As an oceanographer tracking the movements of ocean currents and marine life in the North Atlantic, Stefan Gary faces several challenges. His research subjects, the cold-water coral larvae that disperse widely across the Atlantic before settling to form important deep-sea reef habitats, are very numerous but have never been observed in real conditions. “These coral species are effectively ecosystem engineers at the bottom of the sea,” he explains, although no one knows exactly how and where their larvae spread. Their distribution is crucial to understanding the biodiversity of the ocean because coral serves as a vital habitat, feeding ground, and shelter for other marine species, which in turn affects the fishing industry and marine conservation efforts. With principal investigators at the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) and funding from EU/ATLAS, a major North Atlantic assessment project, Gary embarked on an ambitious project to track the movements of cold-water coral larvae.
Through ATLAS work at the German lab GEOMAR, Gary has access to a four-terabyte dataset of velocity vectors for the North Atlantic’s circulation over the past fifty years, but to run various models estimating how coral larvae might move through those currents would take a long time and intensive data processing. “We estimated each simulation would take several hours,” he says. “Very quickly you add up your variables and realize it will take two weeks to a month to run all these data and estimate where all these coral babies are going to go.”