Even the most precise and best-laid plans can be derailed by unexpected circumstances. When Hurricane Irma struck the Florida Keys, it didn’t just damage existing coral; it also wiped out many of the corals Smith had worked so hard to transplant.
When Smith and her team visited six of their research reefs in October 2017, they discovered that more than 50 percent of her transplanted corals had been either killed, crushed, dislodged or buried in sand by the storm. As feared, the fragile staghorn corals had suffered the most damage — almost 80 percent lost — while about 50 percent of the hardier stony corals appeared to have survived.
What Smith found regarding the corals did not surprise her. But something else did. The macroalgae that had previously smothered the reef were gone.
This was the silver lining Smith had been searching for. Now, in addition to being able to study the survival rates of her coral transplants, she would be able to research how wild corals thrive when macroalgae are removed from the equation, and also, how long it will take for the macroalgae to rebound.
“The hurricane added another dimension to my research. We’ve never been able to study a reef that was devoid of algae, so this became an unexpected opportunity,” Smith says. “We’re going to have to alter the original model a bit, but it will remain an important part of what we do.”
Smith, who is scheduled to receive her Ph.D. in December 2019, has concluded that despite the severe effects of thermal bleaching and hurricane disturbance, the reef communities of the Florida Keys are hanging in there because of the tenacity of a few species of corals that show high resilience.
“It’s a bit ironic, but since the hurricane, a lot of things are going in the coral’s favor,” Smith says. “With the macroalgae gone, at least for now, there will be less competition for food. And with the corals scrubbed bare, there is more clear space for new coral larvae to settle and start to establish. So all of this gives us a set of conditions to test the model’s predictability under circumstances that we didn’t intend when we started.”
The good news is that reefs are well-adapted to recover from natural disasters. The bad news is that climate change doesn’t come and go as fast as a hurricane, and the most fragile corals are still disappearing at alarming rates.
The starkness of this reality has caused some researchers to give up. But not Smith. When the silt from Hurricane Irma finally settles, she’ll be back at work, displaying the kind of resilience she hopes to find in her coral transplants.