Sitting just outside marine treasure trove

A cushion seastar (top) and an icon seastar found on the coast of Pulau Hantu. South-east Asia is one of the world's marine biodiversity hot spots.
A cushion seastar (top) and an icon seastar found on the coast of Pulau Hantu. South-east Asia is one of the world's marine biodiversity hot spots.PHOTOS: HENG PEI YAN AND DEBBY NG/THE HANTU BLOG
A cushion seastar (top) and an icon seastar found on the coast of Pulau Hantu. South-east Asia is one of the world's marine biodiversity hot spots.
A cushion seastar (top) and an icon seastar found on the coast of Pulau Hantu. South-east Asia is one of the world's marine biodiversity hot spots.PHOTOS: HENG PEI YAN AND DEBBY NG/THE HANTU BLOG

Two years ago, the Smithsonian Institution launched MarineGEO - the world's first and only global monitoring network of marine sites, which complements its land-based ForestGEO programme.

There are only four active sites under the programme, all of which are located in the Americas.

But a new partnership with Nanyang Technological University could establish more sites in South-east Asia, said Dr Emmett Duffy, director of the Smithsonian's Tennenbaum Marine Observatories Network, which MarineGEO falls under.

"South-east Asia is one of the marine biodiversity hot spots of the world... I think that any sort of global marine biodiversity survey has to have an important partnership with (the region)," he said.

The coral triangle, which Singapore sits just outside of, is considered the world's richest treasure trove of marine life.

Details of the marine sites that will be included under MarineGEO have yet to be worked out, but a number of ongoing projects at NTU's Earth Observatory could dovetail nicely with MarineGEO's work.

Associate Professor Nathalie Goodkin from the observatory, for example, looks at how corals, which can live between 400 and 600 years, serve as indicators of climate change.

Corals record climate similarly to how trees do it, with semi-annual growth rings recorded in their calcium carbonate skeleton. As corals grow, the ring patterns record a year's growth, and these rings contain varying chemicals that indicate the climatic conditions at the time.

"Corals form density rings that vary between summer and winter, allowing us to count back in time from the surface of a living coral," she explained.

"The bands allow us to look closely at specific periods of time to understand what the environment was like at that time."

Prof Goodkin hopes that as the number of locations being studied in the region increases, scientists will be able to use the data to improve regional climate forecasts and models.

She added: "Much of our research requires a biological interpretation and it is my hope that the partnership with the Smithsonian will increase the number of ecologists working in Singapore and the region.

"The more we can learn about the ecology of reef systems, the more we can interpret from the coral skeletons."

Audrey Tan