Oceanographers Monitor East Flower Garden Bank in Gulf of Mexico

Aug 10, 2017

TAMU oceanographers undertake two-month ocean acidification monitoring deployment at a coral reef in the Gulf of Mexico.

COLLEGE STATION, July 11, 2017.  Lying silently off the Texas cost, under about 70 feet of clear blue Gulf water rests a beautiful coral reef. The rigs that pepper the surrounding horizon are abandoned, but the East Flower Garden Bank of the remains a popular destination for recreational divers and has long piqued the interest of scientists.

The federal government instituted the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary in 1992, but researchers from around the country, especially Texas A&M University, have been interested far longer. According to Professor Niall Slowey of TAMU’s Oceanography Department, at least 32 Banks, Valleys, and other features in the Gulf of Mexico have been named after the TAMU professors and students who studied them. “It was a team of TAMU oceanographers that did all the pioneering work and studies that led the Flower Gardens to be added to the National Sanctuary system,” Slowey pointed out.

The current scientific studies conducted by at the Flower Garden Banks included a two-month monitoring period this summer. A team led by Slowey designed, fabricated, and deployed a system of six sensors to measure important water parameters directly at the coral reef.

Every two hours, the sensors recorded the state of a variety of conditions: salinity, temperature, pressure, dissolved oxygen, pH, sunlight intensity, dissolved organic matter, turbidity, and chlorophyll-a. From these parameters, the scientists will study physical processes – water mass mixing, carbonate saturation, remineralization seasonal temperature trends, etc. – and biological processes like photosynthesis, respiration, and calcification.

Sanctuary staff from the local NOAA office assisted with getting the scientific instruments installed at and removed from the study site. “Though unfortunate that I was not sufficiently certified to scuba down and see our sensors at the reef itself, I’m deeply grateful to the professionally trained divers from NOAA,” said graduate student Vance Nygard, who works on the project and accompanied the sensors during deployment and retrieval cruises. “Their extensive expertise and impeccable character made each cruise easy and enjoyable.”

“One of the major topics in the oceanographic community right now is ocean acidification. By analyzing this whole suite of variables over different timeframes, we hope to gain a first-hand look at how conditions are typically and how they’re changing” at this valuable coral reef, Nygard said. The Flower Garden Banks have “long been among the healthiest and broadly representative coral reefs we have. Unfortunately, there have been some big morality events over the past few years. Hopefully, this project will bolster our understanding of conditions at the reef and assist protection efforts.”

The research group hopes to deploy their instruments again, supplementing them with a buoy equipped with additional sensors. By monitoring the surface conditions simultaneously, they plan on studying the extent that vertical mixing and atmospheric conditions affect the reef.

“Once the whole system is deployed, I hope a hurricane comes through,” mused Nygard, his eyes twinkling. “We’ll have a solid baseline of data [with which] to compare those changes. It certainly would make for a more interesting Master’s thesis.”