Combat climate change using Minecraft-style computational models

Background: Cold-water corals (CWC) are key habitat-forming organisms found throughout the world's oceans from 30 to 3000 m deep which are threatened by climate change induced ocean acidification. The complex three-dimensional frameworks made by these vulnerable marine ecosystems support high biodiversity and commercially important species compared to neighbouring, less complex habitats. If this habitat complexity was reduced, the ability of these habitats to support high levels of biodiversity would decrease. This would have huge implications not only for the species that rely on these reefs. Recent own experiments suggest that this reduction is due to a reduced structural integrity of the coral skeleton. This could allow engineering currently not existing monitoring and assessment strategies similar to strength or lifetime analyses but for the structural integrity of ecologically important CWC reefs in situ, or to determine how this may change under projected future ocean acidification scenarios.

Cold-water corals (CWCs) are some of the most abundant corals in the world, creating massive habitats from their skeletons and supporting huge amounts of biodiversity. However, the reefs they form are under direct threat from ocean acidification. Ocean acidification affects critical parts of the coral reef framework, leading to physical habitat collapse on an ecosystem scale and reducing the potential for biodiversity support. The mechanism underpinning crumbling and collapse can be described via mathematical and com-putational models but crucially needs in situ information about aragonite concentration, temperature, and oxygen levels are main drivers of potential habitat collapse. Combining computational models and in situ monitoring would allow us for the first time to identify which reef systems are at risk, when they will be at risk, and how much of an impact this will have upon associated biodiversity. Yet, suitable reef-specific models are currently not existing.

Project: Therefore, the project aims at developing computational models of CWC reef structures to investigate the risk of habitat collapse due to a changing ocean. Key tasks of the project are

  1. developing a Minecraft-styled computational model of a Scottish reef system ,
  2. implement reef specific structures based on existing bathymetric data and a 3D-dataset of >200 CWC structures,
  3. implement projected future changes in oceanic conditions (CO2 concentration, O2 concentration, temperature),
  4. investigate model response to these projected changes with a view to verify and validate the implemented model.

Impact: Given the importance of cold-water habitats, the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity has recently (2016) stated in its work plan for member countries that there is “a need to develop predictive model research to determine how projected climate change will impact cold-water biodiversity over different timescales”. If successful, this project will help to close this gap.

Other Comments: 

Project is in collaboration with University of Edinburgh with Dr. Hennige (s.hennige@ed.ac.uk) acting as external supervisor.
Multiple projects are possible.

Supervisor name: 
Uwe Wolfram
Supervisor and Deputy email addresses: 
u.wolfram@hw.ac.uk, M.Pena_Fernandez@hw.ac.uk
Project location: 
HWU/UoE, Project is computational so that remote supervision is possible
Deputy name: 
Marta Peña Fernández