Over the coming decades, global climate change will have profound impacts on marine ecosystems worldwide. A warming ocean is already causing widely publicized coral die-offs in tropical waters, but the affects of global warming will not be confined to the tropics and will extend far beyond warmer temperatures. Intimate linkages between oceans and atmosphere will change the chemistry of the ocean, resulting in ocean acidification, which can harm a wide variety of marine organisms. Changing wind and weather patterns will alter ocean currents and may cause hypoxic dead zones in some of the ocean’s most productive areas. Throughout the world, small increases in ocean temperature and chemistry will affect each species differently, potentially leading to widespread changes in marine communities and ecosystems.
With tools ranging from gene chips to oceanographic ships, PISCO scientists are looking for clues to how our oceans are changing in the face of climate change. For the last 10 years, PISCO has been collecting information about nearshore marine communities and ocean conditions along the west coast of North America. This historical resource provides context for understanding how the ocean environment is changing and allows PISCO scientists to develop models to predict the impacts of climate change.
There is great strength in a coordinated, regional effort that builds a pipeline from scientific studies of physical and biological changes through to policy applications. Because climate change poses questions that cross disciplinary boundaries and demand diverse scientific tools to answer, a collaborative approach that spans institutions is critical. Over the last decade, PISCO has developed the key elements of a program that can seek to understand each level of this climate-ecosystem-policy problem.
PISCO is the first comprehensive, long-term program to investigate ecological patterns of change in the ocean along the U.S. The program focuses on three important ecosystem components: kelp forests, rocky shores, and coastal currents. Patterns of species’ abundance and diversity vary along the coast on scales of feet to hundreds of miles. Patterns also change over time—from year to year and decade to decade. Documenting these patterns is fundamental for understanding the nature of marine ecosystems and essential for managing sustainable resources. PISCO's large scale and long-term monitoring of recruitment and biodiversity (community structure) is capable of detecting changes in community assemblages as organisms respond to changing ocean conditions.
Much of PISCO’s work on climate change looks at large scale processes, like ocean currents, hypoxic dead zones, and ocean acidification. However, PISCO also studies how individual organisms adapt to climate change. One series of experiments has uncovered the upper temperature limits for several species of Mytilus mussel by studying the effect of increased temperatures on their heart rate. Other studies examine how acidifying oceans will impact purple sea urchin larvae. Still other experiments look at the structure of heat shock proteins or use genomics to examine gene expression in response to environmental stress. These adaptation studies show how (or if) individual organisms will adapt to climate change and also feed into models which predict likely effects of a changing climate.