ME - Commentary: The ocean of yesterday is not the ocean of tomorrow
The massive algae bloom in the Gulf of Maine this past summer serves as a stark reminder of the need for new and better data.
Much of the Gulf of Maine looked like coffee last summer due to an unprecedented bloomof a tiny three-horned dinoflagellate — a single-celled algae — known as Tripos muelleri. Thankfully, Tripos is non-toxic, but its die-off could have led to harmful low oxygen conditions. To keep things interesting, as scientists worked to make sense of the bloom, Hurricane Lee came along and shook everything up, including all of the Tripos.
Although unexpected, we were not entirely unprepared for the bloom, or Lee for that matter, thanks to a network of data collection technologies throughout the Gulf of Maine. Many of these assets are part of the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, or IOOS, a 17-agency federal partnership that serves as the nation’s “eyes on the ocean.”
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. Jake Kritzer is a fisheries oceanographer and executive director of the Northeastern Regional Association of Coastal Ocean Observing Systems(NERACOOS). Jackie Motyka is the NERACOOS strategy director, with particular emphasis on expanding systems focused on marine life. NERACOOS works from Long Island Sound through the Gulf of Maine.
Scientists quickly began understanding this unforeseen phenomenon using IOOS buoys providing real-time data on oceanographic conditions that might have spurred the bloom; plankton collection cruises gathering samples for lab analysis; an autonomous plankton monitoring vessel making continuous measurements at sea; satellites tracking chlorophyll and temperature; oceanographic models foreshadowing conditions on the horizon; and online platforms making data fully available to researchers and the public. The scientific response to the bloom has shown the return on investments over many years in building U.S. IOOS.
The bloom also illuminated gaps, however. We lack consistent measurements further offshore, especially in the depths where warm water from the changing Gulf Stream that might have fueled the bloom enters the Gulf of Maine. Little plankton monitoring takes place to the north where the bloom might have originated. These gaps and others mean we did not have early warning of what was coming and will be limited in what we can piece together in hindsight. Events like this can impact seafood production, ecotourism and recreation, so scientific limitations have real economic costs.
Indeed, Tripos provides a stark reminder that the ocean of yesterday, for which the observing system of today was built, is not the ocean of tomorrow. While sustaining assets that have supported science, communities and industry for decades, we need new data from new places to meet the challenges ahead.
Just what does the ocean of tomorrow look like?
It is an ocean where temperatures and sea level are increasing, pH and dissolved oxygen are decreasing, and harmful algal blooms and severe weather could become more frequent — all manifestations of climate change.
It is an ocean where climate change pushes lobster and fish populations into new places, and fishing fleets with them.
It is an ocean where climate change also challenges recovery of North Atlantic right whales and other imperiled species.
It is an ocean where wind turbines help mitigate climate change, but affect currents, habitats and species in complex and uncertain ways.
It is an ocean where an opening Arctic could see more and larger cargo ships steaming in and out of Gulf of Maine ports along new shipping lanes.
And it is an ocean where other surprises — like a whole lot of Tripos — undoubtedly await.
Fortuitously, we stand at a moment of heightened response to these challenges. The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act are particularly notable investments in climate resilience and an equitable blue economy. Congressional leaders deserve accolades for their commitment to coastal communities and our ocean.
It is now incumbent upon everyone who cares for the ocean to use resources wisely and keep our “eyes” open. We must ensure that investments have longevity by strengthening valued data systems while charting new directions, and keeping data flowing into the future. That will require buy-in from all ocean users, alignment on priorities across government agencies, vigorous scientific collaboration and novel public-private partnership.
The ocean of tomorrow will be more difficult to navigate than ever before. We are poised to confront its challenges if everyone who cares about the ocean works together to understand how it is changing and determine how we need to adapt in response.