On an icy evening in late January, a group of ocean scientists departed a small port in southern Rhode Island aboard the National Science Foundation’s RV Endeavor vessel. Their mission over a stormy five days was to get a rare scientific glimpse of conditions in an unforgiving part of the Atlantic Ocean during the heart of winter. More importantly, however, they were launching a new major effort to understand how rapid environmental changes are affecting the Northeast Continental Shelf, one of the most economically and ecologically crucial areas of U.S. coastal waters.
Most scientists are funded to study only a few aspects of the ocean for a few years at a time. But the January cruise was kicking off a different kind of project – what is known as Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER), a National Science Foundation initiative that has grown to study 28 regional ecosystems on land and at sea since 1980. The idea is that consistent funding allows research teams to collect data over long time spans to track and understand changing ecosystems. The Northeast U.S. Shelf LTER (NES-LTER) and another coastal area in the Gulf of Alaska are the newest of these sites at a time of rapid change in the marine ecosystem. Funding is awarded for six-year cycles and the NES-LTER will receive $5.6 million through 2022.
“Many of the pressures on the ecosystem are occurring over long time scales, such as climate change and variability and human development,” said Jon Hare, a U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist involved in the project. “To understand these pressures and their effect on ecosystems, long-term projects are necessary.”
A team led by researchers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will track changes in the waters stretching along the U.S. east coast, from Cape Hatteras in the south to the Gulf of Maine in the north. This rich ecosystem is the reason the northeast’s fishing economy exists, generating more than $100 billion a year in annual economic activity. Marine life from whales to salmon to seabirds feast on smaller, forage fish in waters such as the Georges Bank, the Gulf of Maine and around the Hudson Canyon. The little fish in turn feed on dense concentrations of tiny plankton that thrive on the area’s nutrient-dense waters.
Already, the Northeast Shelf is one of the fastest-changing regions of the ocean, said Hare. It is a place where waters are warming relatively rapidly and becoming more acidic, and new kinds of coastal and offshore development – such as wind energy and aquaculture – are emerging. Yet the waters still appear highly productive; they’re full of plankton and the marine species that consume plankton to survive.
Scientists at Woods Hole, NOAA and other research institutions have studied various aspects of the shelf for decades. However, there has not been any one project connecting those scientists and data sets until now.
“One of the most exciting things about the NES-LTER project is that we will be able to repeat these kinds of [collective] observations year after year,” said Heidi Sosik, a senior biologist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and the project’s principal investigator. It will help, she said, “us understand not only how the ecosystem works now, but also how it is changing in response to natural variability, ongoing human impacts and the extended effects of climate change.”
During their initial research expedition aboard the Endeavor, the scientists cruised from Martha’s Vineyard due south through 11 undersea research nodes and anchored moorings, which collect data for the project year-round. They also snapped undersea images and collected water and biological samples that will help them get a better picture of the populations of both phytoplankton and zooplankton on the shelf.
NOAA is helping with the project, dragging trawl nets through the water to study fish populations in the area twice a year. The overarching goal is to better understand how plankton populations and ocean conditions affect fish populations and fish health in the continental shelf area.
Changing ocean conditions – even those that are slight – can threaten many marine species with extinction, said Joel Llopiz, an assistant scientist at Woods Hole. Some of these threats are already a reality.
The average annual sea surface temperature on the Northeast Continental Shelf has increased by 1.8F (1C) over the past century and, according to Llopiz, spring and fall seasonal transitions are occurring further apart, stretching out the summer season when water there is particularly warm. Marine species’ lives are finely adapted to regular seasonal transitions, and when those transitions are out of balance there is the potential for major food chain disruptions, he said.
“For example, phytoplankton may bloom earlier due to more heat, but copepods that eat phytoplankton don’t respond to the heat – they respond to sunlight,” said Llopiz. “So the copepods would reproduce after the blooms and have less food. There’d probably be many of these mismatches, and that would harm species’ survival.”
The team of researchers, which also includes those from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Wellesley College, the University of Massachusetts and the University of Rhode Island, hope to stay at the forefront of that change by using their data to create new ocean models that will help compare past and present ocean patterns and make future predictions.
Due to the collaborative nature of the project, cooperation will prove critical and there is little time to waste. “We’re a large group of people researching all trophic levels and many kinds of physics in this important part of the ocean,” said Llopiz. “A big challenge is keeping people focused on our shared goal. We’re all highly dependent on one another – if we don’t work together, we cannot link our research together.”