background image
John Savage
Gathering Scientific Data About
Coral Reef Health in Belize
Underwater research: On John Savage's `Belize Experience' trip, students snorkel and scuba dive,
counting coral, fish and invertebrates on a section of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
"Coral reefs are big, complicated ecosystems," said Savage.
Home to thousands of animal species, yet extremely fragile
-- divers never touch the coral -- reefs require "a very narrow
window in terms of water temperature, salinity and pH levels,
and clarity," he explained.
"Coral reefs are made of calcium carbonate. If the
oceans become more acidic, the coral dissolves," he said.
"The warming of the oceans kills coral. If more storms and
hurricanes batter the reefs, that causes damage. Fish can
migrate if their environment changes, but coral can't swim
away," said Savage. Often called "the canaries in the coal
mine" for the world's overall environmental health, coral
reefs are one of the most threatened ecosystems in the
world, he explained. If the ocean environment degrades --
from over-fishing, pollution or climate change -- the coral will
reflect those changes, which is what Reef Check has discovered.
Founded in 1997, Reef Check issued its first five-year
report, "The Global Coral Reef Crisis," in 2002, reporting a
worldwide decline in coral reef health. It concluded that no
reef in the world has remained untouched by human impacts,
which makes the continuing survey data so crucial.
That's exactly what Savage and his students have discovered
in Belize. "We've seen the reef get worse, then get better over
time," he explained. "While there are hundreds of different
species of hard and soft corals, we are particularly looking for
staghorn coral, which used to be everywhere in Belize, until
"Lately, we are seeing them come back, but our surveys are just
a small moment in time over the life of the reef," said Savage.
"Statistically speaking, this comeback may not be significant --
but it's better than seeing it plummet."
In addition to the underwater data collection, the group
takes a couple of days off the water to travel 100 miles inland
through the jungle to the Mayan ruins at Lamanai. "We visit
the pyramid with a guide and a naturalist. We see monkeys,
crocodiles and all the rainforest plants and trees."
Savage, who earned his doctorate in chemistry from
UMass Amherst, spends most of his time teaching chemistry.
But he clearly enjoys leading the trip to Belize. Supported
by the MCC Foundation, "The Belize Experience" is offered
every other year or so, depending on funding. His "Coral Reef
Ecology" course is also becoming increasingly popular with
students ­ even on years when the field study is not offered.
"The best thing about this environmental ecology course
and the field study is it opens students' minds to the fact that
what we do here in Massachusetts can affect what happens
around the world," said Savage. "Though it sounds like a
cliché, it really does teach them to act locally, but think
globally." In addition to science, "Coral Reef Ecology" covers
how economics, politics -- even religious views -- can impact
the environment. "I see students in my environmental ecology
course mature as the semester progresses in ways I never see in
a chemistry course," he said.
Kathy Register