‘Virtual’ coral reefs become diagnostic tool to help manage the planet’s reefs
A UBC Okanagan researcher has developed a way to predict the future health of the planet’s coral reefs.
Working with scientists from Australia’s Flinders’ University and privately-owned research firm Nova Blue Environment, biology doctoral student Bruno Carturan has been studying the ecosystems of the world’s endangered reefs.
“Coral reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on Earth and they support the livelihoods of more than 500 million people,” says Carturan. “But coral reefs are also in peril. About 75 per cent of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by habitat loss, climate change and other human-caused disturbances.”
Carturan, who studies resilience, biodiversity and complex systems under UBCO Professors Lael Parrott and Jason Pither, says nearly all the world’s reefs will be dangerously affected by 2050 if no effective measures are taken.
There is hope, however, as he has determined a way to examine the reefs and explore why some reef ecosystems appear to be more resilient than others. Uncovering why, he says, could help stem the losses.
“In other ecosystems, including forests and wetlands, experiments have shown that diversity is key to resilience,” says Carturan. “With more species, comes a greater variety of form and function—what ecologists call traits. And with this, there is a greater likelihood that some particular traits, or combination of traits, help the ecosystem better withstand and bounce back from disturbances.”
The importance of diversity for the health and stability of ecosystems has been extensively investigated by ecologists, he explains. While the consensus is that ecosystems with more diversity are more resilient and function better, the hypothesis has rarely been tested experimentally with corals.
Using an experiment to recreate the conditions found in real coral reefs is challenging for several reasons—one being that the required size, timeframe and number of different samples and replicates are just unmanageable.
That’s where computer simulation modelling comes in.
“Technically called an ‘agent-based model’, it can be thought of as a virtual experimental arena that enables us to manipulate species and different types of disturbances, and then examine their different influences on resilience in ways that are just not feasible in real reefs,” explains Carturan.
In his simulation arena, individual coral colonies and algae grow, compete with one another, reproduce and die. And they do all this in realistic ways. By using agent-based models—with data collected by many researchers over decades—scientists can manipulate the initial diversity of corals, including their number and identity, and see how the virtual reef communities respond to threats.
“This is crucial because these traits are the building blocks that give rise to ecosystem structure and function. For instance, corals come in a variety of forms—from simple spheres to complex branching—and this influences the variety of fish species these reefs host, and their susceptibility to disturbances such as cyclones and coral bleaching.”
By running simulations over and over again, the model can identify combinations that can provide the greatest resilience. This will help ecologists design reef management and restoration strategies using predictions from the model, says collaborating Flinders researcher Professor Corey Bradshaw.
“Sophisticated models like ours will be useful for coral-reef management around the world,” Bradshaw adds. “For example, Australia’s iconic Great Barrier Reef is in deep trouble from invasive species, climate change-driven mass bleaching and overfishing.”
“This high-resolution coral ‘video game’ allows us to peek into the future to make the best possible decisions and avoid catastrophes.”
The research, supported by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the Canada Foundation for Innovation, was published recently in eLife.
About UBC’s Okanagan campus
UBC’s Okanagan campus is an innovative hub for research and learning founded in 2005 in partnership with local Indigenous peoples, the Syilx Okanagan Nation, in whose territory the campus resides. As part of UBC—ranked among the world’s top 20 public universities—the Okanagan campus combines a globally recognized UBC education with a tight-knit and entrepreneurial community that welcomes students and faculty from around the world in British Columbia’s stunning Okanagan Valley.
To find out more, visit: ok.ubc.ca
An SUV-sized asteroid zoom by Earth in close shave flyby in this time-lapse video
Asteroid 2023 BU zipped past Earth Thursday night (Jan. 26) to the delight of amateur astronomers worldwide. For skywatchers without access to a telescope or those who had their view hampered by bad weather, luckily the Italy-based Virtual Telescope Project was there to observe the event and livestream the whole thing for free.
The Virtual Telescope is a robotic telescope operated by Italian amateur astronomer Gianluca Masi near Rome, Italy. As 2023 BU hurtled toward Earth, the telescope was able to track the rock through a gap in the clouds when it was about 13,670 miles (22,000 kilometers) from the closest point on Earth’s surface (about the altitude of the GPS navigation satellite constellation) and 22,990 miles (37,000 km) from the Virtual Telescope.
Masi, who shared an hour-long webcast of the observations on the Virtual Telescope website, wasn’t able to capture the closest approach as clouds rolled in, however. Nonetheless, the Virtual Telescope Project was able to get a good look at the car-sized rock, seen in time-lapse above.
The rock, discovered less than a week ago on Saturday (Jan. 21), passed above the southern tip of South America at 7:27 p.m. EST on Thursday Jan. 26 (0027 GMT on Jan. 27), at a distance of only 2,240 miles (3,600 km) at its closest point to Earth’s surface.
Only 11.5 to 28 feet wide (3.5 to 8.5 meters), 2023 BU posed no danger to the planet. If the trajectories of the two bodies had intersected, the asteroid would mostly have burned up in the atmosphere with only small fragments possibly falling to the ground as meteorites.
In the videos and images shared by Masi, the asteroid is seen as a small bright dot in the center of the frame, while the longer, brighter lines are the surrounding stars. In reality, of course, it was the asteroid that was moving with respect to Earth, traveling at a speed of 21,000 mph (33,800 km/h) with respect to Earth. As Masi’s computerized telescope tracked its positionthe rock appeared stationary in the images while rendering the stars as these moving streaks.
The gravitational kick that 2023 BU received during its encounter with Earth will alter the shape of its orbit around the sun. Previously, the space rock followed a rather circular orbit, completing one lap around the sun in 359 days. From now on, BU 2023 will travel through the inner solar system on a more elliptical path, venturing half way toward Mars at the farthest point of its orbit. This alteration will add 66 days to BU 2023’s orbital period.
The asteroid was discovered by famed Crimea-based astronomer and astrophotographer Gennadiy Borisov, the same man who in 2018 found the first interstellar comet, which now bears his name, Borisov.
Green comet zooming our way, last visited 50,000 years ago
A comet is streaking back our way after 50,000 years.
The dirty snowball last visited during Neanderthal times, according to NASA. It will come within 26 million miles (42 million kilometers) of Earth Wednesday before speeding away again, unlikely to return for millions of years.
So do look up, contrary to the title of the killer-comet movie “Don’t Look Up.”
Discovered less than a year ago, this harmless green comet already is visible in the northern night sky with binoculars and small telescopes, and possibly the naked eye in the darkest corners of the Northern Hemisphere. It’s expected to brighten as it draws closer and rises higher over the horizon through the end of January, best seen in the predawn hours. By Feb. 10, it will be near Mars, a good landmark.
Skygazers in the Southern Hemisphere will have to wait until next month for a glimpse.
While plenty of comets have graced the sky over the past year, “this one seems probably a little bit bigger and therefore a little bit brighter and it’s coming a little bit closer to the Earth’s orbit,” said NASA’s comet and asteroid-tracking guru, Paul Chodas.
Green from all the carbon in the gas cloud, or coma, surrounding the nucleus, this long-period comet was discovered last March by astronomers using the Zwicky Transient Facility, a wide field camera at Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. That explains its official, cumbersome name: comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF).
On Wednesday, it will hurtle between the orbits of Earth and Mars at a relative speed of 128,500 mph (207,000 kilometers). Its nucleus is thought to be about a mile (1.6 kilometers) across, with its tails extending millions of miles (kilometers).
The comet isn’t expected to be nearly as bright as Neowise in 2020, or Hale-Bopp and Hyakutake in the mid to late 1990s.
But “it will be bright by virtue of its close Earth passage … which allows scientists to do more experiments and the public to be able to see a beautiful comet,” University of Hawaii astronomer Karen Meech said in an email.
Scientists are confident in their orbital calculations putting the comet’s last swing through the solar system‘s planetary neighborhood at 50,000 years ago. But they don’t know how close it came to Earth or whether it was even visible to the Neanderthals, said Chodas, director of the Center for Near Earth Object Studies at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California.
When it returns, though, is tougher to judge.
Every time the comet skirts the sun and planets, their gravitational tugs alter the iceball’s path ever so slightly, leading to major course changes over time. Another wild card: jets of dust and gas streaming off the comet as it heats up near the sun.
“We don’t really know exactly how much they are pushing this comet around,” Chodas said.
The comet—a time capsule from the emerging solar system 4.5 billion years ago—came from what’s known as the Oort Cloud well beyond Pluto. This deep-freeze haven for comets is believed to stretch more than one-quarter of the way to the next star.
While comet ZTF originated in our solar system, we can’t be sure it will stay there, Chodas said. If it gets booted out of the solar system, it will never return, he added.
Don’t fret if you miss it.
“In the comet business, you just wait for the next one because there are dozens of these,” Chodas said. “And the next one might be bigger, might be brighter, might be closer.”
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University of Guelph students are in the race to grow food in space
Growing food in space is a complex challenge, but students at the University of Guelph have a pretty good idea of how to go about it.
The team, Canada GOOSE — which stands for Growth Options for Outer Space Environments — is among five teams across Canada, including the University of Waterloo, competing in the multi-year competition from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) known as the Deep Space Food Challenge.
The team is currently on the second phase of the competition and hosted representatives from CSA on Thursday to showcase their idea.
The teams have been instructed to develop new technologies that would be able to produce food in space, but that could also be used for production here on Earth.
The Canada GOOSE team uses a hydroponic-like, high-density system to produce several kinds of fruits, vegetables and mushrooms.
“We have a multi-tier system growing a variety of plants, but the whole environment is being controlled so, air circulation, temperature, CO2 level, also light levels with the LEDs. So basically giving the best conditions for the plants to grow,” explained Serge Levesque, a second-year PhD student.
Rosemary Brockett, a second year masters student, explained the crops were developed and grown to produce as little waste as possible.
“We can’t have any kind of waste in space or in remote areas so we’re growing them all using fabric wicks,” she said.
“The fabric pulls up the water to the plants and then we have 3D-printed holders that support the plants and the fabric.”
Brockett said they can grow root vegetables like turnips and carrots; dwarf tomatoes and peppers; leafy greens like cabbage, lettuce and bok choy; smaller trays have herbs, radish microgreens and sprouts.
Levesque said they also grow mushrooms because they play a key role in the unit’s ecosystem.
“Plants photosynthesize and release oxygen and mushrooms need oxygen to release CO2, so it allows us to use CO2 more efficiently,” he said, adding the inedible parts of other vegetables can be used to help grow the mushrooms; a way to re-use and eliminate waste.
Tech can help feed, educate Earthlings
The Canadian grand prize won’t be announced until Spring 2024, but no matter the results, the students see applications for their technology closer to home.
First-year PhD student Ajwal Dsouza says it could be a useful education tool for youth, for example.
“Imagine putting this system up in a school or a university and educate people about the technological advancements happening but also [encourage] younger generations to study this,” and can also imagine applications in addressing food insecurity in other more remote parts of the world, like Canada’s northern communities.
“A system like this can be economically feasible. You can use it in remote areas where there is food insecurity using limited resources,” he said.
“We can grow food in places where the weather is not good, like Canada’s north or in a desert, where there’s limited resources. This can help people grow food in tough conditions,” said Dsouza.
The Canada GOOSE team will find out if they enter the third stage of the competition in March.
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