An international team of scientists used a state-of-the-art computer model, a high-powered supercomputer, and five billion “virtual” coral larvae to test Charles Darwin's 1880 hypothesis that marine species cannot cross the Eastern Pacific's "impassable" marine barrier. The research team, which included University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science Associate Professor Claire Paris, found that Darwin's theory still holds true today even under extreme El Niño conditions known to speed up ocean currents. To trace the journey of coral larvae transported by ocean currents in the Eastern Pacific Barrier, a 4,000-mile stretch of ocean that separates the central from the eastern Pacific Ocean, researchers from the University of Bristol and Penn State University used Paris's biophysical model on Bristol University's BlueCrystal supercomputer to simulate five billion model “larvae” from 636 remote reefs traveling on ocean currents over a 14-and-a-half year period. "This work wouldn't have been possible until recently because of the computer power, the climate data, and the probabilistic biophysical model necessary to find some robust modeling results," said Dr. Paris, a coauthor of the study. Dr. Paris's open-source software, called the Connectivity Modeling System, simulates the movement of larvae in the ocean by currents and incorporates aspects of their biology, such as development and death. The simulations showed that, even in extreme environmental events such as the 1997-1998 El Niño that speed ocean currents, coral larvae could not survive long enough to make the trip from coral reefs in the western and central Pacific to help corals in the east recover from recent environmental damage.
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