21 September 2016
The research schooner Tara departed from Lorient on May 28 and has already sailed more than 22,000 of the 100,000 kilometers planned as part of the Tara Pacific expedition. Tara will arrive in French Polynesia late September. For one and a half months the schooner will explore the biodiversity of coral reefs in the Tuamotu atolls and the Gambier Islands.
Leaving behind the Panama Canal, Colombia and Easter Island, Tara will reach the first islands of French Polynesia at Mangareva (Gambier Islands). On board, an international team of coral biologists, oceanographers and plankton experts are collecting samples of coral, reef fish, algae and water. One of their main objectives is to establish the first global analysis of coral reefs and reveal a largely unknown biodiversity.
Coral reef biodiversity facing climate change
French Polynesia is composed of 118 Islands covering nearly 5.5 million square kilometers in the Pacific Ocean. The exceptional biodiversity of coral in this area determined the schooner’s route. Scientific teams from the CNRS – particularly those working at the CRIOBE (CNRS/EPHE/UPVD/PSL) – the Genoscope, the Scientific Center of Monaco and other laboratories will focus essentially on the Tuamotu atolls and Gambier Islands. Their goal: compare the biodiversity of atolls, depending on whether their lagoon is open or closed to the ocean, and gain a better understanding of coral biology.
This major step in the study of coral will enable scientists to monitor the health of reefs and compare their biodiversity according to their level of exposure to human activities. Some islands are subject to direct disturbances, but the majority are located far away from any source of anthropogenic contamination (pollution, urbanization, sedimentation due to erosion, etc.). Researchers seek to collect the data necessary for comparing effects of local disturbances (pollution, sedimentation, etc.) with disturbances related to global changes (global warming, ocean acidification, etc.).
El Niño 2015, a marginal impact in Polynesia
In the context of climate change and ocean warming, the oscillation of temperatures associated with El Niño are all the more traumatic for reefs, leading to high mortality of corals (bleaching). “In Polynesia, a bleaching episode occurred this year, but reefs weren’t subjected to rising temperatures for too long, unlike the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Overall, the El Niño 2015 phenomenon has been relatively marginal in Polynesia and impacts are mainly located at the northern latitudes of Polynesia, in the Marquesas Islands” explains Serge Planes, CNRS research director at the CRIOBE (EPHE/CNRS/UPVD) and scientific director of the expedition.
Raise awareness among populations
Ultimately, our research aims at reinforcing evolutionary models of these ecosystems so crucial to the life of coastal populations. The Tara Pacific expedition also involves an important human factor: sailors and scientists make use of the schooner’s ports of call to raise awareness among the widest audience possible on ecological issues. They also record local experiences, thus giving voice to the inhabitants of small Pacific islands.
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