High school and undergraduate educators can access a new, free lesson to help their students investigate the impacts of varying climate and other ocean conditions on coral reefs.

The guided, inquiry-based lesson “How Do Upwelling and El Niño Impact Coral Reef Growth?” uses real-world data and was authored by working scientists: Mote Marine Laboratory Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Philip Gravinese, Research Oceanographer Dr. Lauren Toth from the U.S. Geological Survey, Postdoctoral Research Fellow Dr. Carly Randall at the Australian Institute of Marine Science, and Professor and Head of Ocean Engineering and Marine Sciences Dr. Richard Aronson at the Florida Institute of Technology.

Students will hypothesize how changes in environmental conditions could affect coral reef growth. During the lesson, students measure coral growth and reef health from field photographs  to compare reefs in two gulfs that experience different environmental conditions in Pacific Panamá. Students discuss the possible reasons why the two reefs differ and calculate a carbonate budget to estimate the rate of reef growth in each gulf. This data will allow students to estimate how variables such as coral growth rates, percent coral cover, and bioerosion (loss of reef structure due to other living organisms) contribute to the long-term potential for coral reefs’ calcium carbonate skeletons to accrete or deteriorate.

Coral reefs have declined in many parts of the world due to numerous threats, including warming ocean temperatures that are part of global climate change. Warming ocean temperatures can stress corals, causing them to bleach and even perish if conditions don’t improve. To help predict future climate change impacts, scientists can study reefs exposed to natural temperature fluctuations, such as warming caused by the natural phenomenon El Niño (short for El Niño–Southern Oscillation) that affects ocean and atmospheric conditions. The new lesson includes one reef site that may experience stronger warming effects from El Niño and another reef site that may have some protection because it typically receives colder water through a process called upwelling.

Understanding coral-reef growth and deterioration is essential for marine scientists around the world, including scientists at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, and at Mote’s Elizabeth Moore International Center for Coral Reef Research and Restoration in the Florida Keys. Mote’s mission includes translating and transferring scientific knowledge to benefit the public and nurture the next generation of marine researchers.