Sea Simulator


A 3D rendering of the SeaSIM.

Introduction

In 2010 the Australian Institute of Marine Science was awarded $35 million in funding* to develop a world class experimental marine aquarium facility to be to be named the National Sea Simulator (SeaSim). [click here to view a larger image]

The objective of the SeaSim is to create a world leading facility enabling researchers to conduct cutting edge research on tropical marine organisms not previously possible in Australia. It will enable Australian and international researchers to better determine the impact of complex environmental changes on tropical marine ecosystems by providing reliable, consistent supply of high quality seawater and the technology and systems to enable precise control over environmental factors such as temperature, light, acidity, salinity, sedimentation and contaminants. This high level of sophisticated technology will form the pillars underlying exciting new research avenues in marine science including future climate change, pest management and intervention, sediment and pollution, model organisms and innovative seawater technologies.

Senator the Hon Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research announced commencement of construction of the facility at the Institute's cape Ferguson headquarters on 13 July 2011 and construction of the facility is progressing rapidly.

Construction of the facility is due to be completed by May 2013 with a 2 month commissioning period prior to the facility being ready for the first experiments in the second half of 2013.

SeaSIM sketch.

Capability

AIMS staff married technologies from the large-scale public aquarium industry with those from the industrial process sector to enable previously unavailable experimental research capability. This was supplemented with tours of leading aquarium and marine research facilities and expert advice from leading technology developers across the world. Integration of this knowledge with expertise from industrial process designers undoubtedly resulted in one of the most exciting advances in marine experimental research seen in Australia.

SeaSIM Capability Statement

SeaSim will provide unprecedented control over temperature, acidity, salinity, sedimentation and contaminants in large volumes of seawater, allowing Australian and international researchers to determine the impact of water quality on tropical marine organisms and ecosystems. Experiments conducted in the SeaSim will reveal the potential of marine biota to adapt to climate change and assist in the development of mitigation strategies to ensure the continued survival of the Great Barrier Reef.

SeaSim Prototype Facility

To facilitate the design and construction of SeaSim, a Prototype Facility was constructed to thoroughly design concepts prior to full scale implementation, develop and construct suitable systems and methodologies for holding and propagating coral reef organisms. Highly qualified staff with skills in large public aquaria, process controls and technology, aquaculture and coral biology have been recruited who have developed a growing body of knowledge adding significant value to the initial design and build phase of the Sea Simulator.

Coral husbandry and precise seawater manipulation has already improved research projects which are being undertaken at AIMS. Healthy coral reef organisms have been held in large experimental tanks for extended periods of time providing a basis for large tank, long term experimental systems. Newly developed coral propagation methods are now providing corals for experimentation. A coral breeding system is now providing over 30, 000 coral larvae each quarter, helping to provide fresh insights into reproductive strategies in the coral Pocillopora damicornis. Specialist staff are assisting with the design and construction of large multi-factorial experiments investigating the effects of both increasing temperature and ocean acidification on multiple coral species. Work has begun on developing highly sophisticated aquarium systems with high level control of photoperiod, thermal regulation and energy budgets in an attempt to induce broadcast spawning corals to reproduce out of sync with natural annual cycles.

New small scale larval rearing systems have been developed in readiness for the annual coral spawning event in the early tropical summer. One of the highlights of this year's spawning event is the visit of researchers from the Smithsonian Institute and the University of Hawaii developing methods of cryopreservation of coral tissues for coral restoration projects.

Larval rearing systems developed by SeaSim staff are being used to rear larvae of the Crown of Thorns Starfish (COTS) to investigate the effects of water quality on larval survival and settlement improving our capabilities of investigating the factors that influence outbreaks of the coral consuming Crown-of-thorns Starfish which was recently attributed as a major factor in the decline of coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef. Once the main SeaSim facility opens in mid-2013, research in the Prototype facility will be transferred and increased in scale.

The National Sea Simulator

SeaSim is a research aquarium facility that integrates technology developed from the industrial process sector (control and manipulation of seawater and ambient conditions), with aquarium technologies (plant and animal husbandry) to enable experimental research not previously possible. In combination with laboratory capabilities SeaSim represents a single integrated research hub allowing experiments not previously able to occur. In achieving this outcome, some of the more unique core capabilities it provides include:

  1. An ability to undertake large multi factorial experiments where sophisticated process control is required
  2. An ability to undertake long duration multi-organism experiments (particularly corals, sponges and seagrasses) in large scale tanks (mesocosm-style) with precise control over seawater and ambient conditions
  3. An ability to increase knowledge rates though the development of model marine organisms, with the current focus on corals and coral reproduction

Current and planned research themes include:

  1. Future Climate Theme

Increasing atmospheric CO2 is driving two major changes in our world's oceans: warming and acidification. The atmosphere and oceans are intimately linked and as the troposphere warms, so do our oceans. Regions within the world's oceans are warming at different rates and at rates that vary with cycles such as ENSO and the Indian Ocean Dipole. Atmospheric CO2 also diffuses into the world's oceans making them more acidic.  Oceans possess limited buffering capacity to this effect and organisms can metabolise some, but not all, of the growing oceanic CO2. These biological and chemical defences will at some time be overwhelmed but forecasting ecosystem impacts is currently fraught with uncertainty because each animal and plant species possesses different tolerances for more acidic seawater.  Whole-of-ecosystem understanding requires experiments with numerous species, their different life history stages and under numerous scenarios. There is a desperate need to develop experimental systems able to house multiple species for longer durations, while at the same time manipulating variables such as temperature and pH in a realistic manner. Simplistic experimental systems are only able to maintain a constant value for these important environmental variables: however, on the reef these variables change daily and seasonally. With the sophisticated controls systems and instrumentation of the SeaSim adding daily and seasonal variation to environmental variable becomes possible vastly improving scientific outputs.

 

2. Pest Management and Intervention Theme

The past 2-3 decades has seen recognition of the dire effects of marine pests on their environments. In Australia, one of the worst marine pests is the crown-of-thorn starfish, a major cause of the loss of almost half of the live coral cover across the Great Barrier Reef. Testing potential management options requires a secure supply of starfish and systems for reproduction, which will have the secondary benefit of providing knowledge about their life cycle and potential vulnerabilities which may be exploited in management strategies. Questions about their early life history and the factors which influence their survival and hence likelihood of outbreaks have been stymied by lack of high level experimental facilities. SeaSim will provide the crucial infrastructure to enable these questions to be answered and reduce their considerable impact.

  1. Sediment and Pollution Theme

Our coastal seas are also experiencing increased long- and short-term impacts from sediment generated during dredging and extracted from the land by flooding rain and rivers. Chemicals are injected from farming, urbanisation and industry. The sensitivity of marine organisms to these insults is known only for a few species and for only some of their life stages. Their ability to recover is even less well known. To elucidate some of these questions specialised systems are required with complex dosing systems, well-defined water movement, and sophisticated sensors for turbidity and sediments and controls systems to bring all this together.

 

  1. Core Capacities Theme
    • Model Organisms and Collections sub-theme

Model organisms transformed medicine and bioscience.  Marine science is only now beginning to build a critical mass in available model species but cultured marine organisms are dominated by those with commercial potential (i.e. aquaculture).  Providing secure, multi-generational cultures is highly challenging, more so for marine species and SeaSim will be home to several such cultures, the first being corals, a unique biological marriage of an animal and a plant in dire need of graduating from an experimental tool to a model organism (CoralBank). Due to limitations in present experimental facilities most studies conducted to predict response of corals to climate change have used only a single generation of and relatively short exposure periods. The new facilities associated with SeaSim will enable long term, multigenerational studies allowing world first research assessing corals ability to acclimate/adapt to future climate change scenarios.

In addition to model organisms, maintaining marine organisms in sufficient number and suitably healthy to feed into an experimental program is itself technically challenging and methods are being implemented to maintain small seagrass farms, and larviculture for crown-of-thorns starfish.

  • Innovative seawater technologies sub-theme
    • Cutting edge systems, technology and experimental designs are already being deployed in the Sea Simulator Prototyping Facility. Realistic experimentation requires replication of natural water motion for healthy culture and sensitivity measurements require chronic and fluctuating exposure not simple acute, static experiments. This is achieved by integration of process controls with aquarium husbandry to enable long term experiments. This is embedded in a battery of specific technologies which aim to replicate sunlight (spectrum and intensity), manipulate water conditions (temperature, pH/pCO2, nutrients, salinity) and natural water movement (flow and turbulence).
Proposed experiments for the first 18 months of operation of the SeaSim

SeaSIM Operation


SeaSim has generated a great deal of interest within the tropical marine research community demonstrated by the number of collaborations and research projects which plan to use the facility once it has opened. Already AIMS researchers are fielding enquiries from colleagues around the world about collaborations within this wonderful facility.

International collaborators from around the world travel to AIMS each year to take part in research during the annual coral spawning event.  One such project being aided by SeaSim and its staff is the cryopreservation of coral gametes and larvae to reef restoration.

Major experiments utilising SeaSim as part of AIMS contribution to the National Environment Research Project Tropical Ecosystems Hub examining the effects on marine biota from interactions between water quality and climate change.  Studies are planned to investigate the effects of a range of stressors including, temperature, sedimentation, ocean acidification and herbicides on corals, seagrasses and echinoderms. Many of these stressors have been investigated individually; however, SeaSim offers the first real opportunity to look at how these effect corals interactively, experiments that are essential in understanding how the Great Barrier Reef will respond to increasing anthropogenic stressors in the coming decades.

The Western Australian Marine Science Institution will be conducting studies on the impact of dredging on critical life history stages of coral reef organisms as part of the research node investigating on the impacts of dredging. SeaSim is the only location in Australia with the level of sophistication, knowledge and expertise capable of developing systems to carry out this critical research.

* Funding for development of the sea simulator has been provided by the Australian Government through its Super Science Marine and Climate Initiative, with support from the Education Investment Fund, and supports the Government's economic stimulus package: Statement of Evidence to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Work