” said UM Rosenstiel School alumna Erica Towle.

Mustard hill coral. Credit: Johnmartindavies/wikicommons

Mustard hill coral. Credit: Johnmartindavies/wikicommons

For the experiment, Towle and her team from the UM Corals and Climate Change Lab collected three common species of corals from the Florida Reef Tract, which extends from the Florida Keys to Stuart in Martin County, during two seasonal points (winter and summer).

The species mustard hill coral (Porites astreoides) great star coral (Montastraea cavernosa) and mountainous star coral (Orbicella faveolata) were analyzed for growth rate, lipid content, algal symbiont density, and chlorophyll content. The surface area of the corals were also measured using a 3-D scanner supplied by UM Alumnus Derek Manzello at the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratories.

Great star coral. Credit NOAA

Great star coral. Credit NOAA

The team’s field data agreed with population-level trends that great star coral and mustard hill coral are doing well in the Florida Keys, and may be “winners” on reefs of the future. They point out that future work needed to understand factors driving resilience of “winner” species.

“It’s important for us to start to understand which corals will be dominant on reefs of the future so we can get a better sense of which species to focus stronger conservation efforts on,” said Towle.

regionalstudiesMSThe study, “In-situ measurement of metabolic status in three coral species from the Florida Reef Tract,” was published online in the journal Regional Studies in Marine Science. The work was supported by the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program. The study’s authors include: Erica K. Towle; UM Rosenstiel School Professor Chris Landgon; and Renée Carlton and Derek P. Manzello of the NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratories.

Professor Discusses Future of Extreme Weather Research


Professor Sharan Majumdar

Professor Sharan Majumdar

Professor of Atmospheric Sciences Sharan Majumdar recently penned an article on the future of research aimed at improving predictions of and responses to high-impact weather events. Published in the March issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the flagship journal of the American Meteorology Society, Majumdar and colleagues discuss the post-THORPEX (The Observing System Research and Predictability Experiment) scientific research planning efforts.

Radar image of Tropical Cyclone Isaac

Radar image of Tropical Cyclone Isaac

THORPEX, a 10-year research and development program organized under the World Meteorological Organization (WMO)/World Weather Research Programme (WWRP), was designed to accelerate improvements in the accuracy and use of 1-day to 2-week numerical weather predictions and concluded in 2014.

“We are planning out the next decade(s) of national and international research with big ideas and broad goals,” said Sharan Majumdar, who was put in charge of steering the initiative. “One important element is to define our national goals, such as improving responses to flash floods, or multi-hazard problems in big cities like New York.”

According to the authors, the “proposed new U.S. high-impact weather research initiative promises significant benefits for the nation in terms of research advances that will directly benefit the entire weather enterprise in reducing loss of life and property.” Read more


Marine Chemistry Pioneer Frank Millero Retires

Dr. Frank MilleroAfter 49 years world-renowned Marine Chemist Frank Millero is retiring as a full professor of ocean sciences from the UM Rosenstiel School. Millero will join the ranks as a professor emeritus while still maintaining his active ocean science research laboratory on campus.

During his academic tenure Millero was instrumental in helping shape current scientific knowledge on the chemistry of seawater, a fundamental component to understand the ocean’s role in global climate change. He has published over 500 works, including one of the premier textbooks on ocean chemistry, and developed the fundamental equation of state of seawater still in use today.

Millero and his research team have traveled the world ocean’s collecting data on carbon dioxide levels at different ocean depths as part of a large, collaborate National Science Foundation-funded project. The 20-year study is helping to understand the environmental effects of the 40 percent of human-generated CO2 that enter the world’s ocean. The next cruise is scheduled for August 2015.

Beyond his scientific accolades, Millero’s devotion to teaching the next generation of scientists and generous philanthropic contributions to the UM Rosenstiel School, athletics, and arts have helped advance the University in many ways.

Millero grew up in Ohio and earned his undergraduate degree at The Ohio State University and a doctorate in chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where he tended bar for spending money and met his wife, Judith. They have three children: Marta Millero-Quincoses, B.B.A. ’95, a South Florida accountant; Frank III, who teaches at Pratt Institute in New York; and Anthony, who works in merchandising in New York.

We are happy that Frank’s good works and good humor will still be on campus for several more years!

Faculty, Staff and Student Award Winners!

Scientists Receives 2015 Provost’s Research Awards

UMiami_alt2Three UM Rosenstiel School faculty members are recipients of the 2015 Provost’s Research Awards. Evan D’Alessandro, Danielle McDonald, and Larry Peterson were honored at a March 27 award ceremony on the UM Coral Gables campus. The award is designed to foster excellence in research and creative scholarship at the University of Miami. The Provost’s Research Awards provide both salary support and support for direct research costs. The awards are classified into three categories based on discipline: the Max Orovitz Research Awards in the Arts and Humanities, the James W. McLamore Research Awards in Business and the Social Sciences, and the Research Awards in the Natural Sciences and Engineering.

The award-winning research projects:

  • Evan D’Alessandro – Research Assistant Professor of Marine Biology & Ecology, “Re-constructing movement patterns and habitat usage of invasive lionfish using micro-chemistry and stable isotope signatures in their otoliths.”
  • Danielle McDonald – Associate Professor of Marine Biology & Ecology, “Chemical communication in toadfish for the purpose of predator avoidance.”
  • Larry Peterson – Professor of Marine Geosciences, “A High Resolution Investigation of Variability in the East Asian Monsoon from Sea of Japan Sediments.”

Amel Saied Honored With Staff Appreciation Award

Amel SaiedUM Rosenstiel School’s Amel Saied is a recipient of the 2015 Linda Sher-Collado Memorial Staff Appreciation Award. This award is bestowed upon a select group of outstanding administrative and support staff members by the UM Graduate Student Association executive board in honor of Linda Sher-Collado, a longtime reservationist at the University Center/Student Activities Center who was beloved by students and the community.

Saied, a research associate in the UM Rosenstiel School’s department of marine geosciences, was nominated by graduate students for her commitment to the school.

Accolades from her graduate student nominators:

“one of the cornerstones, a pillar of the RSMAS community”

“She has shown leadership by leading the RSMAS section of the Corporate Runs and her compassion for others by hosting monthly breakfasts for all… participating in group events ranging from soccer to beach cleanups”

“I don’t know how many times she has either stayed late or came in over the weekend to help students in the lab. She’s even given me snacks when it’s getting late and I’m still working because she knows that it will be a while before I can eat dinner. She really looks out for all the students she works with and helps them succeed with their research endeavors.”

This award showcases UM staff that continue Linda’s spirit of student support and building a better U.

Xaymara Serrano Awarded 2015 Ford Foundation Fellowship

Xaymara_SerranoUM Rosenstiel School Postdoctoral Associate Xaymara Serrano was recently awarded one of 18 Ford Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowships given in 2015 nationwide.

These postdoctoral fellowships are awarded in a national competition administered by the National Research Council (NRC) to individuals who, in the judgment of the review panels, have demonstrated superior academic achievement, are committed to a career in teaching and research, show promise of future achievement as scholars and teachers, and are well prepared to use diversity as a resource for enriching the education of all students.

Xaymara plans to use these funds to support another year of her postdoctoral research at NOAA’s Atlantic and Oceanographic Meteorological Laboratory to investigate coral reef responses to climate change and land-based sources of pollution.

Students Collaborate on One-of-a-kind Coral Bleaching Study

Thanks to an award from the Rosenstiel School’s Graduate Career Development Fund, a collaborative, graduate student-led research team has a one-of-a-kind opportunity to study how corals recover from mass bleaching events.

Five students – Jay Fisch, Erica Towle, Crawford Drury, Phil Kushlan and Rivah Winter – from three different labs across the Rosenstiel School campus have come together to design and execute a field study of an important reef-building coral, Orbicella faveolata, commonly known as Mountainous Star Coral, that suffered during the widespread coral bleaching event at Horseshoe Reef in the Florida Keys during the summer of 2014.

RSMAS graduate students: Phil Kushlan, Erica Towle, Crawford Drury, Jay Fisch, and Rivah Winter

RSMAS graduate students (from left to right): Phil Kushlan, Erica Towle, Crawford Drury, Jay Fisch, and Rivah Winter

Historic information previously collected at the site, combined with collections over the next year will allow the student team to study changes in coral symbiosis and metabolism and to measure individual colony response and recovery following a bleaching event. The research project will provide scientists with valuable new information on the relationship between recovery patterns and subsequent reproductive output.

“Recovery of reefs depends on both the recovery of the surviving individuals as well as the input of new individuals through reproduction,” said the students.

The students received a total of $3000 from the Graduate Career Development Fund. The students are Ph.D. candidates in Lirman’s Benthic Ecology Lab, Baker’s Coral Reef and Climate Change Lab and Langdon’s Coral and Climate Change Lab.

Water, Water, Everywhere: Sea Level Rise in Miami

Like many low-lying coastal cities around the world, Miami is threatened by rising seas.  Whether the majority of the cause is anthropogenic or natural, the end result is indisputable: sea level is rising and it is due to climate change.  It is not a political issue, nor does it matter if someone believes in it or not.

Tidal flooding on the corner of Dade Blvd and Purdy Ave in Miami Beach in 2010. (Steve Rothaus, Miami Herald)

The mean sea level has risen noticeably in the Miami and Miami Beach areas just in the past decade.  Flooding events are getting more frequent, and some areas flood during particularly high tides now: no rain or storm surge necessary.  Perhaps most alarming is that the rate of sea level rise is accelerating.

Diving Into Data

Certified measurements of sea level have been taken at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School on Virginia Key since 1996 (Virginia Key is a small island just south of Miami Beach and east of downtown Miami)[1].  Simple linear trends drawn through annual averages of all high tides, low tides, and the mean sea level are shown below, and all three lines are about 3.7″ higher in 2014 than they were in 1996.

Annual average water levels and linear trends at Virginia Key, FL (1996-2014)

[This graph was updated in Feb 2015 to include verified data through the end of 2014.]

Zooming in to daily data, let’s look at two representative months (nothing unique about them): May 1996 and May 2014.  Tidal predictions are calculated to high accuracy using dozens of known astronomical factors, but do not account for non-astronomical factors such as weather or sea level rise.  In 1996, the observed water levels were typically close to the predicted values… sometimes slightly higher, sometimes slightly lower due to meteorological influences.  In May 2014, however, there was still variability, but the tides were always higher than predicted.

Predicted (blue) and observed (green) high/low water heights at Virginia Key, May1-May 31. (NOAA/NOS)

Predicted (blue) and observed (green) high/low water heights at Virginia Key, May1-May 31. (NOAA/NOS)

As eluded to in the introduction, sea level is not just rising here, the rate of the rise is accelerating.  For the following chart, only the daily high water mark (highest of the two high tides) for every day for 19 years is plotted.  The water levels at high tides are the most relevant because that is when flooding events are more prone to occur.  The data are color-coded by arbitrary 5-year periods (pink is 2010-2014, green is 2005-2009, blue is 2000-2004, and purple is the remainder: 1996-1999).  For reference, the average seasonal cycle is shown by the thin black line and is calculated using a 31-day running mean of all 19 years of daily data.  There is plenty of daily and intra-annual variability of course, but what stands out is the increasing slopes of the linear trends.  Over the past 15 years, the average high tide has increased by 0.30″/year, but over just the past 5 years, the high tide has increased at an average rate of 1.27″/year.

[This chart was updated in Feb 2015 to include verified data through the end of 2014.]

If the seasonal cycle (black line in the figure above) is subtracted from the data, as well as the mean of all of the data, a revised series of trendlines can be generated (see figure below).  Removing the dominant annual and semi-annual cycles from the time series leaves only daily variability, miscellaneous cycles, and trends.  The results are qualitatively similar (upward and accelerating trends), but the rates are slightly reduced. For example, over the past 15 years, the average annual increase is roughly 0.27″/year, but over just the past 5 years, it’s about 0.97″/year.  Be advised that simple linear trends of complex data are not necessarily reliable for extrapolating very far into the future.

[This chat was added in February 2015 and utilizes data through the end of 2014.]

[This chart was added in Feb 2015 and includes verified data through the end of 2014.]


The Miami metropolitan region has the greatest amount of exposed financial assets and 4th-largest population vulnerable to sea level rise in the world.  The only other cities with a higher combined (financial assets and population) risk are Hong Kong and Calcutta [2].

Using a sea level rise projection of 3 feet by 2100 from the 5th IPCC Report [3] and elevation/inundation data, a map showing the resulting inundation is shown below.  The areas shaded in blue would be flooded during routine high tides, and very easily flooded by rain during lower tides.  Perhaps the forecast is too aggressive, but maybe not… we simply do not know with high confidence what sea level will do in the coming century.  But we do know that it is rising and showing no sign of slowing down.

Map showing areas of inundation by three feet of sea level rise, which is projected to occur by 2100. (NOAA)

Map showing areas of inundation by three feet of sea level rise, which is projected to occur by 2100. (NOAA)

An Attack from Below

In addition to surface flooding, there is trouble brewing below the surface too.  That trouble is called saltwater intrusion, and it is already taking place along coastal communities in south Florida. Saltwater intrusion occurs when saltwater from the ocean or bay advances further into the porous limestone aquifer.  That aquifer also happens to supply about 90% of south Florida’s drinking water.  Municipal wells pump fresh water up from the aquifer for residential and agricultural use, but some cities have already had to shut down some wells because the water being pumped up was brackish (for example, Hallandale Beach has already closed 6 of its 8 wells due to saltwater contamination).

Schematic drawing of saltwater intrusion.  Sea level rise, water use, and rainfall all control the severity of the intrusion. (

Schematic drawing of saltwater intrusion. Sea level rise, water use, and rainfall all control the severity of the intrusion. (

The wedge of salt water advances and retreats naturally during the dry and rainy seasons, but the combination of fresh water extraction and sea level rise is drawing that wedge closer to land laterally and vertically.

In other words, the water table rises as sea level rises, so with higher sea level, the saltwater exerts more pressure on the fresh water in the aquifer, shoving the fresh water further away from the coast and upward toward the surface.

Map of the Miami area, where colors indicate the depth to the water table.  A lot of area is covered by 0-4 feet, including all of Miami Beach. (Dr. Keren Bolter)

Map of the Miami area, where colors indicate the depth to the water table. A lot of area is covered by 0-4 feet, including all of Miami Beach. (Keren Bolter, FAU)

An Ever-Changing Climate

To gain perspective on the distant future, we should examine the distant past.  Sea level has been rising for about 20,000 years, since the last glacial maximum.  There were periods of gradual rise, and periods of rapid rise (likely due to catastrophic collapse of ice sheets and massive interior lakes emptying into the ocean). During a brief period about 14,000 years ago, “Meltwater Pulse 1A”, sea level rose over 20 times faster than the present rate. Globally, sea level has already risen about 400 feet, and is still rising.

Observed global sea level over the past 20,000 years... since the last glacial maximum. (Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth).

Observed global sea level over the past 20,000 years… since the last glacial maximum. (Robert Rohde, Berkeley Earth).

With that sea level rise came drastically-changing coastlines.  Coastlines advance and retreat by dozens and even hundreds of miles as ice ages come and go (think of it like really slow, extreme tides).  If history is a guide, we could still have up to 100 feet of sea level rise to go… eventually.  During interglacial eras, the ocean has covered areas that are quite far from the coastline today.

Florida's coastline through the ages.  (Florida Geological Survey)

Florida’s coastline through the ages. (Florida Geological Survey)

As environmental author Rachel Carson stated, “to understand the living present, and promise of the future, it is necessary to remember the past”.

What Comes Next?

In the next 20 years, what should we reasonably expect in southeast Florida?  The median value of sea level from various observed trends in 2034 is around 6″, with a realistic range of 3-12″.

Year by year, flooding due to heavy rain, storm surge, and high tides will become more frequent and more severe.  Water tables will continue to rise, and saltwater intrusion will continue to contaminate fresh water supplies.

This is not an issue that will simply go away.  Even without any anthropogenic contributions, sea level will continue to rise, perhaps for thousands of years.  But anthropogenic contributions are speeding up the process, giving us less time to react and plan.

The entire region is already considered high-risk by insurance companies because of the hurricane threat, so at some point, this additional gradual threat will likely lead to extreme-risk properties being uninsurable.

Coastal cities were built relatively recently, without any knowledge of or regard for rising seas and evolving coastlines.  As sea level rises, coastlines will retreat inward. Sea level rise is a very serious issue for civilization, but getting everyone to take it seriously is a challenge.  As Dutch urban planner Steven Slabbers said, “Sea level rise is a … storm surge in slow motion that never creates a sense of crisis”.  It will take some creative, expensive, and aggressive planning to be able to adapt in the coming decades and centuries.


Special thanks to Keren Bolter at Florida Atlantic University and Dr. Shimon Wdowinski at University of Miami for their inspiration and assistance.