Assistant Professor of Biology Erik Cordes has been examining coral communities in the Gulf of Mexico for years. Now, his exploration of this vital sea life helps gauge the impact of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
Story by Preston M. Moretz, SCT ’82
Nearly a mile below the surface of the Gulf of Mexico, Erik Cordes, an assistant professor of biology in Temple’s College of Science and Technology, peered out the window of the deep-sea submersible Alvin at a coral community as it was illuminated by the lights of the vessel.
Alvin was hovering just above the seafloor, about six miles southwest of Deepwater Horizon, the oil drilling rig leased by BP that exploded in April 2010, sending more than 200 million gallons of light crude gushing into the Gulf over the next three months.
Cordes’ colleagues, working on the research ship above Alvin, had discovered this site on the last day of a November 2010 research cruise. Though he had seen the pictures and video of the coral community taken during that earlier discovery, Cordes’ heart sank when he personally witnessed the spectacle through Alvin’s window.
“I had been to so many of these deepwater coral sites, and they are normally so beautiful and contain all these different, vibrant colors,” he says. “But what I saw then was a rock with a bunch of sea fans that were coated in mucous and a brown material most likely related to the oil spill. The coral had all this muck hanging off its sea fans. It was very sad.”
Since 2004, Cordes has been a part of an effort to protect these vital deepwater coral communities from an ever-expanding frontier of thousands of oil platforms pushing deeper into the waters of the Gulf.
Though they are generally known for their beauty, coral communities play a significant role in marine life: They provide a habitat for diverse species of fish and other organisms; have the potential to produce natural antimicrobial and anti-cancer agents; and form an important link in the carbon cycle between the shallow, productive surface waters and the deep sea.
Funded by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s now-defunct Minerals Management Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Office of Ocean Exploration and Research, Cordes and his collaborators from Penn State, Louisiana State and Florida State universities, and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and TDI Brooks International have been attempting to predict, locate and map coral communities in anticipation of an occurrence similar to the Deepwater Horizon disaster.
“What we were really worried about was putting an oil rig right on top of one of these sites; that the anchor chains that hold these drilling platforms in place might impact and damage a coral site,” Cordes says. “In our worst nightmares, we didn’t think something like [that oil spill] would happen.”
Temple graduate students Jason Lunden (right) and Samuel Georgian mount a custom water-sampling device on the ROV during the 2010 expedition. Photo credit Eric Cordes.
This satellite image of the Deepwater Horizon disaster was taken nine days after the spill began. Photo courtesy ©ESA/Photo Researchers.
The marine biologist’s commitment to the Gulf of Mexico stems from his childhood. Though he was raised just outside Boston, he had strong family ties to the New Orleans area and would visit several times a year. He fondly recalls fishing in the Gulf with his grandfather, who lived on the Mississippi Bayou. These early experiences inspired him to pursue marine biology.
Cordes continues to be fascinated with how much of what lives and lies in the deep-sea Gulf is still unknown.
“We know so little about the deep sea. We have to go out and explore and discover what is there before we affect it,” he says. “I’m sure there are deepwater ecosystems in the Gulf that we haven’t even found; entirely different ways of living that haven’t been discovered yet. But with all these oil rigs moving deeper in the Gulf, we’re already affecting them—and possibly destroying them—without even knowing they are there.”
In Cordes’ lab at Temple, he identifies various species of corals and looks at their genetics to see how interconnected different coral communities are. This research could play an integral part in determining the possibility of the revival of communities changed by the oil spill.
“If you examine the current patterns and genetic information, and the relationships between various coral sites, you can determine how frequently they exchange offspring,” Cordes says. “So, if we lose an entire coral community, such as the one we just visited, we’ll be able to determine the probability that that site could recover eventually.”
As for the evaluation of what he saw, he says that while most of the corals looked heavily damaged, one or two might have a chance of survival. “Though the overall picture was pretty grim, we are continuing to monitor the site with the hope that some corals might make it.”
Prior to the Deepwater Horizon spill, Cordes had worked with his collaborators in near anonymity. But since the spill, his work has gotten national attention from news media, including The New York Times, Nature, Associated Press, Discovery Channel, National Geographic, National Public Radio and more. Even CNN and Dan Rather Reports have called seeking information.
“It’s nice to have the attention and to have people recognize that this is important research, but the reason for the attention is terrible,” Cordes says.
“Maybe, if there has been any good to come out of the spill, it’s that it has brought attention to how little we really know about the deep sea and the impact we’re already having on what’s down there.
“Maybe people will begin to realize it’s not just an empty place that we don’t know much about and don’t care about,” he continues. “We have an obligation to protect habitats like these. There’s an aesthetic quality to them, as well as an important tie within the larger ecosystem.”
Preston M. Moretz is a science and technology staff writer for University Communications at Temple.
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