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Saturday, July 15, 2017

Sailing the ocean blue

URI students sail to remote Pacific islands to study effect of climate change on coral reefs

SSV Robert C. Seamans. Photo courtesy of Sea Education Association.
Two University of Rhode Island students are sailing to remote islands in the Pacific Ocean to study any damage to coral reefs from climate change.

Hailey Simpson, who is getting her master’s degree in ocean engineering, and Kyle Alvanas, who will graduate next year with a degree in marine affairs, are among 24 students from American colleges conducting research in this largely under-studied region.

Simpson and Alvanas are making the voyage with Sea Education Association, or SEA Semester, an internationally recognized program that combines classroom learning on shore at Woods Hole, Mass., with study aboard a research vessel.

The Phoenix Islands Protected Area, or PIPA, is one of the last remaining coral wildernesses on Earth. Little is known about the region. About the size of California, it is the largest—and deepest—United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organizations site, with eight fauna-rich coral atolls.

Simpson, Alvanas and the other students started the program June 12 at Woods Hole, where they completed preparatory coursework and developed their own research projects in ocean science or conservation policy.

This week, the students began a five-week sailing voyage as crewmembers and scientists aboard the SSV Robert C. Seamans, owned and operated by the Sea Education Association. The 134-foot brigantine is one of the most sophisticated oceanographic research sailing school vessels built in the United States.

The group started in Pago Pago, American Samoa, and will sail 800 nautical miles across open ocean in a round-trip voyage to the Phoenix Islands, where they will spend three weeks conducting their research. The expedition will end Aug. 11 in American Samoa.

The students will collect samples from the marine environment to study the impact of El Nino and assess the effects of climate change, including coral bleaching. Data collected by students during the voyage will be reported to the Government of Kirbati, which oversees the islands.

The islands, mostly uninhabited, are in the central Pacific Ocean, east of the Gilbert Islands and west of the Line Islands. The protected area is home to about 120 species of coral and more than 500 species of fish.

“PIPA is one of the very few regions on Earth where scientists can study an intact ecosystem and its response to climate change,” says Paul Joyce, dean of the semester program. 

“We’re extremely grateful to have the opportunity once again to work with the government of Kirbati and with our scientific partners to study this extremely isolated and important island nation, which can serve as a climate change benchmark on a global scale.”

To track the students’ expedition through daily posts, visit their blog.

A Boston University accredited study abroad program, SEA Semester is a leading off-campus environmental studies program focused on the ocean. 

While the academic focus varies, each program offers courses designed to explore a specific ocean-related theme using a cross-disciplinary approach.

SEA is based on Cape Cod in the oceanographic research community of Woods Hole, Massachusetts.