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WHOI in the News

A Rusting Oil Tanker Off the Coast of Yemen Is an Environmental Catastrophe Waiting to Happen. Can Anyone Prevent It?

May 14, 2021
Viviane Menezes, a marine scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Massachusetts, has described the Red Sea as being like a “big lagoon” with “everything connected.” An oil spill at any time of year would be disastrous, she says, but seasonally variable weather and tidal patterns make contingency planning difficult. In the summer, Red Sea currents would drag an oil slick south, threatening Eritrea and Djibouti, and potentially entering the Gulf of Aden. In winter, circular currents would swirl more of the oil north.

Right Camera Could Protect Endangered Whales

January 8, 2021

Scientist hopes his smart system can reduce ship collisions with North Atlantic right whales. A new technology on the horizon may help to reduce one of those threats, however.

Science is the way forward

November 30, 2020

By definition, science seeks to avoid bias, remain independent, refute falsehoods, and seek answers based on evidence, reason, and consensus. An editorial writen by Peter de Menocal and Richard W. Murray.

United States Contributions to Global Ocean Plastic Waste

October 25, 2020

MPC Research Specialist, Hauke Kite-Powell, has recently been appointed to a National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine committee to study U.S. contributions to global ocean plastic waste.

The Lungs of the Earth: Shifting a Metaphor from Superstition to Science

October 13, 2020
In a new article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Aria Ritz Finkelstein and Oceanographer Emeritus Porter Hoagland address the discourse surrounding ocean deoxygenation. They argue that, while describing deoxygenation with sloppy policy metaphors can hinder effective marine governance, using well-constructed metaphors can help clarify ways that policymakers can effectively address the problem.

The $500 Billion Question: What’s the Value of Studying the Ocean’s Biological Carbon Pump?

September 15, 2020

new paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) puts an economic value on the benefit of research to improve knowledge of the biological carbon pump and reduce the uncertainty of ocean carbon sequestration estimates.

Marine Labs on the Water’s Edge Are Threatened by Climate Change

January 17, 2020

At the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, Robert S.C. Munier, the vice president for marine facilities and operations, said that the facility was feeling the effects of climate change already in a battering of the existing dock.

The Ocean’s Eerie Twilight Zone is in Murky Legal Water

September 5, 2019

“The most striking thing is just how far down it is and how the light dissolves away,” says Joel Llopiz, a biologist with Woods Hole Oceanographic.

The Lawless High Seas May Soon Gain Protections Under a Groundbreaking Ocean Treaty

August 20, 2019

The high seas are legally defined as waters that don’t fall under any single nation’s exclusive economic zone. That means they technically belong to everyone. It also means they’re hard to protect against activities like fishing or mining because they’re beyond any single nation’s jurisdiction, explained Porter Hoagland, a senior research specialist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Saving the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales

May 29, 2019

News & Insights

A canoe sits idle in Ulukhaktok, one of several Arctic Inuit communities trying to cope with food insecurity rates that are estimated to be five times the level of food insecurity measured for households in Canada. (Photo by Paul Labn, Oceans North)

Hunger in the Arctic prompts focus on causes, not symptoms

November 5, 2020

Hunger in the Arctic prompts focus on causes, not symptoms

By Evan Lubofsky | November 5, 2020

A canoe sits idle in Ulukhaktok, one of several Arctic Inuit communities trying to cope with food insecurity. (Photo by Paul Labun, Oceans North)

The region of Nunatsiavut in Northern Labrador, Canada, is an Arctic paradise—expansive wild landscapes, rocky fjords, and pristine glacial-fed rivers rushing dramatically below towering mountain ridge lines. Nunatsiavut, in Inuttitut, translates into “Our Beautiful Land.” But when it comes to food security among the couple thousands of Inuit living there, things don’t look so pretty.

The communities of Nunatsiavut, similar to other communities across Inuit Nunangat, the homeland of Inuit, are plagued by excessive food insecurity rates, which are estimated to be five times the level of food insecurity measured for households in Canada.

“A lot of these marginalized communities lack sufficient access to local fisheries,” says Melina Kourantidou, a post doctorate fellow and fisheries economist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center. “The rates of food insecurity there are striking: they have been reported to be close to, or even, exceed 80% in some communities.”

Kourantidou has visited Nunatsiavut three times since 2018—specifically, the communities of Nain and Makkovik—to speak with local community members and stakeholders about fisheries management challenges there and how these connect to food security. The information, she says, can inform the development of a monitoring framework that helps diversify risk and improve food security rates.

Melina Kourantidou, a post doctorate fellow and fisheries economist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center, fishes for Arctic Char, one of the most prevalent and traditionally consumed fish species in the Nunatsiavut region. (Photo by Rachel Cadman, Dalhousie University) Melina Kourantidou, a post doctorate fellow and fisheries economist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center, fishes for Arctic Char, one of the most prevalent and traditionally consumed fish species in the Nunatsiavut region. (Photo by Rachael Cadman, Dalhousie University)

As part of the field work, Kourantidou looked at factors that have been choking off the communities’ access to fishing grounds. This includes a lack of harvesting rights and resources to work the local fisheries (e.g. boats, technological equipment/fishing gear, etc.) and the lingering effects of colonialism. The region’s colonial legacy often thwarts the current generation’s ability to capture the social and economic benefits of their adjacent marine resources.

“Nunatsiavut is Canada’s first Inuit region to achieve self-government status in 2005, which presumably would have resulted in increased sovereignty and rights to natural resources as well as improved resource governance for the benefit of Labrador Inuit,” says Kourantidou. “But today, the Labrador Inuit feel way less empowered, owing to marine resource governance challenges and lack of sovereignty and control in managing marine resources. The communities along the coast of Labrador are really struggling to get access to what rightfully belongs to them.’’

Currently, these communities get just 3.38% of the Canadian Greenland halibut quota in waters adjacent to their lands, and close to 10% of northern shrimp from two adjacent fishery management areas. Since allocation decisions are made at the federal level with very limited input from rightsholders, considerations of equity and dependence on the fishery are very limited.

Climate change related uncertainties, limited funding for research on critical species such as Arctic char, and a hunting ban on caribou—a dietary staple in the Inuit diet—are making matters worse. There is also the geographically challenged nature of Nunatsiavut itself; with no road system, the community is forced to depend more heavily on pricey, low-quality, and less-nutritious store-bought foods, brought in by boat or plane.

The hardships of living in this Arctic region are clear, and have prompted some short-term strategies to improve access to nutritious, protein-rich food. A community freezer program has been established whereby fish and other game is caught and stored in freezers that are accessible to the entire community—a nod to nomadic times when Inuit hunters would collect food and store it for community sharing in natural permafrost “freezers.” Kourantidou applauds efforts such as the community freezers but feels they merely treat the symptoms of food insecurity; she wants to get at the root causes. This, she says, will help facilitate longer-term solutions.

To get there, Kourantidou and other marine policy experts will need to continue advancing their understanding of the forces contributing to food insecurity in the region, and the ability to measure and monitor things like fish stocks and dietary needs among the population. Her visits throughout 2018 and 2019 were the first steps along this path, as she was able to improve her understanding of peoples’ livelihoods, priorities, concerns and perspectives, despite feeling at times like an outsider to the community and having a rather “western mindset.”

She adds, “It is critical to have Inuit and their knowledge at the forefront of research conducted in their lands and have their needs and concerns drive the research questions. Once we fill these knowledge gaps, we’ll be able to establish a clearer and more direct link between food security and fisheries, which will help with policy making and management of these resources.”

Funding for this work is provided through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund, through the Ocean Frontier Institute.

 

Marine Policy Polar Research Ocean Resources

Uncharted Water

Uncharted waters

July 16, 2020

Uncharted Waters:

Our global ocean will change dramatically over the next few decades. What might it look like, and how will humans adapt?

By David Levin

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Peering out over the blue-green surf of the Atlantic Ocean is like catching a glimpse of infinite time. From our vantage point on land, its monumental scale makes it look immutable, eternal; a bottomless resource. For most of our short existence as a species, that has been the case. Ever since our ancestors first pulled food and other resources from beneath its surface, the sea has been essential to our growth and survival. In the next century, its waters will take a remarkable turn. The ocean itself and the ways we use it are poised to change dramatically, making it a very different place from the one we know today.

By 2100, the global population will reach some 11 billion—almost a third larger than today. As climate change alters weather patterns, we’ll experience more droughts, mega-storms, and heat waves, making sustainable food and energy production on land even more difficult. As a result, we’ll need to turn to the sea for our livelihood. Over the next ten years—a period that the United Nations has already deemed the “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development”—we’re almost certain to see growth in ocean-based technologies, aquaculture, and offshore energy, be it wind, oil, gas, or biofuels. Fifty years out, that growth could expand exponentially.

But exactly how will the future play out? How will we help shape a changing ocean? And how might new practices, policies, and technologies help preserve it as one of the world’s greatest shared resources? These are questions that WHOI scientists are actively studying in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way.

“The way we’ll be using the oceans in 50 years will be unrecognizable—

we’ll almost certainly be leveraging them for energy and aquaculture far more than today.”

—Hauke Kite-Powell, WHOI’s Marine Policy Center

Looking ahead: What will our future ocean look like? WHOI is working to understand how new practices, technologies, and policies will help shape and preserve one of our planet’s greatest shared resources.  (Photo by Paul Brennan/Dreamstime.com)

“We want to understand the processes at work that allow some coral reefs to survive despite conditions that should kill them.”
—Anne Cohen, WHOI scientist

Future fisheries: a shift from capture to culture

Joel Llopiz, who studies fisheries oceanography and ecology at WHOI, says that the most direct impact on humans may be widespread changes in areas we commonly fish. At the moment, the world gets 17% of its protein from the sea, a number that will increase as cities grow and viable farmland shrinks. Yet, it’s unlikely that the massive commercial fishing operations, standard practice in the 20th century, will be sustainable deep into the 21st.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 60% of fisheries are already fully exploited and another 30% are badly overused. The coasts of New England and Nova Scotia provide an ominous example: in the early 1980s, the annual haul of cod in the region was more than 50,000 metric tons per year, but today, it’s 2% of that figure. While overfishing has played a major role in that reduction, the added pressures of warming seas and a changing food web haven’t helped matters, says Llopiz.

In the sands of Stellwagen Bank, a shallow area roughly 20 miles from the Massachusetts Coast, the plight of one tiny species—the sand lance—reveals how fisheries may change in the future. These miniscule silver fish are a direct link in the food web between plankton (their food of choice), and animals like cod, seals, seabirds, sharks, and even whales that feed on sand lances. Yet as warming seas reduce the amount of plankton in the water, sand lances have also dropped in number.

Unguja residents Left: Unguja residents gather on a beach at sunset. The sails in the background are traditional dhows heading out to fish or carrying cargo to the Tanzanian mainland. Right: Ikiwa Abdulla and her family clean wild-caught shellfish after a long day of collecting out on the flats in Fumba, Zanzibar. WHOI is teaching women how to cultivate shellfish for food and improve economic opportunities in East Africa. (Photos by Julia Cumes Photography)

“We’ve already seen sand lance vanishing to the south, off the coast of New Jersey and Virginia, where the waters are getting warmer,” says Llopiz. “They can’t easily move away from their habitats like herring and other species, so they’re likely just dying off,” robbing commercial species of a major food source.

As fish like these disappear due to warming, it could push some large commercial fish species, like hake and flounder, to migrate into cooler waters in search of food, he notes. Other species like pollock and halibut may be going deeper for the same reason. And yet, even as some populations shrink, others may expand—which might mean the overall number of commercial fish remains relatively steady, but the variety of species could change.

“Cold water species like cod are just not going to come back in great productivity,” says Steve Murawski, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida and former Chief Scientist of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. “We see the same thing with northern shrimp on coast of Maine. They haven’t had a season in five years, so they could be a goner as well.”

Scientists around the globe are already trying to understand how global fisheries will respond to a changing ocean, and hope to reveal how those changes will affect key food sources for humans, says Di Jin, senior scientist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center. Despite the growing concern about fisheries’ health, Jin thinks open-ocean fishing will continue to play a major role as a global food source. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll still see capture fisheries 100 years from now, but it’s likely that they’ll need to be integrated into aquaculture systems to meet our needs,” he says.

Sustainable aquaculture: food security for the future

“The way we’ll be using the oceans in 50 years will be unrecognizable,” says Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center. “We’ll almost certainly be leveraging them for energy and aquaculture far more than today.”

As land-based resources are stretched thin due to increased population and changing climate, the oceans are the only real growth area for farming, he says.  Aquaculture will continue to expand and is poised to become a massive industry, bypassing capture fisheries in the near future.

This is already happening. Since 1990, the amount of wild-caught fish has hovered around 80 million metric tons, while aquaculture has more than quintupled, from less than 15 million tons to roughly 80 million in the same time. Today, aquaculture provides almost the same amount of fish and shellfish globally as commercial fishing.

At the moment, Kite-Powell says, the vast majority of aquaculture takes place off the coasts of southeast Asia, China, and Japan, where fish, oyster, and seaweed farms are common. He thinks farms like these may soon appear off Europe and North America.

While a shift to ocean-grown proteins would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, he notes, it’s unclear whether aquaculture can provide all the food our growing population will need. Only a few species of finfish can be successfully farmed, so the variety of available seafood will go down—and food for all those fish will still have to come from somewhere. Right now, it’s mostly provided by turning huge numbers of forage fishes, like anchovies, into fish meal, says Llopiz. 

“A lot of commercial fishing today exists just to catch protein to feed farmed species,” he says. “You can’t grow fish like salmon without marine-derived proteins.”

That poses a bit of a conundrum: even with more offshore farms, we’ll still need to fish the open ocean to feed those farmed species. That, alone, may mean that aquaculture won’t be enough to meet society’s food needs sustainably.

Farming shellfish, however, could be a different story. Mussels, oysters, and clams don’t need special foods to survive: as filter feeders, they pull nutrients directly from the waters around them. Compared to fish, they grow far more densely in the same amount of space, and also improve water quality. One nonprofit organization (aptly called the Billion Oyster Project) is working to restore oyster reefs in New York’s harbor and bring them back to once-massive levels by 2035. In the process, they hope to revive a major source of seafood in the region while removing waterborne pollutants like nitrogen.

Mussels are another good choice for seafood farming, adds Scott Lindell, a research specialist at WHOI who studies marine aquaculture. “Mussels in particular have a great attribute of sticking to things, so they can be applied to ropes and hung in the water up to 60 feet below the surface,” he says. “In a very small footprint, you can produce tons of high-quality protein that’s better for the environment than beef, and has heart-healthy oils.”

“I think we’ll see regions pre-permitting certain areas for specific uses and restricting activity in others, similar to zoning on land.” ~ Hauke Kite-Powell, WHOI’s Marine Policy Center

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Lindell isn’t exaggerating. A ton of cultured mussels emits less than a tenth of the amount of greenhouse gas caused by farming beef, and roughly half that of poultry or pork. 

Aquaculture won’t be limited to growing animal proteins, he notes. Seaweed, too, could become a viable ocean-farmed crop on a large scale. Lindell envisions extensive offshore kelp farms, creating artificial seaweed beds that could be harvested sustainably for food and biofuels. If large enough, those farms could also cool certain areas of water by providing shade and increase oxygen in the water even as they absorb CO₂. That could improve the health of local fish populations attracted to the kelp habitats, creating artificial fishing grounds. With the right infrastructure, kelp and wind farms could even exist in tandem, creating two sources of renewable marine energy, Lindell says.

For these farms to be sustainable and cost-effective, however, we’ll need to develop new ways of monitoring huge areas of aquacultured kelp, he notes. Kite-Powell agrees.

“In order to provide biofuels on a commercial scale, we’ll need seaweed farms on scale of land-based farms in the Midwest,” Kite-Powell says. “Building and operating farms of that size in open water will require new technologies—not just to maintain the crops, but also to harvest them. They’ll have to handle an enormous amount of material.”

Saving our coral reefs: lessons on resilience and recovery

Coral reefs, which support fisheries and act as a barrier against storms, are also being deeply affected by a changing ocean. Over the next 50 years, reefs worldwide will continue to erode from sedimentation, nutrient runoff, bleaching, and extreme weather events. Shellfish and other fisheries that depend on coral reefs will certainly be affected, and vulnerable coastlines will be exposed to storm surges and high surf.

As reef waters become too hot for coral polyps, they expel the symbiotic algae that give them essential nutrients—and their trademark colors—leaving them ghostly white. A growing number of coral species are dying off after bleaching, says WHOI geochemist Amy Apprill, while others are proving surprisingly resilient. In 2016, the Great Barrier reef in Australia experienced widespread bleaching from a massive heat wave that killed off almost 30% of its shallow-water corals, but in other areas, like Turks and Caicos, reefs have bounced back unexpectedly after multi-year bleaching events. To save corals worldwide, Apprill notes, it will be important to figure out what exactly makes the surviving reefs resilient.

In some areas of the world’s ocean, coral reefs are protected from extreme heat by features called internal waves.  According to Anne Cohen, who studies coral reef ecosystems at WHOI, these natural subsurface waves bring cooler water from the deep ocean up near the surface and within reach of the coral reef and its inhabitants. During extreme heat events that cause widespread bleaching and coral death across ocean basins, those reefs lucky enough to be situated in the path of internal waves continue to benefit from this natural air conditioning. A study led by Cohen’s graduate student Tom DeCarlo showed that as ocean warming continues, enhanced stratification will strengthen internal waves in some regions, increasing the chances of those reefs surviving 21st-century warming.

The Asian shore crab was first introduced in the northeast in the 1980s. Between it and the green crab, these invasive species are almost the only crabs found among the rocks on many New England beaches.

(Photo by Thomas Kleindinst, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

To understand and predict coral resiliency, Cohen is looking to “Super Reefs” that have demonstrated capacity to survive ocean warming. Some Super Reef communities are genetically adapted to higher temperatures, like corals in Palau, whereas others seem able to recover quickly, like some reefs she and her team have studied in the central Pacific. Reefs protected by internal waves are also considered Super Reefs because they have the greatest potential to survive into the next century despite climate change.  Cohen is working closely with conservation organizations and governments of coral reef nations to find and protect Super Reefs from other human activities that can harm them.

“We want to understand the processes at work that allow coral reefs to survive despite conditions that should kill them, so we can come up with plans to ensure that they still exist in the future,” she says.

It’s also possible that corals could migrate—albeit slowly—into cooler waters, says Apprill. Their microscopic larvae can drift hundreds of miles through the ocean, and could settle down to form reefs in areas with more comfortable temperatures.

“That could be a lifesaver for reefs,” she says. “The best example we have at the moment are reefs near Bermuda—they’re at higher latitudes compared to tropical and subtropical reefs, but they have lots of really old, healthy, vibrant corals. Not all coral species can survive that far north, but we know it’s certainly possible for some.”

Aliens of the ocean

Changing ocean habitats and increased human impacts may allow not only novel pathogens to thrive, but new invasive species as well, by creating opportunities for them to settle in, grow, and take over existing ecosystems. In addition, ships traversing the globe unintentionally spread the larvae of marine species picked up in water for ballast from one port to another when their tanks are flushed.

In the U.S. Great Lakes, zebra mussels have been devouring key plankton sources and clogging infrastructure since the late 1990s. In New England, green crabs—which were accidentally introduced in the ballast of European ships more than a century ago—have begun to edge out species that are fished for food, says Carolyn Tepolt, a biologist at WHOI who studies invasive species.

“The green crab is not picky; it just eats everything it can get, especially young shellfish, so it’s been pretty devastating for the soft-shell clam population in New England. When it expanded into the Canadian Maritimes, it started destroying important habitats for scallops and lobsters. It has created a real problem for those fisheries,” she says.

“As technology improves, we’ll see not only better autonomous sensors and drones, but more powerful computers and tools to crunch that data, giving us even more insight into how the oceans work.” ~ Admiral John Richardson, WHOI Board of Trustees

diverse marine life WHOI scientists and colleagues conducted the first scientific expedition to map and characterize seamounts on a submerged platform in the Galápagos. This image, taken near Fernandina Island at 700 meters deep, shows some of the diverse marine life that these underwater mountains support. Results from the expedition are being used by the Galápagos National Park Directorate to refine zoning within the Galápagos Marine Reserve to enhance protection of delicate ecosystems. (Photo by Adam Soule, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Sea lice—a type of copepod that causes lesions and ulcers on fish—is an invasive species of great concern, and a growing nuisance to farmed seafood. Other invasive species, like a sea squirt informally called “rock vomit,” can smother mussels and other shellfish beds, and even kill off worms, snails, and other species in marine sediments that provide food for larger organisms.

“There’s going to be major changes in ecological communities as ranges shift,” Tepolt says. “We’ll probably see species not traditionally considered invasive taking advantage of new conditions. In that way, there may be more homogenization of communities—if you have two different places in the world with a similar environment, it’ll be more likely that you’ll see similar species,” she says.

While this sort of redistribution of species may cause major disruptions in certain ecological niches, it may be barely discernable in others. In some cases, Tepolt points out, invasive species can actually serve the same ecological functions as native species, letting them settle smoothly into a new area. On the west coast of the U.S., researchers discovered in the 1980s that the native blue mussel is being widely replaced by an invasive species of Mediterranean blue mussel—yet most fishermen hadn’t noticed.

“They just don’t look different enough from the native species,” she says. “It took genetic testing to tell them apart. It’ll take a lot more study to know if they’re actually doing different things in the marine environment.”

Informing future policy

As humans continue to expand our reach offshore, we’ll likely see more development in wind energy, oil and gas infrastructure, telecommunications, mineral extraction, and more, as hundreds of new and existing industries combine to create a “blue economy” in the future. To get there, however, we’ll need to improve our scientific understanding of the oceans and develop innovative new policies for managing coastal and offshore waters. In order for human populations to grow sustainably, Kite-Powell thinks we’ll see a shift away from existing systems of oversight—where towns, counties, and states share jurisdiction—to a more regional approach that creates dedicated zones for offshore farming, fishing, and other activities.

“I think we’ll see regions pre-permitting certain areas for specific uses in a proactive approach. It’ll be similar to zoning on land. Look at national parks that are off-limits for development or industrial use, with a planned balance of public use and ecological conservation. We’ll need to move to something like that for oceans as demands for resources rise sharply over the next century,” he says.

Creating more marine protected areas could also help preserve sensitive ecosystems. The Tubbataha reef system, a wild area 90 miles off the coast of the Philippines, offers a prime example: Fished to dangerously low levels in the 1980s when local fishermen used extreme measures like dynamite and cyanide to bring in their catch, it was declared a marine protected area in 1988 by the Philippine government, and eight years later the military enforced a ban on fishing. Since then, Tubbataha has recovered dramatically, and has even been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding diversity and density of marine species. Its return to near-pristine condition offers a promising model for creating protected areas to restore marine health.

Surprisingly, stricter land-based zoning will also become a critical component to how we adapt to a changing ocean. As sea levels rise, municipalities may rethink how they manage resources. Some cities, for example, may choose not to maintain roadways that are regularly swamped by high tides and storm surge to discourage development in regions likely to flood, says Kite-Powell.

New risk management approaches by insurance companies might play a role, as well. AxaXL, a major reinsurance firm, is in the process of developing an “ocean risk index”—a way of quantifying the impacts of storm surge, sea-level rise, and the changing marine ecosystem. The company plans to share this index openly to governments and industry when it’s complete.

“Most of the regions that are at the highest risk for sea-level rise or storm surge are located in small, underdeveloped areas,” says Chip Cunliffe, director of sustainable development at AxaXL. “They’re the least able to help themselves or to cope with the impacts of higher storm intensity or flooding. The index helps regions know where the risks are most acute so they can plan appropriately.”

youth strike for climate Thousands of students and young people protest in London as part of the youth strike for climate march in 2019. (Photo by Ink Drop)

New Tools for Ocean Management

Whether on or off shore, however, decision-making and marine policy will be increasingly shaped by technology in the future. As new autonomous sensors are deployed and marine observing arrays spread, we’ll have real-time information on the ocean and its ecosystems. Combined with new artificial intelligence and modeling software, that data could be a boon for both science and national security, says Admiral John Richardson, former chief of naval operations during the Obama administration.

“[Growth in technology] is a tide that’s going to be impossible to stop,” he says. “As technology improves, we’ll see not only better autonomous sensors and drones, but more powerful computers and tools to crunch that data, giving us even more insight into how the oceans work.”

“With new ocean observing data accumulation and prediction systems, we’ll be able to quickly integrate a huge amount of information about the oceans,” adds Jin.

That may open up new possibilities for ocean management. New sensing and computing technology could map out where species are in real time and predict future movements. In doing so, Jin suggests, it would allow governments to better manage ecosystems and determine where new marine protected areas should be.

“I think we’ll need to move toward seeing ocean management as something far more dynamic,” he says. “In the past, the strategy was, ‘let’s impose a rule against harvesting certain species in a certain location,’ but now, we recognize that the ocean is transient. Species are mobile. Having real-time data from ocean observatories will let us incorporate a tailored approach to marine management, like opening one spot to fishing or resource extraction in the spring, but not the fall, for instance, to protect those ecosystems in sensitive seasons.”

Hope for the Future

Even today, when the future of the world’s ocean looks uncertain, Jin notes there’s reason to be hopeful about our ability to cope with changing seas. For the first time in its history, the United Nations has included oceans as part of its sustainable development goals, making “Life Below Water” one of its focal points for 2020, and declaring a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

Public schools are increasingly incorporating ocean literacy into their curriculums, educating young students about the role the seas play in the planet’s health. And young activists like Greta Thunberg are injecting new passion for environmental causes into a growing generation.

No matter what recommendations we make today about the best use of our ocean in the years to come, the people who will actually make those decisions are likely sitting in an elementary school classroom right now. Educating them about the critical importance of the seas in their own future—and in the future of the planet—will be essential to creating an informed, passionate group of leaders.

“We’re seeing ocean science being written into K-12 textbooks,” Jin says. “That’s a very positive sign that students are targeted to become more ocean literate, and so hopefully more open to sustainability. Children are starting to really understand that although they may be in Kansas, the ocean is affecting their life through climate, through biodiversity, through available seafood.” They’re also realizing that they, in turn, affect the ocean through their lifestyle habits and choices, he adds.

The ocean may be a vastly different place in 50 years, but there is hope that we can still thrive. Researchers are breaking new ground in ocean science and technology every day, policy-makers are preparing for new levels of diplomacy and collaboration, and educators are striving to equip students with knowledge to face new challenges, says Kite-Powell.

“My hope for the future is that we will use the ocean to produce food and energy in ways that are both good for people and safeguard the integrity of marine ecosystems. If that happens in a way that is sensible and scientifically informed, it will help us through global climate change and a century of population growth ahead of us,” he says. “Over the next 50-100 years, it will be crucial for us to get those things right.” 

biology Coastal Ecosystems Ocean Life

right whale video

WHOI joins effort to accelerate marine life protection technology

April 22, 2020

By Elise Hugus | April 22, 2020

Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales swim in the waters off Massachusetts in February 2019. WHOI biologist Michael Moore uses drone technology to identify, track, and even take samples from the whales’ exhaled breath to learn more about their behavior and health. (Video courtesy of Michael Moore, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NMFS Permit #21371)

right whale video Critically endangered North Atlantic right whales swim in the waters off Massachusetts in February 2019. WHOI biologist Michael Moore uses drone technology to identify, track, and even take samples from the whales’ exhaled breath to learn more about their behavior and health. (Courtesy of Michael Moore, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NMFS Permit #21371)

After a record-breaking string of North Atlantic right whale deaths in 2019, the birth of nine calves this winter signaled a little bit of hope for the critically endangered species. But in mid-January, a days-old right whale was severely injured by a ship propeller off the coast of Georgia-and it hasn’t been seen since.

For biologists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), losses such as these are not only tragic, they are preventable. From hydrophones attached to buoys or autonomous vehicles, to a passive acoustic monitoring system, WHOI scientists and engineers have developed innovative methods to monitor marine mammals in real time. The idea is simple: if authorities are aware of the presence of migrating whales, they will be able to tell ships to slow down, drastically reducing the likelihood of a fatality. Remote acoustic technologies can also alert scientists to a stranding event, buying critical time to save the animal’s life.

whale buoy Hydrophones on mooring lines are able to detect whale sounds, but violent seas make it difficult to discern them from the sound of rushing water. To solve the problem, WHOI engineers designed a two-tiered mooring line, separated by a steel flotation sphere. In rough seas (right panel), the tough, stretchy “Gumby hose” on top acts like a bungee cord, absorbing the tension of the surface buoy. The bottom line is decoupled from the movements of the top line; it remains a stable, quiet platform for the hydrophone. (Illustration by E. Paul Oberlander, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) whale detection buoy on surface A surface buoy in Massachusetts Bay helps scientists monitor the location and behavior of North Atlantic right whales. These buoys are equipped with stretch-hose technology to overcome North Atlantic weather and waves. (Photo by Nick Woods, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Glider launch from dock To unravel the combination of circumstances that creates rich feeding areas for marine animals, scientists use autonomous underwater gliders, which collect data on water temperature and salinity, currents, copepod clusters, and whale sounds. Gliders may also be used to detect the presence of protected marine mammals while offshore wind farms are constructed. (Photo by Ben Hodges, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) whale detection buoy on surface A surface buoy in Massachusetts Bay helps scientists monitor the location and behavior of North Atlantic right whales. These buoys are equipped with stretch-hose technology to overcome North Atlantic weather and waves. (Photo by Nick Woods, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Glider launch from dock To unravel the combination of circumstances that creates rich feeding areas for marine animals, scientists use autonomous underwater gliders, which collect data on water temperature and salinity, currents, copepod clusters, and whale sounds. Gliders may also be used to detect the presence of protected marine mammals while offshore wind farms are constructed. (Photo by Ben Hodges, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Ships (and fishing gear) are not the only man-made hazards that whales face. Noise in the marine environment also cause distress, impacting the whales’ ability to feed and communicate. That’s why offshore wind operators are required to monitor for the presence of marine mammals during construction and operation. With several large-scale wind farms planned along the U.S. East Coast, the need for accurate, real-time monitoring technologies is enormous. But obstacles-such as maintaining the gear and recovering data from remote offshore locations-remain.

In a bid to overcome these challenges, WHOI has teamed up with Greentown Labs, the largest clean tech incubator in North America, and Vineyard Wind, the developer of a proposed 800-megawatt offshore wind farm off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, to launch the Offshore Wind Challenge. The program, which is also partnering with New England Aquarium, calls on entrepreneurs to submit proposals to collect, transmit, and analyze marine mammal monitoring data using remote technologies, such as underwater vehicles, drones, and offshore buoys.

“The goal is to assist the responsible development of technologies that are able to enhance real-time detection of North Atlantic right whales and other protected species in the waters off the northeastern United States,” says Emiley Z. Lockhart, WHOI’s senior counsel and director of regional initiatives.

Startups selected to participate in the program will benefit from networking opportunities, educational workshops, and focused programming through Greentown Launch, a six-month partnership acceleration program provided by Greentown Labs.

“Partnering with Greentown blends the creativity and innovation happening at WHOI, while putting it in a new sphere,” says Rick Murray, WHOI’s deputy director and vice president for research. “And with the offshore wind industry emerging right in our backyard, it’s a natural place for WHOI to responsibly participate through research, technology, and entrepreneurship.”

With at least three wind projects in development off the coast of Woods Hole, Mass., the offshore wind industry has turned to WHOI researchers to help navigate the dynamic and often treacherous marine environment. WHOI’s involvement as an institution kicked off in 2016 and has included initiatives such as the Offshore Wind Energy Research Program, which provides funding for technologies and methodologies that could be transferred to the nascent industry, in partnership with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.

“This partnership with Greentown Labs gives WHOI the opportunity to build on its well-earned reputation, and continue to be a highly relevant and active place where the cutting-edge work related to offshore wind development gets done,” Lockhart adds.

Qualified start-ups from the Woods Hole community and beyond are encouraged to apply to the Challenge, says Lockhart. Applications are due by May 31, and are available on the program website: http://bit.ly/OffshoreWindChallenge.

Right Whales Biology Marine Policy Center

Aria Finkelstein crafts policy to help legislators manage the twilight zone

April 15, 2020

By Daniel Hentz | April 21, 2020

Aria Finkelstein's experiences at sea, here gliding amid a fjords of Southern Alaska on her family ketch, informed her desire to craft marine policy. (Photo courtesy of Aria Finkelstein) Aria Finkelstein’s experiences at sea, here gliding amid a fjords of Southern Alaska on her family ketch, informed her desire to craft marine policy. (Photo courtesy of Aria Finkelstein)

 

How did you first get involved with WHOI’s Marine Policy Center and the Ocean Twilight Zone project?

I began the PhD program at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) knowing that I wanted to work on ecological infrastructure, but without a very clear idea of the specific project I wanted to take on.

Aria Ritz Finkelstein poses before attending the UN assembly on marine resource use. (Photo Courtesy of Aria Finkelstein, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Before coming to MIT, I spent months sailing and fell in love with the sea. That’s when it occurred to me that marine spaces could be a site for spatial planning. So when I realized that people were applying the same ecological planning methods I learned for land management to ocean spaces, I got really excited. A friend of mine at DUSP, Kelly Heber Dunning, was researching coral reefs with Porter Hoagland. She introduced me to him to start studying marine spatial planning.

Because so much of the Ocean Twilight Zone (OTZ) is in international waters, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about what’s there and how it should be managed. There’s a lot of complexity in the governance frameworks that will apply to it, but also the potential for equitable, sustainable distribution of its resources across the globe. So, it’s a fascinating part of the ocean, with each discovery more and more exciting–the perfect intersection of governance, politics, power, and science.

Why should policymakers pay attention to the Ocean Twilight Zone now? 

One of the major applicable insights, maybe the most important one, is just how much we still have to learn about the OTZ and how valuable learning about it will be. With so much interest in exploiting parts of the ocean’s midwater through fishing or disruptive mining activities, there’s a real potential that we could destroy major ecosystems without understanding which organisms we’re losing. For one thing, it’s just tragic to damage sites of so much wonder and beauty. More practically speaking, we risk the destruction of systems that can teach us about the history of life on Earth, are critical for climate regulation, and are potential sources of nutrition. We also risk losing genetic material that we haven’t discovered yet, which we could potentially develop into life-saving drugs. Obviously, that last point is especially salient right now.

What are some of the challenges you and your colleagues face in drafting policies to manage use of the twilight zone?

One problem in drafting policy to protect the OTZ is simply that not enough people pay attention to it. Epipelagic ecosystems (those on the water’s surface and sunlit layer) are much more at the forefront of people’s minds–partly because their uses are much more developed. One thing we’re trying to do is keep the twilight zone a part of the discussion and make sure people are thinking about vertical linkages in the open ocean as much as horizontal ones.

WHOI’s twilight zone work in this regard is so important. The discoveries are crucial, but communicating them matters just as much. The awe-inspiring images, stories, and research insights produced by the OTZ Project aren’t just beautiful and informative-they play a huge role in motivating policy changes.

Attendees of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction second session at the United Nations General Assembly in New York line up for a quick photo. (from left to right) Kristina Gjerde, Porter Hoagland, Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Harriet Harden-Davies, Jane Collins, Torsten Thiele, Muriel Rabone. (© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Attendees of the Biodiversity Beyond National Jurisdiction second session at the United Nations General Assembly in New York line up for a quick photo. (from left to right) Kristina Gjerde, Porter Hoagland, Aria Ritz Finkelstein, Harriet Harden-Davies, Jane Collins, Torsten Thiele, Muriel Rabone. (© Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

How do you envision the future of policy on the high seas and in the twilight zone?

There’s this idea of the common heritage of mankind, which was enshrined in the Law of the Sea Treaty. It’s the principle that the seabed belongs to everybody and that it should be reserved for peaceful purposes. On the other hand, there’s the principle of the freedom of the seas, which is that high seas resources are open to all. The balance between the two is an ideological one that runs throughout negotiations over how to manage the ocean. As we learn more about the OTZ, it only becomes clearer how important the balance between these principles is.

Right now, only a handful of countries have the technology and money to exploit the resources in the OTZ, and the rest of the world shouldn’t have to bear the brunt of the enrichment of the few.

A fundamental principle I haven’t touched on yet is the precautionary principle. Basically, it means that you should understand how a system works and what impact you could have before you interfere with it. We know that the OTZ plays a huge role in sequestering carbon, but we still have a lot to learn about how huge. If we’re not careful, over-harvesting mesopelagic organisms could reduce their regulating services catastrophically. The more we learn about the twilight zone, the more obvious it becomes how much we still have to learn. Let’s not ruin it first.

MIT-WHOI Joint Program Ocean Twilight Zone Marine Policy Center
Shells

Ocean acidification gets a watchful eye in New England aquaculture ‘hot spot’

December 5, 2019

By Evan Lubofsky | December 3, 2019

Shells Coastal ocean acidification sets off a chain of chemical reactions that lowers the ocean’s pH, making it more acidic. Acidification can affect many marine organisms, especially those that build their shells from calcium carbonate such as the scallops shown here. (Photo by Erin Koenig, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution).

Shellfish aquaculture is thriving in New England—some estimates suggest the market value tops $50 million. But the future of the industry’s growth is only as good as the ability of shellfish to build strong shells.

And that could prove challenging in decades to come as coastal waters in the region become more acidic, according to Jennie Rheuban, a research associate at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

“Coastal acidification here in Massachusetts is a real concern, as it can prevent mollusks from growing shells and affect how long it takes for them to reach a harvestable size,” says Rheuban. “Aquaculture businesses haven’t seen the effects yet, but the industry is vulnerable and could be at risk in the future.”

Ocean acidification stems from a variety of factors, including rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere and ocean, nutrient pollution from septic systems, wastewater treatment plants and fertilizer use, and freshwater input from rivers. These variables cause pH level in the ocean to decline—either directly or indirectly—which sours the seawater and reduces its supply of calcium carbonate, a chemical compound that shellfish rely on to build their shells.

Rheuban, along with colleagues Daniel McCorkle at WHOI, Rachel Jakuba of the Buzzards Bay Coalition, and Scott Doney from the University of Virginia, recently concluded a multiyear study that involved monitoring water quality conditions at 11 sites in five embayments of Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts, to better understand the dynamics behind the bay’s increasing acidity. Specifically, the monitoring program was aimed at quantifying the impact of nutrient pollution on acidity levels—something that required the scientists to “disentangle” nutrient loads from the bay’s natural driver of acidification: fresh water.

WHOI research associate Jennie Rheuban (left) and MIT-WHOI Joint Program student Michaela Fendrock count and measure oysters at an oyster reef in West Falmouth, Massachusetts. (Photo by Kirsten Karplus, West Falmouth Oyster Reef Demonstration Project Volunteer)

“River input can play a significant role in acidifying estuaries since, here in New England, fresh water tends to have low alkalinity and is already naturally acidified when it reaches the coastal environment,” says Rheuban.

Isolating the two variables involved comparing water measurements from the bay with the chemistry profiles of both coastal source water and freshwater entering the bay. During the analysis, the researchers could see that in embayments with poor water quality, nutrient pollution accounted for roughly 50% of the acidification levels. Then, using results from nutrient loading modeling efforts completed though the Massachusetts Estuaries Project, the researchers were able to use that information to estimate how much the acidification problem could be alleviated if nutrient loads were reduced.

“Embayments that are already strongly influenced by nutrient pollution could see improvements by as much as an 80% increase, while those that are relatively pristine will not see much change since the water quality is already better,” says Rheuban.

The results were published in the journal JGR Oceans earlier this month.

Jakuba, science director at the Buzzards Bay Coalition, says that a key focal point of the Massachusetts Estuaries Project was how much nutrient reduction was needed for clear waters with healthy bottom sediments where eelgrass could thrive.

“This study shows that nutrient reductions will have the additional benefit of improving the growing conditions for shellfish,” she says.

Doney agrees, and says that reducing nutrient pollution on a local level may help mitigate the broader problem of carbon emissions on coastal acidification.

“Local solutions may be a good adaptation strategy for offsetting acidification from rising atmosphere CO2, a global problem requiring more complex, international action on carbon emissions,” he says.

Rheuban points out that this particular study went beyond monitoring pH levels in the bay.

“Unfortunately, measuring pH alone is not enough to tell you the level of detail needed,” she says. “You need to understand other chemical parameters that may be impacting an animal’s ability to grow a strong shell.”

She says the calcium carbonate “saturation state” of the seawater—an indicator of a shell’s likelihood to dissolve or remain solid—was a key parameter she and her colleagues measured during the two-year monitoring effort. Saturation state is based on a critical threshold value of 1; shells in seawater with a saturation state of less than 1 are more likely to dissolve, while those in seawater above 1 are more likely to stay solid.

“In some of the most polluted places we studied, nearly every measurement we collected had a saturation state of less than 1, which is a concerning trend when thinking about it from an aquaculture standpoint,” says Rheuban.

Dan Ward, owner of Ward Aquafarms in North Falmouth, Massachussets, shares Rheuban’s concern.

“I’m concerned about our bay scallops, since they have not adapted to live in these acidic conditions over long periods of time,” says Ward. “And if our waters become more acidic, I’m also concerned about the impact it will have on natural recruitment in the region.”

Harrison Tobi (left) and Matt Cotter from Ward Aquafarms deploy an oyster cage in Megansett Harbor. (Photo courtesy of Ward Aquafarms)

Rheuban says that linking nutrient load reductions to potential improvements in the bay heath is an important step toward cleaner and less acidic harbors in the Baystate. But she hopes the study also could provide a “monitoring framework” that the state could use to identify other coastal regions throughout Massachusetts where coastal acidification could be alleviated—particularly those that depend heavily on aquaculture. This, in turn, could help inform the state’s Special Commission on Ocean Acidification, which is charged with identifying the extent of the coastal acidification problem and making policy recommendations on how to fix it.

“Coastal water quality has declined throughout many of Massachusetts’ coastal embayments.” says Rheuban. “This problem is local, and has local solutions. If we can turn things around, there’s a chance that more farming grounds could be established in the future, expanding the thriving aquaculture landscape we already have here.”

This work is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, MIT Sea Grant, and the West Wind Foundation.

Ocean Acidification Coastal Science Shellfish
Hauke Kite-Powell

Public Talk: Shellfish Aquaculture–Food and Economic Development in East Africa

August 1, 2019

Hauke Kite-Powell, Marine Policy Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution 

To feed a growing population, the world needs more healthy protein from the sea. Nowhere is this more evident than in coastal communities of East Africa. Shellfish farming is an ecologically benign way to produce seafood while providing new economic opportunities, especially for women. Learn how WHOI researchers are working with local universities in Zanzibar, Tanzania to bring the science and technology of shellfish farming to East Africa.

News Releases

WHOI and NOAA Release Report on U.S. Socio-economic Effects of Harmful Algal Blooms

April 7, 2021

Woods Hole, Mass. – Harmful algal blooms (HABs) occur in all 50 U.S. states and many produce toxins that cause illness or death in humans and commercially important species. However, attempts to place a more exact dollar value on the full range of these impacts often vary widely in their methods and level of detail, which hinders understanding of the scale of their socio-economic effects.

In order to improve and harmonize estimates of HABs impacts nationwide, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Center for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) and the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) convened a workshop led by WHOI Oceanographer Emeritus Porter Hoagland and NCCOS Monitoring and Event Response (MERHAB) Program Manager Marc Suddleson. Participants focused on approaches to better assess the socio-economic effects of harmful algal blooms in the marine and freshwater (primarily Great Lakes) ecosystems of the United States. The workshop proceedings report describes the group’s objectives, and presents recommendations developed by 40 participants, mostly economists and social scientists from a range of universities, agencies, and U.S. regions. Their recommendations fall under two broad categories: those intended to help establish a socio-economic assessment framework, and those to help create a national agenda for HABs research.

“This has been a goal of the research and response communities for a long time, but coming up with a robust national estimate has been difficult, for a number of reasons, mainly related to the diversity of algal species and the wide variety of ways they can affect how humans use the oceans and freshwater bodies,” said Hoagland. “This gives us a strong base on which to build the insight that will vastly improve our estimates.”

Framework recommendations call for enhancing interagency coordination; improving research communications and coordination among research networks; integrating socioeconomic assessments into HAB forecasts and observing networks; using open-access databases to establish baselines and identify baseline departures; facilitating rapid response socio-economic studies; improving public health outcome reporting and visibility of HAB-related illnesses; fostering the use of local and traditional ecological knowledge to improve HAB responses; engaging affected communities in citizen science; and engaging graduate students in HAB socio-economic research.

Research agenda recommendations include elements necessary for addressing gaps in our understanding of the social and economic effects of HABs. They include a suggested approach for obtaining an improved national estimate of the economic effects of HABs; supporting rapid ethnographic assessments and in depth assessments of social impacts from HABs; defining socioeconomic impact thresholds for triggering more detailed studies of impacts (such as in the case of designated HAB events of significance); sponsoring research on the value of scientific research leading to improved understanding of bloom ecology; assessing the value of HAB mitigation efforts, such as forecasts, and control approaches and their respective implementation costs; and supporting research to improve HAB risk communication and tracking and to better understand the incidence, severity, and costs of HAB-related human illnesses.

“These recommendations give us a strong series of next steps to increase focus on HAB-related socio-economic research,” said Don Anderson, director of the U.S. National Office for Harmful Algal Blooms. “The report is certain to spur increased collaborations that will provide a better understanding of the many complex socio-economic effects of HABs and provide the tools to increase the effectiveness of efforts to minimize impacts on society and the environment.”

The detailed final proceedings report and more information about the workshop is available on the U.S. National HAB Office website.

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About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering-one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide-both above and below the waves-pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu Read the report
Workshop on the Socio-economic Effects of Marine and Fresh Water Harmful Algal Blooms in the United States

 

 

 

WHOI receives NOAA awards to study, predict harmful algal blooms

October 6, 2020

Projects will help enhance monitoring and determine socioeconomic impacts of blooms nationwide

Researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) were recently named in a list of 17 new research projects funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to improve the nation’s collective response to the growing problem of harmful algal blooms (HABs). The four projects led, co-led, or supported by WHOI researchers total nearly $2.5 million over the coming year and $7.9 million over the course of the projects. A full list of the new grant awards is available online and includes projects funded under NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) and the  U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) Office.

“NOAA is funding the latest scientific research to support managers trying to cope with increasing and recurring toxic algae that continue to affect environmental and human health of coastal communities,” said David Kidwell, director of NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) Competitive Research Program. “These projects will address the largely unknown socioeconomic impact of blooms in various regions, improve local managers’ ability to keep drinking water safe, aid monitoring for algal toxins in seafood and advance a potentially valuable control method for Florida red tide and other blooms, enhancing our nation’s collective response to these events.”

Marine and fresh waters teem with life, much of it microscopic, and most of it harmless. Although most of these phytoplankton and cyanobacteria are harmless, there are some that create potent toxins and, under the right conditions, both toxic and non-toxic species can form blooms that threaten the health of humans and ecosystems, and cause significant societal and economic problems.

These impacts include human illness and death following consumption of or indirect exposure to HAB toxins, economic losses to coastal communities and commercial fisheries, and HAB-associated wildlife deaths. Freshwater HABs can also affect drinking water supplies far from the ocean and are a growing problem as water temperatures rise, precipitation patterns change, and the use of agricultural fertilizers becomes more widespread.

“It’s impossible to ignore the growing natural, social, and economic impacts that HABs are having around the world,” said Don Anderson, WHOI senior scientist and Director of the U.S. National Office Harmful Algal Blooms. “NOAA’s support is critical to ensure that we have appropriate scientific understanding of these events and adequate monitoring and forecasting in place to protect our nation’s people, animals, and ecosystems.”

 

Harmful Algal Bloom Community Technology Accelerator

Institutions: Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System/University of California San Diego/Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Axiom Data Science LLC, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of California Santa Cruz, Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2023

Funding: $1,193,561 (FY2020: $399,998)

HABs are persistent threats to coastal resources, local economies, and human and animal health throughout U.S. waters and are expected to intensify and/or expand as oceans change in response to climate change. As a result, there is an immediate need for more effective strategies and technologies to monitor and communicate the risk of algal toxins to human and ecosystem health in U.S. waters. A WHOI-based team led by biologists Heidi Sosik and Stace Beaulieu will contribute to this effort by helping deploy off the coast of California six Imaging FlowCytobots (IFCBs)—automated camera systems that image, identify, and count plankton species in the water and report data to shore in real-time.

 

Value of the Pacific Northwest HAB Forecast

Institutions: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, University of Washington, Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2023

Funding: $899,896 (FY2020: $299,948)

Razor clam and Dungeness crab fisheries along the Washington and Oregon coasts have been adversely affected by marine algae that produce the toxin domoic acid. The razor clam fishery is the largest recreational bivalve shellfish fishery in the region and a major source of tourist-related income to small communities along the coast. This project, led by Di Jin and Porter Hoagland of WHOI’s Marine Policy Center, will estimate the economic benefits of the Pacific Northwest HAB Bulletin, a forecasting tool that helps managers decide how and when to open and close the shellfisheries, by using a method for quantifying the value of information.

 

Assessing Societal Impacts of Harmful Macroalgae Blooms in the Caribbean

Institutions: University of Rhode Island and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2023

Funding: $838,137 (FY 2020: $318,292)

The number, distribution, and magnitude of blooms have increased in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico since 2011, with subsequent impacts on coastal ecosystems that have led many to consider them a new type of natural disaster in this region. This study co-led by Di Jin of the Marine Policy Center will examine how periodic blooms of free-floating Sargassum and subsequent mitigation efforts in the Caribbean affect social resilience across multiple dimensions, including economic impacts, human wellbeing, local ecological knowledge, and individual attitudes, values, and behaviors.

 

Trophic Transfer and Effect of HAB Toxins in Alaskan Marine Food Webs

Institutions: NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, NOAA Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science, Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, Alaska Veterinary Pathology Services, Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Alaska Sea Grant, University of Alaska Fairbanks, North Slope Borough, United States Geological Survey

Project Period: September 2020 – August 2025

Funding: $4,989,708 (FY2020: $1,460,870)

HABs and their toxins, particularly paralytic shellfish toxins produced by Alexandrium spp. and domoic acid produced by Pseudo-nitzschia spp., are increasingly present in Alaskan waters and have been detected in commercially valuable shellfish and finfish, and in animals that are not often studied by HAB researchers but which are targeted by subsistence hunters, including seabirds, seals, walruses, sea lions, and whales. The goal of this project, co-led by Don Anderson of the Biology Department is to model the movement and impacts of HAB toxins in Arctic and Subarctic food webs and reveal the extent of their impacts on human and natural ecosystems.

 

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation, and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu

 

 

 

 

 

The $500 billion question: what’s the value of studying the ocean’s biological carbon pump?

September 10, 2020

The ocean plays an invaluable role in capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, taking in somewhere between five to 12 gigatons (billion tons) annually. Due to limited research, scientists aren’t sure exactly how much carbon is captured and stored—or sequestered—by the ocean each year or how increasing CO2 emissions will affect this process in the future.

A new paper published in the journal Science of the Total Environment from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) puts an economic value on the benefit of research to improve knowledge of the biological carbon pump and reduce the uncertainty of ocean carbon sequestration estimates.

Using a climate economy model that factors in the social costs of carbon and reflects future damages expected as a consequence of a changing climate, lead author Di Jin of WHOI’s Marine Policy Center places the value of studying ocean carbon sequestration at $500 billion.

“The paper lays out the connections between the benefit of scientific research and decision making,” says Jin. “By investing in science, you can narrow the range of uncertainty and improve a social cost-benefit assessment.”

Better understanding of the ocean’s carbon sequestration capacity will lead to more accurate climate models, providing policymakers with the information they need to establish emissions targets and make plans for a changing climate, Jin adds.

With co-authors Porter Hoagland and Ken Buesseler, Jin builds a case for a 20-year scientific research program to measure and model the ocean’s biological carbon pump, the process by which atmospheric carbon dioxide is transported to the deep ocean through the marine food web.

The biological carbon pump is fueled by tiny plant-like organisms floating on the ocean surface called phytoplankton, which consume carbon dioxide in the process of photosynthesis. When the phytoplankton die or are eaten by larger organisms, the carbon-rich fragments and fecal matter sink deeper into the ocean, where they are eaten by other creatures or buried in seafloor sediments, which helps decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide and thus reduces global climate change.

Rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, a result of human activity such as burning fossil fuels, warms the planet by trapping heat from the sun and also dissolves into seawater, lowering the pH of the ocean, a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. A warmer, more acidic ocean could weaken the carbon pump, causing atmospheric temperatures to rise—or it could get stronger, with the opposite effect.

“When we try to predict what the world is going to look like, there’s great uncertainty,” says Buesseler, a WHOI marine chemist. “Not only do we not know how big this pump is, we don’t know whether it will remove more or less carbon dioxide in the future. We need to make progress to better understand where we’re headed, because the climate affects all of humanity.”

Buesseler added that efforts like WHOI’s Ocean Twilight Zone initiative and NASA’s EXport Processes in the global Ocean from RemoTe Sensing (EXPORTS) program are making important strides in understanding the ocean’s role in the global carbon cycle, but this research needs to be vastly scaled up in order to develop predictive models such as those used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Current IPCC models do not account for change in the ocean’s ability to take up carbon, which Buesseler said affects their accuracy.

Though the paper’s assessment doesn’t account for the cost of a global research program, Buesseler said that investment would be a small fraction of the $500 billion expected benefit. The authors warn that this savings could also be viewed as a cost to society if the research does not lead to policy decisions that mitigate the effects of climate change.

“Just like a weather forecast that helps you decide whether or not to bring an umbrella, you use your knowledge and experience to make a decision based on science,” Jin says. “If you hear it’s going to rain and you don’t listen, you will get wet.”

This research was supported by WHOI’s Ocean Twilight Zone program and funded by the Audacious Project, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Cooperative Institutes (CINAR), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as part of the EXport Processes in the Ocean from RemoTe Sensing (EXPORTS) program.

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.

 

Key Takeaways

  • The ocean takes up an estimated five to 12 gigatons of carbon dioxide per year through a process known as the biological carbon pump.
  • More accurate estimates of the ocean’s capacity to remove carbon from the atmosphere will lead to more accurate climate models which could improve carbon emissions policies.
  • The global economic benefit of studying the ocean’s biological pump is $500 billion, if the science leads to policy decisions that mitigate the effects of climate change.

WHOI Scientists Make Woods Hole Film Festival Appearance

July 17, 2020

Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists appear in two shorts and a feature film at this year’s Woods Hole Film Festival (WHFF). In addition, scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions connected to three of the festival’s feature-length, ocean-themed entries.

The short films, “Divergent Warmth” and “Beyond the Gulf Stream” are part of a program titled “The Blue Between Us,” offered on-demand from July 25 to August 1 as part of the festival’s virtual program.

In “Divergent Warmth,” producer-director Megan Lubetkin gives viewers a behind-the-scenes look at the synchronized ballet aboard a research vessel during a recent expedition to the East Pacific Rise. Experimental music provides rhythm to imagery of deck operations, launch and recovery of the human-occupied submersible Alvin, and other-worldly views of seafloor hydrothermal vents and lava flows. Interwoven throughout is an evocative reading of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Diving into the Wreck.”

Dan Fornari, a WHOI emeritus research scholar, acted as associate producer of the 10-minute film. As one of the scientists on the December 2019 expedition, he invited Lubetkin, herself a scientist and the creative exhibits coordinator with the Ocean Exploration Trust, to assist with subsea camera operations and video data management on board. Lubetkin spent her free time shooting additional video, which she edited together while still on the ship to produce a first draft of “Divergent Warmth.”

“I was blown away. It was just fabulous,” Fornari said of his first viewing. “It captures the spirit of going out to sea and being involved in this exploratory effort in the alien realm, where very few people get to go.”

The complex winter currents that collide off the coast of Cape Hatteras are the focus of “Beyond the Gulf Stream,” a short documentary by the Georgia-based production company MADLAWMEDIA. Filmed aboard the WHOI-operated research vessel Neil Armstrong, the 10-minute film features WHOI physical oceanographers Magdalena Andres, Glen Gawarkiewicz, and graduate student Jacob Forsyth as they share their perspectives on the challenges and rewards of doing scientific research at sea, often in difficult conditions.

“I think we have a responsibility to communicate science and the process of doing of science to the public,” said Andres about the film, which was produced in collaboration with WHOI and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography at the University of Georgia. “It does a really nice job of capturing life at sea in the wintertime.”

As a scientist who uses video to capture data from the ocean depths, Fornari is highly attuned to the impact that visual media can have in capturing the public’s imagination about the ocean.

“These kinds of artistic expressions help open doors to people’s minds.” he said. “That’s crucial for getting the public to understand how critically important the oceans are. Then maybe more students will say, ‘I want to be an ocean scientist when I grow up.’”

In addition to the shorts program itself, WHOI scientists, staff, and students will also participate in “Filmmaker Chats” open to the public and broadcast via Zoom, as well as the WHFF Facebook and YouTube channels. Maddux-Lawrence will take questions about “Beyond the Gulf Stream” on Sunday, July 19, beginning at 9:00 a.m. On Friday, July 31 at 9:00 a.m., Lubetkin will appear with Fornari, as well as Alvin pilot Drew Bewley, MIT-WHOI Joint Program graduate student Lauren Dykman, and Texas A&M graduate student Charlie Holmes II to discuss the making of and science behind “Divergent Warmth.” Recordings of both sessions will also be available for viewing afterward on the festival website.

In addition to the short films, WHOI whale biologist Michael Moore appears in the feature-length documentary “Entangled,” which looks at the intertwined plights of the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale and coastal fishing communities in New England and eastern Canada. After being hunted for centuries, the whales face new challenges in the form of climate change and increased fishing and shipping activity, and Moore has been an outspoken proponent of the need for increased protections to stave off their slide to extinction within the next 20 years.

WHOI scientists will also add their perspective to Q&A sessions following several ocean-themed, feature-length films selected for the festival:

  • Thursday, July 30, at 10:00 p.m.: Research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell will answer questions related to aquaculture and seafood in relation to the film “Fish & Men.
  • Saturday, August 1, from 4:00 to 5:00 p.m.: Marine chemist Chris Reddy will answer questions about microplastics in relation to the film “Microplastics Madness.”
  • Saturday, August 1, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m.: Marine biologist Simon Thorrold will answer questions about marine protected areas and fishing in connection with the film “Current Sea.”

Key Takeaways

  • Films featuring WHOI scientists will be screened as part of “The Blue Between Us” shorts program at the virtual Woods Hole Film Festival, which may be viewed online by festival passholders and individual ticketholders during the festival, which runs from Saturday, July 25, to Saturday, August 1. Tickets and more information is available here.
  • Whale biologist Michael Moore will appear in the feature-length film “Entangled” about the plight of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales.
  • WHOI scientists will also participate in Q&A sessions associated with several ocean-themed, feature-length festival films.
  • More information is available on the festival website.

Report reveals ‘unseen’ human benefits from ocean twilight zone

January 22, 2020

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Exclusive report

Value Beyond View: Illuminating the human benefits of the ocean twilight zone

Download now – it’s free!

Did you know that there’s a natural carbon sink—even bigger than the Amazon rainforest—that helps regulate Earth’s climate by sucking up to six billion tons of carbon from the air each year?

A new report from researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) reveals for the first time the unseen—and somewhat surprising—benefits that people receive from the ocean’s twilight zone. Also known as the “mesopelagic,” this is the ocean layer just beyond the sunlit surface.  

The ocean twilight zone is a mysterious place filled with alien-looking creatures. The nightly, massive migration of animals from the zone to the surface waters to find food helps to cycle carbon through the ocean’s depths, down into the deep ocean and even to the seabed, where it can remain sequestered indefinitely. 

“We knew that the ocean’s twilight zone played an important role in climate, but we are uncertain about  how much carbon it is sequestering, or trapping, annually,” says Porter Hoagland, a WHOI marine policy analyst and lead author of the report. “This massive migration of tiny creatures is happening all over the world, helping to remove an enormous amount of carbon from the atmosphere.” 

Exactly how much carbon is difficult to pinpoint because the ocean twilight zone is challenging to get to and is understudied. The WHOI Ocean Twilight Zone project, which launched in April 2018, is focused on changing that with the development of new technologies. 

It’s estimated that two to six billion metric tons of carbon are sequestered through the ocean’s twilight zone annually. By comparison, the world’s largest rain forest sucks in only about 544 million metric tons of carbon a year—five percent of the world’s annual 10 billion metric tons of carbon emissions. 

 

Using a range of prices for carbon, reflecting future damages expected as a consequence of a changing climate, this “regulating” service has an estimated value of $300 to $900 billion annually, Hoagland notes. Without the ocean’s ability to sequester carbon, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could be as much as 200 parts per million higher than they are today (about 415 ppm), which would result in a temperature increase of about six degrees Celsius or 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit. 

In addition to its role in the carbon cycle, the twilight zone likely harbors more fish biomass than the rest of the ocean combined, and it is home to the most abundant vertebrate species on the planet— the bristlemouth. While twilight zone fish are unlikely to ever end up on peoples’ dinner plates because of their small size and strange appearance, they do provide meals for larger, economically important fish, like tuna and swordfish, and for other top predators, including sharks, whales, seals, penguins, and seabirds.

The twilight zone’s biological abundance makes it an attractive target for commercial fishing operations. Ocean twilight zone animals could be harvested to produce fish meal to support the rapidly growing aquaculture industry and to provide fish oils for nutraceutical markets. Because the twilight zone is situated largely in unregulated international waters, there is concern that its potential resources could be subject to unsustainable exploitation. 

The research team hopes that the report will be useful for decision makers, such as the United Nations delegates who will meet this spring in New York to continue developing a new international agreement governing the conservation and sustainable management of marine life on the high seas, in areas beyond the coastal waters managed by individual member States.

“We need to think carefully about what we stand to gain or lose from future actions that could affect the animals of the twilight zone and their valuable ecosystem services,” says Hoagland. “Increasing scientific understanding is essential if we are going to move toward a goal of the sustainable use of the resources.”

Read Frequently Asked Questions about the ocean twilight zone, or download the report.

This research is part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s Ocean Twilight Zone Project, funded as part of The Audacious Project housed at TED.

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Mass., dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930 on a recommendation from the National Academy of Sciences, its primary mission is to understand the oceans and their interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate a basic understanding of the oceans’ role in the changing global environment. For more information, please visit www.whoi.edu.

Key Takeaways

  • The ocean’s twilight zone provides benefits to humans that occur largely out of sight.
  • Ocean twilight zone creatures remove two to six billion metric tons of carbon annually, comprising a regulating service worth $300 to $900 billion each year.
  • Without the nightly animal migrations that help shuttle carbon to the deep ocean, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could be as much as one-third more than they are today, which translates to an average temperature increase of about six degrees Celsius or 10.8 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Commercial interests are considering the harvest of twilight zone organisms as a source of proteins and lipids for expanding aquaculture and nutraceutical operations, which are expected to grow by 37 percent from 2016 to 2030.
  • The loss of the carbon sequestration service as a consequence of a changing climate or the overfishing of twilight zone animals could amount to significant mitigation and adaptation costs (estimated in the hundreds of billions to trillions of dollars) by the end of the century.

Got questions? Read our FAQs.

Bay State Aquaculture Projects Get Green Light from National Sea Grant Program

Bay State Aquaculture Projects Get Green Light from National Sea Grant Program

October 31, 2017

Two new grants to the Woods Hole Sea Grant program totaling more than $650,000 will support research aimed at expanding aquaculture production in Massachusetts. The projects won funding as part of a national strategic investment in aquaculture by the NOAA Sea Grant Program.

“The United States is one of the world’s leading seafood consumers, yet our marine aquaculture production trails other major seafood producing countries,” said Woods Hole Sea Grant Director Matthew Charette, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “These newly funded projects complement Woods Hole Sea Grant’s efforts to support our regional aquaculture industry and the safe production and consumption of shellfish.”

One project, “Increasing Northeast U.S. Marine Aquaculture Production by Pre-permitting Federal Ocean Space,” aims to simplify the process and reduce the cost of obtaining permits to farm marine species in U.S. waters. Led by Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the project will conduct fisheries, protected species, shipping industry, and other reviews on selected offshore areas in advance, to reduce the regulatory burden for aquaculture growers.

“The permitting process for aquaculture in federal waters can be onerous and complex,” said Kite-Powell. “Our approach is to work with major stakeholders, including the aquaculture industry, the federal and state permitting agencies, and the fishing/shipping/protected species communities, to identify suitable areas in federal waters off New England, and identify a range of aquaculture gear types and native species for which they can be pre-permitted. With the pre-permitting process for these areas completed, we will establish a mechanism for aquaculture ventures to gain access and begin production.”

Ultimately, the project, which is estimated to take two years and involves the Massachusetts Aquaculture Association and researchers at the New England Aquarium and UMass Boston, will determine if this simplified permitting mechanism for aquaculture ventures enhances U.S. aquaculture production.

According to the 2016 United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization report “The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture,” the United States ranks 17th in total aquaculture production behind China, Indonesia, India, Viet Nam, Philippines, Bangladesh, the Republic of Korea, Norway, Chile, Egypt, Japan, Myanmar, Thailand, Brazil, Malaysia, and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

The Massachusetts shellfish aquaculture industry had an estimated value of $23 million in 2015, with more than 93 percent of production from oyster culture. The industry is currently dominated by a single product – raw oysters served on the half shell.

“Aquaculture production in Massachusetts is growing, but it’s important to have diversity within the industry,” said Abigail Archer, a marine resource specialist with Woods Hole Sea Grant and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension. “It’s inherently risky to rely on a monoculture of oysters – disease would significantly impact the industry.”

Archer is the lead on a second newly funded project to explore the potential to broaden the shellfish aquaculture market in Massachusetts to include two other native clam species – surf clams (Spisula solidissima) and blood arks (Anadara ovalis) as well as shucked oysters (Crassostrea virginica), for those who prefer not to eat raw oysters. The project, a collaboration between Woods Hole Sea Grant, Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, and Wellfleet SPAT (Shellfish Promotion and Tasting), will conduct a market analysis of the potential consumer demand for and economic value of culturing alternative species, as well as for shucked oysters.

“We want to get ahead of the curve and diversify, but growers need a certain amount of market-based data before investing in a new species or new markets,” said Archer.

The project builds on past research by Woods Hole Sea Grant and the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension to culture surf clams and blood arks and social science research into consumer appetite for new shellfish products. Archer and her team see this as an important part of their strategic work toassist the regional aquaculture industry to continue to succeed as a growing contributor to the local economy and to the national and global production of farmed marineproducts in an environmentally sustainable manner.

“The shellfish aquaculture industry generates more than $20 million in labor income for the state and has a value of more than $45 million to the Massachusetts economy,” said Congressman William Keating. “The federal investment into these research projects will reduce barriers to growth and expand this important industry.”

Based at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Woods Hole Sea Grant program supports research and education, and an extension program in concert with the Cape Cod Cooperative Extension, that encourage environmental stewardship, long-term economic development, and responsible use of the nation’s coastal and ocean resources. It is part of the National Sea Grant College Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a network of 33 individual programs located in each of the coastal and Great Lakes states.

Oceanus Magazine

Uncharted Water

Uncharted Waters

July 16, 2020

Uncharted Waters:

Our global ocean will change dramatically over the next few decades. What might it look like, and how will humans adapt?

By David Levin

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Peering out over the blue-green surf of the Atlantic Ocean is like catching a glimpse of infinite time. From our vantage point on land, its monumental scale makes it look immutable, eternal; a bottomless resource. For most of our short existence as a species, that has been the case. Ever since our ancestors first pulled food and other resources from beneath its surface, the sea has been essential to our growth and survival. In the next century, its waters will take a remarkable turn. The ocean itself and the ways we use it are poised to change dramatically, making it a very different place from the one we know today.

By 2100, the global population will reach some 11 billion—almost a third larger than today. As climate change alters weather patterns, we’ll experience more droughts, mega-storms, and heat waves, making sustainable food and energy production on land even more difficult. As a result, we’ll need to turn to the sea for our livelihood. Over the next ten years—a period that the United Nations has already deemed the “Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development”—we’re almost certain to see growth in ocean-based technologies, aquaculture, and offshore energy, be it wind, oil, gas, or biofuels. Fifty years out, that growth could expand exponentially.

But exactly how will the future play out? How will we help shape a changing ocean? And how might new practices, policies, and technologies help preserve it as one of the world’s greatest shared resources? These are questions that WHOI scientists are actively studying in a collaborative and interdisciplinary way.

“The way we’ll be using the oceans in 50 years will be unrecognizable—

we’ll almost certainly be leveraging them for energy and aquaculture far more than today.”

—Hauke Kite-Powell, WHOI’s Marine Policy Center

Looking ahead: What will our future ocean look like? WHOI is working to understand how new practices, technologies, and policies will help shape and preserve one of our planet’s greatest shared resources.  (Photo by Paul Brennan/Dreamstime.com)

“We want to understand the processes at work that allow some coral reefs to survive despite conditions that should kill them.”
—Anne Cohen, WHOI scientist

Future fisheries: a shift from capture to culture

Joel Llopiz, who studies fisheries oceanography and ecology at WHOI, says that the most direct impact on humans may be widespread changes in areas we commonly fish. At the moment, the world gets 17% of its protein from the sea, a number that will increase as cities grow and viable farmland shrinks. Yet, it’s unlikely that the massive commercial fishing operations, standard practice in the 20th century, will be sustainable deep into the 21st.

According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 60% of fisheries are already fully exploited and another 30% are badly overused. The coasts of New England and Nova Scotia provide an ominous example: in the early 1980s, the annual haul of cod in the region was more than 50,000 metric tons per year, but today, it’s 2% of that figure. While overfishing has played a major role in that reduction, the added pressures of warming seas and a changing food web haven’t helped matters, says Llopiz.

In the sands of Stellwagen Bank, a shallow area roughly 20 miles from the Massachusetts Coast, the plight of one tiny species—the sand lance—reveals how fisheries may change in the future. These miniscule silver fish are a direct link in the food web between plankton (their food of choice), and animals like cod, seals, seabirds, sharks, and even whales that feed on sand lances. Yet as warming seas reduce the amount of plankton in the water, sand lances have also dropped in number.

Unguja residents Left: Unguja residents gather on a beach at sunset. The sails in the background are traditional dhows heading out to fish or carrying cargo to the Tanzanian mainland. Right: Ikiwa Abdulla and her family clean wild-caught shellfish after a long day of collecting out on the flats in Fumba, Zanzibar. WHOI is teaching women how to cultivate shellfish for food and improve economic opportunities in East Africa. (Photos by Julia Cumes Photography)

“We’ve already seen sand lance vanishing to the south, off the coast of New Jersey and Virginia, where the waters are getting warmer,” says Llopiz. “They can’t easily move away from their habitats like herring and other species, so they’re likely just dying off,” robbing commercial species of a major food source.

As fish like these disappear due to warming, it could push some large commercial fish species, like hake and flounder, to migrate into cooler waters in search of food, he notes. Other species like pollock and halibut may be going deeper for the same reason. And yet, even as some populations shrink, others may expand—which might mean the overall number of commercial fish remains relatively steady, but the variety of species could change.

“Cold water species like cod are just not going to come back in great productivity,” says Steve Murawski, a biological oceanographer at the University of South Florida and former Chief Scientist of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service. “We see the same thing with northern shrimp on coast of Maine. They haven’t had a season in five years, so they could be a goner as well.”

Scientists around the globe are already trying to understand how global fisheries will respond to a changing ocean, and hope to reveal how those changes will affect key food sources for humans, says Di Jin, senior scientist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center. Despite the growing concern about fisheries’ health, Jin thinks open-ocean fishing will continue to play a major role as a global food source. “I’m very optimistic that we’ll still see capture fisheries 100 years from now, but it’s likely that they’ll need to be integrated into aquaculture systems to meet our needs,” he says.

Sustainable aquaculture: food security for the future

“The way we’ll be using the oceans in 50 years will be unrecognizable,” says Hauke Kite-Powell, a research specialist at WHOI’s Marine Policy Center. “We’ll almost certainly be leveraging them for energy and aquaculture far more than today.”

As land-based resources are stretched thin due to increased population and changing climate, the oceans are the only real growth area for farming, he says.  Aquaculture will continue to expand and is poised to become a massive industry, bypassing capture fisheries in the near future.

This is already happening. Since 1990, the amount of wild-caught fish has hovered around 80 million metric tons, while aquaculture has more than quintupled, from less than 15 million tons to roughly 80 million in the same time. Today, aquaculture provides almost the same amount of fish and shellfish globally as commercial fishing.

At the moment, Kite-Powell says, the vast majority of aquaculture takes place off the coasts of southeast Asia, China, and Japan, where fish, oyster, and seaweed farms are common. He thinks farms like these may soon appear off Europe and North America.

While a shift to ocean-grown proteins would cut down on greenhouse gas emissions from livestock farming, he notes, it’s unclear whether aquaculture can provide all the food our growing population will need. Only a few species of finfish can be successfully farmed, so the variety of available seafood will go down—and food for all those fish will still have to come from somewhere. Right now, it’s mostly provided by turning huge numbers of forage fishes, like anchovies, into fish meal, says Llopiz. 

“A lot of commercial fishing today exists just to catch protein to feed farmed species,” he says. “You can’t grow fish like salmon without marine-derived proteins.”

That poses a bit of a conundrum: even with more offshore farms, we’ll still need to fish the open ocean to feed those farmed species. That, alone, may mean that aquaculture won’t be enough to meet society’s food needs sustainably.

Farming shellfish, however, could be a different story. Mussels, oysters, and clams don’t need special foods to survive: as filter feeders, they pull nutrients directly from the waters around them. Compared to fish, they grow far more densely in the same amount of space, and also improve water quality. One nonprofit organization (aptly called the Billion Oyster Project) is working to restore oyster reefs in New York’s harbor and bring them back to once-massive levels by 2035. In the process, they hope to revive a major source of seafood in the region while removing waterborne pollutants like nitrogen.

Mussels are another good choice for seafood farming, adds Scott Lindell, a research specialist at WHOI who studies marine aquaculture. “Mussels in particular have a great attribute of sticking to things, so they can be applied to ropes and hung in the water up to 60 feet below the surface,” he says. “In a very small footprint, you can produce tons of high-quality protein that’s better for the environment than beef, and has heart-healthy oils.”

“I think we’ll see regions pre-permitting certain areas for specific uses and restricting activity in others, similar to zoning on land.” ~ Hauke Kite-Powell, WHOI’s Marine Policy Center

Illustration by Natalie Renier, WHOI Creative, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Lindell isn’t exaggerating. A ton of cultured mussels emits less than a tenth of the amount of greenhouse gas caused by farming beef, and roughly half that of poultry or pork. 

Aquaculture won’t be limited to growing animal proteins, he notes. Seaweed, too, could become a viable ocean-farmed crop on a large scale. Lindell envisions extensive offshore kelp farms, creating artificial seaweed beds that could be harvested sustainably for food and biofuels. If large enough, those farms could also cool certain areas of water by providing shade and increase oxygen in the water even as they absorb CO₂. That could improve the health of local fish populations attracted to the kelp habitats, creating artificial fishing grounds. With the right infrastructure, kelp and wind farms could even exist in tandem, creating two sources of renewable marine energy, Lindell says.

For these farms to be sustainable and cost-effective, however, we’ll need to develop new ways of monitoring huge areas of aquacultured kelp, he notes. Kite-Powell agrees.

“In order to provide biofuels on a commercial scale, we’ll need seaweed farms on scale of land-based farms in the Midwest,” Kite-Powell says. “Building and operating farms of that size in open water will require new technologies—not just to maintain the crops, but also to harvest them. They’ll have to handle an enormous amount of material.”

Saving our coral reefs: lessons on resilience and recovery

Coral reefs, which support fisheries and act as a barrier against storms, are also being deeply affected by a changing ocean. Over the next 50 years, reefs worldwide will continue to erode from sedimentation, nutrient runoff, bleaching, and extreme weather events. Shellfish and other fisheries that depend on coral reefs will certainly be affected, and vulnerable coastlines will be exposed to storm surges and high surf.

As reef waters become too hot for coral polyps, they expel the symbiotic algae that give them essential nutrients—and their trademark colors—leaving them ghostly white. A growing number of coral species are dying off after bleaching, says WHOI geochemist Amy Apprill, while others are proving surprisingly resilient. In 2016, the Great Barrier reef in Australia experienced widespread bleaching from a massive heat wave that killed off almost 30% of its shallow-water corals, but in other areas, like Turks and Caicos, reefs have bounced back unexpectedly after multi-year bleaching events. To save corals worldwide, Apprill notes, it will be important to figure out what exactly makes the surviving reefs resilient.

In some areas of the world’s ocean, coral reefs are protected from extreme heat by features called internal waves.  According to Anne Cohen, who studies coral reef ecosystems at WHOI, these natural subsurface waves bring cooler water from the deep ocean up near the surface and within reach of the coral reef and its inhabitants. During extreme heat events that cause widespread bleaching and coral death across ocean basins, those reefs lucky enough to be situated in the path of internal waves continue to benefit from this natural air conditioning. A study led by Cohen’s graduate student Tom DeCarlo showed that as ocean warming continues, enhanced stratification will strengthen internal waves in some regions, increasing the chances of those reefs surviving 21st-century warming.

The Asian shore crab was first introduced in the northeast in the 1980s. Between it and the green crab, these invasive species are almost the only crabs found among the rocks on many New England beaches.

(Photo by Thomas Kleindinst, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

To understand and predict coral resiliency, Cohen is looking to “Super Reefs” that have demonstrated capacity to survive ocean warming. Some Super Reef communities are genetically adapted to higher temperatures, like corals in Palau, whereas others seem able to recover quickly, like some reefs she and her team have studied in the central Pacific. Reefs protected by internal waves are also considered Super Reefs because they have the greatest potential to survive into the next century despite climate change.  Cohen is working closely with conservation organizations and governments of coral reef nations to find and protect Super Reefs from other human activities that can harm them.

“We want to understand the processes at work that allow coral reefs to survive despite conditions that should kill them, so we can come up with plans to ensure that they still exist in the future,” she says.

It’s also possible that corals could migrate—albeit slowly—into cooler waters, says Apprill. Their microscopic larvae can drift hundreds of miles through the ocean, and could settle down to form reefs in areas with more comfortable temperatures.

“That could be a lifesaver for reefs,” she says. “The best example we have at the moment are reefs near Bermuda—they’re at higher latitudes compared to tropical and subtropical reefs, but they have lots of really old, healthy, vibrant corals. Not all coral species can survive that far north, but we know it’s certainly possible for some.”

Aliens of the ocean

Changing ocean habitats and increased human impacts may allow not only novel pathogens to thrive, but new invasive species as well, by creating opportunities for them to settle in, grow, and take over existing ecosystems. In addition, ships traversing the globe unintentionally spread the larvae of marine species picked up in water for ballast from one port to another when their tanks are flushed.

In the U.S. Great Lakes, zebra mussels have been devouring key plankton sources and clogging infrastructure since the late 1990s. In New England, green crabs—which were accidentally introduced in the ballast of European ships more than a century ago—have begun to edge out species that are fished for food, says Carolyn Tepolt, a biologist at WHOI who studies invasive species.

“The green crab is not picky; it just eats everything it can get, especially young shellfish, so it’s been pretty devastating for the soft-shell clam population in New England. When it expanded into the Canadian Maritimes, it started destroying important habitats for scallops and lobsters. It has created a real problem for those fisheries,” she says.

“As technology improves, we’ll see not only better autonomous sensors and drones, but more powerful computers and tools to crunch that data, giving us even more insight into how the oceans work.” ~ Admiral John Richardson, WHOI Board of Trustees

diverse marine life WHOI scientists and colleagues conducted the first scientific expedition to map and characterize seamounts on a submerged platform in the Galápagos. This image, taken near Fernandina Island at 700 meters deep, shows some of the diverse marine life that these underwater mountains support. Results from the expedition are being used by the Galápagos National Park Directorate to refine zoning within the Galápagos Marine Reserve to enhance protection of delicate ecosystems. (Photo by Adam Soule, © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Sea lice—a type of copepod that causes lesions and ulcers on fish—is an invasive species of great concern, and a growing nuisance to farmed seafood. Other invasive species, like a sea squirt informally called “rock vomit,” can smother mussels and other shellfish beds, and even kill off worms, snails, and other species in marine sediments that provide food for larger organisms.

“There’s going to be major changes in ecological communities as ranges shift,” Tepolt says. “We’ll probably see species not traditionally considered invasive taking advantage of new conditions. In that way, there may be more homogenization of communities—if you have two different places in the world with a similar environment, it’ll be more likely that you’ll see similar species,” she says.

While this sort of redistribution of species may cause major disruptions in certain ecological niches, it may be barely discernable in others. In some cases, Tepolt points out, invasive species can actually serve the same ecological functions as native species, letting them settle smoothly into a new area. On the west coast of the U.S., researchers discovered in the 1980s that the native blue mussel is being widely replaced by an invasive species of Mediterranean blue mussel—yet most fishermen hadn’t noticed.

“They just don’t look different enough from the native species,” she says. “It took genetic testing to tell them apart. It’ll take a lot more study to know if they’re actually doing different things in the marine environment.”

Informing future policy

As humans continue to expand our reach offshore, we’ll likely see more development in wind energy, oil and gas infrastructure, telecommunications, mineral extraction, and more, as hundreds of new and existing industries combine to create a “blue economy” in the future. To get there, however, we’ll need to improve our scientific understanding of the oceans and develop innovative new policies for managing coastal and offshore waters. In order for human populations to grow sustainably, Kite-Powell thinks we’ll see a shift away from existing systems of oversight—where towns, counties, and states share jurisdiction—to a more regional approach that creates dedicated zones for offshore farming, fishing, and other activities.

“I think we’ll see regions pre-permitting certain areas for specific uses in a proactive approach. It’ll be similar to zoning on land. Look at national parks that are off-limits for development or industrial use, with a planned balance of public use and ecological conservation. We’ll need to move to something like that for oceans as demands for resources rise sharply over the next century,” he says.

Creating more marine protected areas could also help preserve sensitive ecosystems. The Tubbataha reef system, a wild area 90 miles off the coast of the Philippines, offers a prime example: Fished to dangerously low levels in the 1980s when local fishermen used extreme measures like dynamite and cyanide to bring in their catch, it was declared a marine protected area in 1988 by the Philippine government, and eight years later the military enforced a ban on fishing. Since then, Tubbataha has recovered dramatically, and has even been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its outstanding diversity and density of marine species. Its return to near-pristine condition offers a promising model for creating protected areas to restore marine health.

Surprisingly, stricter land-based zoning will also become a critical component to how we adapt to a changing ocean. As sea levels rise, municipalities may rethink how they manage resources. Some cities, for example, may choose not to maintain roadways that are regularly swamped by high tides and storm surge to discourage development in regions likely to flood, says Kite-Powell.

New risk management approaches by insurance companies might play a role, as well. AxaXL, a major reinsurance firm, is in the process of developing an “ocean risk index”—a way of quantifying the impacts of storm surge, sea-level rise, and the changing marine ecosystem. The company plans to share this index openly to governments and industry when it’s complete.

“Most of the regions that are at the highest risk for sea-level rise or storm surge are located in small, underdeveloped areas,” says Chip Cunliffe, director of sustainable development at AxaXL. “They’re the least able to help themselves or to cope with the impacts of higher storm intensity or flooding. The index helps regions know where the risks are most acute so they can plan appropriately.”

youth strike for climate Thousands of students and young people protest in London as part of the youth strike for climate march in 2019. (Photo by Ink Drop)

New Tools for Ocean Management

Whether on or off shore, however, decision-making and marine policy will be increasingly shaped by technology in the future. As new autonomous sensors are deployed and marine observing arrays spread, we’ll have real-time information on the ocean and its ecosystems. Combined with new artificial intelligence and modeling software, that data could be a boon for both science and national security, says Admiral John Richardson, former chief of naval operations during the Obama administration.

“[Growth in technology] is a tide that’s going to be impossible to stop,” he says. “As technology improves, we’ll see not only better autonomous sensors and drones, but more powerful computers and tools to crunch that data, giving us even more insight into how the oceans work.”

“With new ocean observing data accumulation and prediction systems, we’ll be able to quickly integrate a huge amount of information about the oceans,” adds Jin.

That may open up new possibilities for ocean management. New sensing and computing technology could map out where species are in real time and predict future movements. In doing so, Jin suggests, it would allow governments to better manage ecosystems and determine where new marine protected areas should be.

“I think we’ll need to move toward seeing ocean management as something far more dynamic,” he says. “In the past, the strategy was, ‘let’s impose a rule against harvesting certain species in a certain location,’ but now, we recognize that the ocean is transient. Species are mobile. Having real-time data from ocean observatories will let us incorporate a tailored approach to marine management, like opening one spot to fishing or resource extraction in the spring, but not the fall, for instance, to protect those ecosystems in sensitive seasons.”

Hope for the Future

Even today, when the future of the world’s ocean looks uncertain, Jin notes there’s reason to be hopeful about our ability to cope with changing seas. For the first time in its history, the United Nations has included oceans as part of its sustainable development goals, making “Life Below Water” one of its focal points for 2020, and declaring a Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030).

Public schools are increasingly incorporating ocean literacy into their curriculums, educating young students about the role the seas play in the planet’s health. And young activists like Greta Thunberg are injecting new passion for environmental causes into a growing generation.

No matter what recommendations we make today about the best use of our ocean in the years to come, the people who will actually make those decisions are likely sitting in an elementary school classroom right now. Educating them about the critical importance of the seas in their own future—and in the future of the planet—will be essential to creating an informed, passionate group of leaders.

“We’re seeing ocean science being written into K-12 textbooks,” Jin says. “That’s a very positive sign that students are targeted to become more ocean literate, and so hopefully more open to sustainability. Children are starting to really understand that although they may be in Kansas, the ocean is affecting their life through climate, through biodiversity, through available seafood.” They’re also realizing that they, in turn, affect the ocean through their lifestyle habits and choices, he adds.

The ocean may be a vastly different place in 50 years, but there is hope that we can still thrive. Researchers are breaking new ground in ocean science and technology every day, policy-makers are preparing for new levels of diplomacy and collaboration, and educators are striving to equip students with knowledge to face new challenges, says Kite-Powell.

“My hope for the future is that we will use the ocean to produce food and energy in ways that are both good for people and safeguard the integrity of marine ecosystems. If that happens in a way that is sensible and scientifically informed, it will help us through global climate change and a century of population growth ahead of us,” he says. “Over the next 50-100 years, it will be crucial for us to get those things right.” 

biology Coastal Ecosystems Ocean Life

Forecasting the Future of Fish

Forecasting the Future of Fish

October 29, 2015

Recovering After a Hurricane

Recovering After a Hurricane

October 1, 2014

Maya Becker’s research as a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) gave her the confidence to change her entire academic path. When she arrived at WHOI in June, she had just completed her junior year at Columbia University, where she has been majoring in sustainable development with a concentration in earth science. After a summer immersed in the scientific community at WHOI, she decided to swap the two and pursue hard science.

Working with senior research specialist Porter Hoagland in WHOI’s Marine Policy Center, Becker defined and measured the vulnerability and resilience of coastal communities to major storms. Using data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Becker and Hoagland examined per capita personal income in communities before and after a hurricane to see how the storm affected their economic health and whether the communities differed in their ability to financially bounce back. Although American coastal areas are hit by hurricanes almost every year, little was known about metropolitan vulnerability and resilience to these storms. Becker and Hoagland even had to define their essential terms.

“In existing literature there isn’t really a consensus as to what ‘vulnerability’ or ‘resilience’ means, and they haven’t been defined in relation to coastal hazards,” Becker said. Ultimately, she and Hoagland defined vulnerability as a dip in economic development in the wake of a coastal storm, and resilience as a community’s ability to recover from that dip.

Once Becker had concrete definitions, she began analyzing median per capita income data from four heavily-settled areas—Charleston, South Carolina; Cape Cod, Massachusetts; and Miami and Pensacola, Florida—that were affected by hurricanes Hugo, Bob, Andrew, and Opal, respectively. Those four storms occurred in the 1980s or 1990s. More recent storms were not examined because income data are not yet available for a long enough period of time to generate statistically significant results.

Using statistical tests, Becker found that Charleston was vulnerable and resilient, suffering major negative effects on personal income but rebounding quickly. Cape Cod was vulnerable but not resilient, with effects lingering for several years after Hurricane Bob. Pensacola was not vulnerable—it had not suffered major negative economic impacts from Hurricane Hugo. Since it wasn’t vulnerable in that case, its resilience could not be determined.

Becker’s analysis showed that Miami was not vulnerable either, a finding that puzzled her and Hoagland.

“It presented such a paradox,” she said. “Hurricane Andrew caused so much damage that it was hard for us to believe that the area was not vulnerable.”

They looked for possible reasons for that finding, without success.

“We were not able to solve the Andrew mystery,” Becker said.

Overall, though, the approach she developed was a good first step toward understanding how human communities fare in the wake of a natural disaster. Becker said she hopes her future work will get more into deeper detail about why some communities bounce back from disaster more quickly than others.

“I want to understand the science behind what about a specific coastal community makes it resilient,” Becker said. For her senior thesis, she hopes to continue this project, bringing in more scientific data and bridging her two interests.

After graduation next spring, she hopes to go right into graduate school, but is unsure of the specific area of science. Aside from academics, Becker serves as a copyeditor for the Columbia Daily Spectator, the university’s student-run paper. She is also a member of the university’s Design for America program and leads freshmen on hiking trips as part of the Outdoor Orientation Program.

Becker and her research were supported by The Virginia Walker Smith Fund.

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part II)

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part II)

October 1, 2014

It’s a science major’s dream job: live on Cape Cod for the summer and do ocean research with top-notch scientists as a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

This year, as in every summer since 1959, undergraduates from around the world came to WHOI to learn about ocean science and conduct research under the guidance of WHOI scientists. Members of the 2014 group hail from the United States, Croatia, Italy, England, Trinidad, Germany, Canada, and China. Their projects here spanned a wide range of topics, from the genetics of barnacles along the East Coast of the United States to the effects of the monsoon on salinity in the Bay of Bengal.

And this year, another undergraduate, Allison Gage, joined us at Oceanus to delve into the world of science writing. As part of her internship, Gage profiled several of the Summer Student Fellows. We published four profiles in September (see links at right). Here are three more.

It’s Hard to Kill a Killifish

Lily Helfrich
Summer Student Fellow Lily Helfrich is using a new molecular tool, microRNA analysis, to explore why some killifish are able to thrive in waters heavily contaminated with PCBs.

On the Trail of an Invader

Filip Buksa
To find out when and how fast a small gray barnacle came to New England waters, WHOI researchers turn to forensic techniques.

Recovering After a Hurricane

Maya Becker
Summer Student Fellow Maya Becker studied how vulnerable four coastal communities were to major hurricanes—and how fast they recovered.

The 2014 Summer Student Fellowships were funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey-WHOI Cooperative Agreement, The John M. Alden Fund, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fund for Summer Student Fellows, The Christopher Haebler Frantz Fund, The AOP&E and G&G Alumni Fund, The Carl and Pancha Peterson Endowed Fund for Support of Summer Student Fellows, The Lawrason Riggs, III Memorial Fund, The Richard Vanstone Fund, The C. Russell Feldman Fund, The William D. Grant Fund, The Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation Fund, The Jake Hornor Fund, The Noel B. McLean Fund,The Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region, and The Virginia Walker Smith Fund.

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part I)

A Summer of Science by the Sea, 2014 (Part I)

September 18, 2014

It’s a science major’s dream job: live on Cape Cod for the summer and do ocean research with top-notch scientists as a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

This year, as in every summer since 1959, undergraduates from around the world came to WHOI to learn about ocean science and conduct research under the guidance of WHOI scientists. Members of the 2014 group hail from the United States, Croatia, Italy, England, Trinidad, Germany, Canada, and China. Their projects here spanned a wide range of topics, from the genetics of barnacles along the East Coast of the United States to the effects of the monsoon on salinity in the Bay of Bengal.

And this year, another undergraduate, Allison Gage, joined us at Oceanus to delve into the world of science writing. As part of her internship, Gage profiled several of the Summer Student Fellows.

Swimming in Low-pH Seas

Doriane Weiler
Researchers knew that squid raised in acidified water developed abnormal balance organs. To find out whether the young squid could still balance and swim normally, Summer Student Fellow Doriane Weiler mapped their movements.

Scallops Under Stress

Cailan Sugano
Like other marine species, scallops face multiple climate change-related problems. Summer Student Fellow Cailan Sugano studied how scallops respond to acidification and lack of food—and whether extra food can help them resist damage due to more acidic seawater.

Surface Waters Go Their Own Way

Sam Kastner
Summer Student Fellow Sam Kastner found that at a given spot in the ocean, water at the surface may not be moving the same direction or speed as water deeper down—which can make predicting the path of nutrients or pollutants very challenging.

It’s Hard to Kill a Killifish

Lily Helfrich
Summer Student Fellow Lily Helfrich is using a new molecular tool, microRNA analysis, to explore why some killifish are able to thrive in waters heavily contaminated with PCBs.

Sea Science in the Space Age

Mara Freilich
South Asian monsoons bring huge amounts of fresh water into the Bay of Bengal. Summer Student Fellow Mara Freilich used huge data sets from satellites to show how and where the salinity of the Bay changes as a result.

On the Trail of an Invader

Filip Buksa
To find out when and how fast a small gray barnacle came to New England waters, WHOI researchers turn to forensic techniques.

Recovering After a Hurricane

Maya Becker
Summer Student Fellow Maya Becker studied how vulnerable four coastal communities were to major hurricanes—and how fast they recovered.

The 2014 Summer Student Fellowships were funded by the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Geological Survey-WHOI Cooperative Agreement, The John M. Alden Fund, The Arthur Vining Davis Foundations Fund for Summer Student Fellows, The Christopher Haebler Frantz Fund, The AOP&E and G&G Alumni Fund, The Carl and Pancha Peterson Endowed Fund for Support of Summer Student Fellows, The Lawrason Riggs, III Memorial Fund, The Richard Vanstone Fund, The C. Russell Feldman Fund, The William D. Grant Fund, The Seth Sprague Educational and Charitable Foundation Fund, The Jake Hornor Fund, The Noel B. McLean Fund,The Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region, and The Virginia Walker Smith Fund.

The Socioeconomic Costs of Ocean Acidification

The Socioeconomic Costs of Ocean Acidification

January 8, 2010

The increasing acidification of the oceans is measured in pH units, but its impacts on people will be measured in dollar signs, says Sarah Cooley. Commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, the protection of shorelines by coral reefs—all could be harmed by ocean acidification that is already well under way. Not to mention the hard-to-quantify-but-significant cultural and lifestyle changes that communities will have to make to adapt to changing marine ecosystems.

In other words, ocean acidification is not just a problem for corals and other marine life. It has the potential to change the way humans feed themselves, earn their livings, run their communities, and live their lives.

“What goes around comes around,” said Cooley, a postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). “Ocean acidification is definitely an anthropogenic problem [resulting from human activities] but it will come back and influence human communities.”

A marine chemist by training, Cooley sought a way after graduate school to apply her scientific know-how to socioeconomic problems. Working with WHOI marine chemist Scott Doney and Hauke Kite-Powell from the WHOI Marine Policy Center, she is trying to predict what ocean acidification will do to the marine resources that people living in New England, or western Africa, or island nations depend on, and she is looking toward what we can do to prepare for those changes and perhaps mitigate the worst of them.

“We’re working on ways to put a dollar value on the potential losses that could occur due to ocean acidification, so we can go to policy-makers and say, ‘It’s going to cost X many dollars in lost jobs and lost fishing revenues, but if we do Y money’s worth of planning now, we’ll be in good shape,’ ” she said.

Shell game

Like climate change, ocean acidification is a global problem that results from the enormous increase of carbon dioxide, or CO2, released into the atmosphere, primarily from burning fossil fuels. Although ocean acidification and global warming stem from the same source, they are different problems, said Cooley; acidification is a matter of simple chemical reactions that have been understood for more than 100 years. Excess CO2 in the air dissolves in seawater and forms carbonic acid and, through a series of other reactions, reduces the amount of carbonate in seawater.

That is bad news for many of the so-called calcifying sea creatures that use carbonate and calcium to build their shells or skeletons. “The waters are becoming less and less welcoming for shelled organisms,” Cooley said.

Experiments done at WHOI and elsewhere show that in seawater containing high levels of CO2,corals have difficulty making new skeleton and may have existing skeleton dissolve away; many calcifying plankton struggle; mollusks such as oysters and scallops find it harder to build and maintain shells; and juvenile mollusks grow more slowly and have more abnormalities and lower survival rates. Among calcifying organisms, only crustaceans such as crabs and lobsters appear to tolerate low carbonate levels; some even make thicker exoskeletons under such conditions. On the whole, though, more acidic seas and lower carbonate levels could spell trouble for hundreds of species, the ecosystems they belong to—and the human communities that depend on them.

‘Not just a dollar thing’

In a paper in the December 2009 issue of Oceanography, Cooley and her coauthors described how ocean acidification could endanger some “ecosystem services”—the benefits to human societies provided by healthy ecosystems. Coral reefs, for instance, bring tourism income, protect shorelines from erosion, and provide habitat for fish that may be the main source of protein for local people.

Trying to put a dollar value on the benefits provided by coral reefs is difficult, said Cooley. “If my property doesn’t get destroyed by storms because the reef is there, does that save the entire property value? How do I count it over time? Do I amortize it? It’s a squishy thing to value.”

Squishy or not, one thing is certain: The figure is very, very high. Cooley found that the worldwide value of shoreline protection by coral reefs has been estimated at $9 billion a year; shoreline protection plus reef-supported fisheries was valued at $30 billion a year.

For island nations, the exact figure could be less important than the proportion of the economy that depends on the reefs. In 2006, direct income from coral reef tourism provided 15 percent of the gross domestic product of the Caribbean island of Tobago. Add indirect income—“dinners tourists ate, tchochkes they bought, umbrella drinks they bought”—and the total comes to 30 percent of the GDP. “Without that [reef tourism], the economy of Tobago would be one-third smaller,” Cooley said. “And how many people would be out of work?”

Healthy reefs and mollusk populations also are a key element in the cultures of many island and maritime societies. “Quality of life is not just a dollar thing,” Cooley said. “Even if we can’t put this into an equation, there’s still an intrinsic value that we need to preserve.

“Think about coming to Cape Cod. You go into every gift shop, and there’s the little shell-related doodads. If [in the worst-case scenario] there’s no more scallops because they’ve all been acidified, well then there are no more shell-related doodads, and we will have lost something on the Cape.”

People, protein, and pressures

Cooley found that ocean acidification’s likely impacts on the seafood industry are easier to predict. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the first-sale value of ocean fisheries worldwide was more than $91 billion; aquaculture of marine organisms generated another $79 billion.

Although the oceans are global, ocean acidification isn’t uniform, and its effects are not the same everywhere and on every species. Fisheries that depend heavily on mollusks, such as those in New England, would likely be hit harder. Fisheries in Hawaii and Alaska should be less vulnerable, because mollusks make up a tiny fraction of the catch there.

Then again, Cooley said, the finfish catch may also decline, because many of the fish we like to eat, such as haddock, halibut, herring, flounder, and cod, depend heavily on mollusks for their own nourishment. Even top predators, the animals that eat the haddock, herring, and cod, could be affected. Swordfish, tuna, shark, and salmon are on that list.

Cooley said ocean acidification might be especially harmful to island nations and parts of the developing world where seafood is a major source of protein. Established models show that carbonate will become increasingly scarce in the oceans over the next 90 years, squeezing most calcifying organisms into a shrinking zone of tropical waters where carbonate levels will be highest (though still much lower than today’s levels). Working with estimates of human population growth and food needs, Cooley determined that tropical regions will come under simultaneous stresses from ocean acidification and increasing demand for dietary protein. These stresses occur in combination with other environmental pressures, such as temperature rise, watershed changes, and pollution.

“We’re layering pressure upon pressure, and as a result, in 20 years or 30 years—within our kids’ lifetime—things are not going to be the same any more,” said Cooley. In particular, “more people may be going hungry.”

Coping with the changes

Ocean acidification won’t lead to empty oceans, Cooley said. Some animals will tolerate higher acidity; some may even thrive on it. But there will probably be fewer species overall, and the mix of species in a given locale will almost certainly change. Already, along the coast of Washington state, upwelling currents have brought more acidic water from offshore into near-shore areas and are suspected to have contributed to a drop in shellfish hatchery yields. At the same time, in a nearby coastal area, a pH decrease of about half a pH unit was associated with a shift from a thriving community dominated by mussels and calcifying algae to one dominated by seagrasses, non-calcifying algae, and invertebrate species that don’t make shells—and that humans don’t like to eat. Similar changes have been observed elsewhere.

“The world is probably going to march on without these species, but it might be darn uncomfortable” for us, forcing our economic and cultural systems to change, she said. “The [natural] communities are going to be very, very different. And different might be OK—maybe. There still is an ecosystem to be had. But a lot of the things that we really enjoy, that our communities depend on, are not going to be there. We may be able to find other awesome things about the new communities, but chances are, the options will be limited.”

The only long-term remedy for ocean acidification is to reduce the amount of CO2 we discharge into the atmosphere. That will involve the same sorts of actions touted to combat climate change: conserve energy, use renewable energy sources, and so forth. But, Cooley said, even if we were to end CO2 emissions tomorrow, there is so much already in the atmosphere that the oceans would continue to acidify for centuries to come.

In other words, we have no choice but to deal with ocean acidification.

“We need to make adaptations first, as we look toward [longer-term] solutions,” Cooley said. One example, she said, is establishing and maintaining marine protected areas that provide refuges for species that might be under a number of stresses. Another is to shift from single-species to ecosystem fisheries management strategies—for example, to focus less exclusively on managing one species, such as cod, and instead consider the many factors, such as weather, human-caused pressures, and interactions with other organisms, that affect the ecosystem where the cod live.

Aquaculture operations, which could become a major source of protein for human communities, could begin cultivating species that are fairly resistant to ocean acidification; or they could join forces to adjust the pH of ocean water brought into their facilities.

“I think it’s feasible if several aquaculturists were to get together now and think, ‘OK, in the next 10 years we want to do a larger facility that treats incoming water before we rear the spat. That’s going to be a better use of our resources than competing individually and some of us going out of business,’ ” Cooley said.

Global problem, regional answers

And when people are put out of work by ocean acidification and other pressures on ocean ecosystems, said Cooley, “we need to have community measures in place to retrain them and help them move into [jobs] that are equally valuable for themselves and the community.” If a person who has lost his maritime job “is flipping burgers or greeting people at a big-box store, is he going to be a happy guy? No, because he went into fishing as a career because he loved the water and he loved doing that. And some kind of dramatic shift from what his traditional role has been may not be all that satisfying to him.”

Any proposed strategies will have to be regional, because impacts from ocean acidification are regional, said Cooley. Policy-makers and communities in each locale will have to ask, “How are we going to manage our fisheries in the face of this additional pressure? There’s definitely no one-size-fits-all answer, unfortunately.”

Cooley said she’s glad communities and policy-makers are starting to think about ocean acidification.

“Our ultimate goal is to talk to people about ocean acidification and how it might affect their endeavors,” she said. “One of the best currencies to do that, no pun intended, is economics. Because people always want to know when their interests are at stake.”

This work is supported by the National Science Foundation and the WHOI Marine Policy Center.

Tara Hetz

Tara Hetz

November 13, 2009

Tara Hetz has gotten to see a different side of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) from her Summer Student Fellow (SSF) peers this summer as the sole fellow at the Marine Policy Center. With WHOI research specialist Hauke Kite-Powell, she analyzed risks posed by fishing gear to endangered North Atlantic right whales.

Hetz, a senior conservation biology major from St. Lawrence University, hails from Charlotte, Vt. Her project involved treading the tricky line between science, law, and the fishing industry—in this case the Maine lobster fishery. Right whales often become entangled in the lines that connect lobster traps on the seafloor to buoys on the sea surface. The lines can get wrapped around the whales and cut into their skin, leading to slow, painful death.

The Maine coastline consists of several distinct fishing zones, all with different regulations. Hetz’s job was to work with fishermen and policymakers to develop a tool that will allow lobstermen to sustain their livelihoods while protecting the whales. She developed a model that asks: At a particular time of year, in one area of the water, what is the specific level of risk of a whale traveling there? The model would allow fishermen to distribute their traps in places and at times when whales are not likely to be in a specific area.

“The model will go to the fishermen, management people, and whale biologists, and then they can collaborate to control the fishing effort without a policy-based series of strict government regulation,” which often hinders fishermen, Hetz said. The model can evolve over time as right whale research improves or fishing regulations change.

To get a better sense of the situation in the fishery, Hetz traveled to northern Maine, where she met with fishermen in Cutler and Sprucehead to learn about their fishing methods. She also attended a Lobstermen’s Association Meeting and showed fishermen her project. But more important, she wanted to understand the fishermen’s perspective on the issue of right whale entanglement.

“I learned about the hardships they’re dealing with, because this is how they put bread on the table,” said Hetz. “You see the dead whales and feel that you have to protect them, but also understand that the fishermen need to live, too.”

Aside from her project, Hetz had plenty of fun outdoors in Woods Hole with the other SSFs, “playing basketball, Frisbee, going swimming, and running,” she said. “It’s like summer camp for science nerds.”

Farming Shellfish in Zanzibar

Farming Shellfish in Zanzibar

July 31, 2009
To Fertilize, or Not to Fertilize

To Fertilize, or Not to Fertilize

February 6, 2008

Global warming is “unequivocal,” the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported in November 2007. Human actions—particularly the burning of fossil fuels—have dramatically raised carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, leading our planet toward “abrupt or irreversible climate changes and impacts,’’ the IPCC said. New, stronger scientific evidence indicates that these impacts may be larger than projected and come sooner than previously expected.

The IPCC, representing scientists from all over the world, shared with Al Gore the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, which helped ramp up public and political attention to the urgency of taking action on climate change. Meanwhile, some action has been spurred by a combination of international treaties such as the Kyoto Protocol, national policies, and economic forces. From 2005 to 2006, carbon-emissions trading markets tripled, from $10 billion to $30 billion worldwide.

All this has renewed interest in finding ways not only to reduce carbon dioxide emissions but also to remove excess carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in land-based “sinks” (such as forests), or in the ocean. That has rekindled a spotlight on the oceans’ role in regulating carbon dioxide and climate on our planet.

In the constant exchange between air and sea, carbon dioxide gas enters the oceans and can turn into other inorganic carbon forms. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, an essential ingredient for photosynthesis, is also used by marine phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that account for about half of all the photosynthesis that occurs on Earth. When these phytoplankton die or are eaten, their organic carbon can sink and be sequestered in the deep sea.

In the 1990s, a scientist named John Martin promulgated the “iron hypothesis,” suggesting that if we add small amounts of iron, an essential nutrient, to certain ocean areas, we might turn up the knob on the oceans’ productivity, producing more phytoplankton and maybe decreasing the level of heat-trapping carbon dioxide gas in the atmosphere. Scientists have tested the iron hypothesis in laboratories and in the field for more than a decade. They have verified that iron can stimulate productivity, but it may not necessarily increase long-term ocean carbon storage. Now several companies are embarking on commercial ventures to fertilize the ocean and sell carbon credits for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

But surely a solution couldn’t be as simple as adding iron “fertilizer” on a large scale to the oceans? Even the most optimistic estimates suggest that ocean iron fertilization could compensate for only a small fraction of total human carbon emissions, and only if we fertilize vast tracts of the ocean. What would be the consequences to ocean ecology and chemistry? Who should regulate and verify an ocean iron fertilization project? Should commercial iron fertilization be allowed to proceed cautiously in a framework of scientific monitoring? Or should it be prohibited given the potential environmental harm and the inherent uncertainties involved in manipulating complex biological systems?

To explore these questions, we set out with a modest goal of bringing together a diverse group of natural and social scientists, policymakers, economists, legal experts, environmental groups, and journalists to spend two days in September 2007 discussing iron, carbon, and plankton in the oceans. We shared what we know about iron’s role in stimulating plankton blooms and increasing ocean carbon storage; about the impacts on the oceans’ ecosystems, chemistry, and circulation; about evidence revealing how the ocean and climate worked in the past; and about computer models that tell us something about how they may operate in the future. We also discussed who might be involved in regulating the high seas, and what economic markets were interested in ocean iron fertilization as a possible method to offset carbon emissions.

We also heard that we don’t understand all of the possible impacts, and we can’t yet predict the full range of consequences of larger-scale ocean iron manipulations. To varying degrees, this is true of all strategies for dealing with climate change: We will have to move forward with uncertainties, whether we simply do nothing or actively pursue some set of strategies.

To make intelligent choices among alternative strategies, we need to assess their likely costs, benefits, and uncertainties. Toward that end, we came together with many different perspectives on what we know and what we would like to know about ocean iron fertilization. We did not come together to approve or disapprove of any particular commercial or research plans. The articles in this volume of Oceanus assemble much of the research and many of the different perspectives on ocean iron fertilization that were presented at our conference.

We hope our conference and this collection of articles shed some light on ocean iron fertilization, an often misunderstood, oversold, and oversensationalized process that has been occurring naturally for millions of years. With new international regulations and public/private partnerships emerging to fund and possibly profit from ocean iron fertilization, the time may be right to pursue a middle ground of longer and larger scientific experiments to improve understanding of ocean iron fertilization and the oceans’ potential for storing carbon.

Proposals Emerge to Transfer Excess Carbon into the Ocean

Proposals Emerge to Transfer Excess Carbon into the Ocean

January 11, 2008

It’s sort of the planetary equivalent of moving clutter accumulating in the attic to other storage space in the basement: transferring excess heat-trapping carbon dioxide from Earth’s atmosphere into the deep ocean. A combination of forces—including rising public awareness and concern about climate change, international treaties, and growing carbon trading markets—has combined to spark so-called geoengineering proposals to do that. Ocean iron fertilization is just one of several of these ideas. Here are a few others that apply to the oceans:

Injecting CO2 into the Depths

Scientists from MIT, Columbia, and Harvard universities have suggested that carbon dioxide from industrial plants could be captured and piped into seafloor sediments—a variation of older proposals to dump CO2 into ocean depths greater than 3,000 meters (almost 2 miles). Freezing temperatures and intense pressure would turn the carbon dioxide gas into a dense liquid heavier than the water above, so that it would stay in deep-sea storage and out of the atmosphere.

The idea would also capitalize on unused real estate. Undersea sediments along the U.S. coastline, for example, may be sufficient to store the nation’s annual carbon dioxide emissions for thousands of years, researchers said in the August 2006 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Opponents of the idea argue that adding billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the ocean in large, concentrated doses would alter the oceans’ water chemistry, have detrimental impacts on sensitive marine organisms, and send harmful ripples through the food chain. Also, possible leakage back to the surface remains a question.

Industrial plants would need to be retrofitted with devices to harness emissions (something that would be required also for other proposals to store CO2 underground). Additional costs would come from injecting the CO2 via pipes, likely from a ship or a platform (similar to those used with ocean drilling) through nearly two miles of salt water into the seafloor.

Fertilizing the Ocean with Nitrogen

The Ocean Nourishment Corp. (ONC) in Australia has proposed injecting large amounts of urea—a nitrogen compound found in mammalian urine and fertilizers—into low-nitrogen seas to stimulate phytoplankton blooms and draw down excess CO2 from the air. Like land plants, phytoplankton require (along with sunlight, water, and CO2 ) not just iron but nutrients such as nitrogen to grow, but most tropical and subtropical ocean regions have too little of this essential nutrient, resulting in low productivity.

In ONC’s plan, coastal factories using tanker-supplied natural gas would produce urea, pump it through pipelines, and release it at the edge of the continental shelf to stimulate phytoplankton blooms. In theory, phytoplankton growth would both pull CO2 out of the atmosphere and also provide abundant food for zooplankton and fish, increasing fish stocks for people. Carbon “locked” in dead plankton and fish tissue may eventually sink and be sequestered in the ocean depths.

To be effective, the proposal would have to be worldwide. It would require at least 1,000 times more nitrogen than iron to fertilize equivalent blooms. Several unresolved issues make the idea complicated: Increased coastal nitrogen could promote blooms of toxic algae (“red tides”); the altered ocean chemistry could lead to unanticipated and permanent ecosystem changes; it remains unproved that more carbon-containing debris will sink to the deep ocean; and the factories and ecosystem changes would be disproportionately in poor tropical countries.

ONC is a commercial venture eager to sell rights to use its licensed method in tropical regions to obtain carbon-offset credits. The company reportedly has conducted at least one small-scale experimental release of one ton of urea in the Sulu Sea, bounded by the Philippines and Borneo, and has further plans to test a release of 1,000 tons. The first release was near a highly biodiverse area and a World Ocean Heritage site, prompting protests, partly because ONC may not have secured adequate Philippine government permission.

Speeding Up Chemical Weathering

Researchers from Harvard and Pennsylvania State universities have outlined a process that mimics the natural weathering of rocks, but accelerates the process—transferring carbon from air to sea over decades, rather than millennia.

Carbon dioxide (CO2 ) in the atmosphere naturally dissolves in fresh water (H2 O) such as rain, forming weak carbonic acid (H2 CO3). As rainwater percolates down through volcanic rocks, chemical reactions produce bicarbonate (HCO3 ) salts that flow into the ocean. Bicarbonate dissolves readily in seawater, allowing the ocean to retain and store more atmospheric CO2.

In an article published Nov. 7, 2007, in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, the researchers propose building dozens of solar-powered plants in remote volcanic islands, such as in the South Pacific or the Alaskan archipelago. The plants would split seawater to get hydrogen ions that would be combined electrochemically with the chlorine in salt to produce hydrochloric acid, which is stronger than carbonic acid. The hydrochloric acid would then be sprayed on nearby rocks to react with alkaline materials before flowing back into the ocean—as occurs in nature, only much faster. (As a side benefit, the researchers say, the process could also combat the growing acidification of the ocean, as excess atmospheric CO2 reacts with seawater to produce carbonic acid.)

Scaling this method up to billions of tons of CO2 per year would require lots of acid, island real estate, money, and energy. (The energy used to split water might better be fed right into the grid to offset building coal-fired plants, critics say.) Opponents also warn that the exact environmental consequences of producing highly alkaline seawater, particularly on local marine life, are not clear.

Promoting the Growth of Salps

A company called Atmocean, Inc. has suggested a plan to stimulate large populations of small gelatinous marine animals called salps, which eat phytoplankton and produce large, heavy fecal pellets. The pellets sink fast, essentially pulling carbon out of surface waters and ferrying it to the depths.

The plan calls for stimulating phytoplankton blooms that, in turn, would spur the proliferation of salps, which can multiply rapidly into dense swarms covering hundreds of square kilometers of ocean. But instead of adding fertilizer to the ocean, Atmocean proposes to bring deep, nutrient-rich water up to low-nutrient surface regions to stimulate phytoplankton blooms—by a novel means. It would place 200- to 1,000-meter (600- to 3,000-foot)- long open-ended, flexible plastic tubes, manufactured by Atmocean, into the ocean, where they would unroll and hang vertically. Surface wave action, aided by one-way valves in the tubes, would pump high-nutrient water to the surface to promote blooms.

The company has tested one tube and planned a larger test of 25 tubes off Bermuda. The plan calls for arrays of thousands of tubes connected with lines, drifting with sea anchors, deployed over most of the world ocean. Atmocean would also generate and make available carbon offset credits.

Objections to the plan center around hazards to shipping and marine life from the tubes and linking lines, as well as the feasibility and legality of deploying such large tube arrays in the world ocean. In addition, salp blooms are unpredictable; their presence alone near the tubes does not guarantee they will bloom. Such ocean manipulations may also change ecosystems in undesired ways.

Using Tubes to Enhance Mixing

British scientists James Lovelock and Chris Rapley have proposed an idea for ocean fertilization using long open-ended tubes, based on a similar proposal by Atmocean Inc. Lovelock’s and Rapley’s plan, published Sept. 27, 2007, in the journal Nature, emphasizes growth of clouds as well as phytoplankton and would use the ocean to “help the Earth cure itself” of global warming, the authors say.

Thousands of plastic tubes—100 to 200 meters (300 to 600 feet) long and 10 meters (30 feet) in diameter—would be deployed in the oceans, extending from the nutrient-poor surface to nutrient-rich, cold waters about 200 meters (656 feet) down. Wave motion and a one-way valve would pump deep water through the tubes to the surface, bringing up nutrients that plants need. Like fertilizer on a lawn, the nutrients would promote phytoplankton growth, decreasing CO2 levels in the water as carbon is incorporated into plankton tissue.

At the same time, phytoplankton would produce dimethyl sulfide, a compound that escapes to the atmosphere and aids cloud formation. More phytoplankton would mean more clouds to reflect solar radiation away from Earth, decreasing global warming, the scientists say.

Critics of the plan say it simply won’t work and that deeper waters brought up by the pipes would also contain large amounts of dissolved CO2 that would be released to the atmosphere and worsen the problem. In addition, any phytoplankton blooms stimulated would reuse carbon that had already been drawn into the ocean, rather than remove additional CO2 from surface water. Cooler water brought up from the deep could also have impacts on ecosystems.

The Ocean Iron Fertilization Symposium: Some 80 natural and social scientists from several countries—along with environmental advocates, business representatives, policymakers, legal experts, economists, and journalists—gathered at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) on Sept. 26-27, 2007, to discuss the pros and cons of ocean iron fertilization as a means to mediate global warming. This series of Oceanus articles summarize the wide range of issues raised at the conference, convened by WHOI scientists Ken Buesseler, Scott Doney, and Hauke Kite-Powell. They reviewed and edited these articles, with input from many conference participants. All the articles in this series will be published next week in a print edition of Oceanus (Vol. 46, No. 1). Videos and PDF versions of presentations at the conference are available at http://www.whoi.edu/conference/OceanIronFertilization. The symposium was sponsored by the Elisabeth and Henry Morss Jr. Colloquia Fund, the Cooperative Institute for Climate Research at WHOI, the WHOI Marine Policy Center, the WHOI Ocean and Climate Change Institute, the WHOI Ocean Life Institute, and Woods Hole Sea Grant.