The narrow region where land and ocean meet is among the most dynamic and complex collection of physical and biological systems on Earth. These can include salt marshes, mangroves, wetlands, estuaries, reefs, and bays often linked in an intricate network of physical, chemical, and biological interchanges above and below the water. They are often highly productive, highly valued, and highly accessible, making them a natural intersection between the human and natural worlds.
In addition to their role in the wider marine and terrestrial systems they link to, coastal ecosystems provide a broad range of benefits to humans. They can act as storm barriers and water filters, they are nurseries and habitat for commercially important plants and animals, and they are among the most popular tourist destinations.
Coastal systems are also very sensitive to environmental conditions. Small changes in such things as temperature, salinity, nutrient availability, or sediment load, whether natural or human-induced, can have wide-ranging impacts.
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Estuaries are the borderlands between salt and freshwater environments, and they are incredibly diverse both biologically and physically. The diversity and the high energy of the ecosystem make estuaries remarkably resilient.
In the 1930s, the Cape Cod Mosquito Control Project dug approximately 1,500 miles of ditches across marshes on the Cape to drain their water and reduce the number of ponds where mosquitoes can breed. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution biogeochemist Amanda Spivak is studying how this and other management decisions have changed the ability of coastal marshes to store carbon and protect against sea level rise.
We have learned that microbial communities on and within us—a microbiome—keep people healthy. Corals reefs also have their own microbiomes that they couldn’t function without.