Current publication: Spring 2012
Narragansett Bay forms a boundary between the northern ocean and the summer ocean. The strong Gulf Stream current feeds warm equatorial waters to the Bay year round, making it a border between temperate zones. “We’re right at a place where it’s the southern limit of the northern organisms and the northern limit of the mid-Atlantic organisms,” said the late University of Rhode Island ecologist Scott Nixon. “Narragansett Bay is a place where you might expect to see climate change events being manifest early and rather strongly.”
Decades of Data
They can add parameters whenever they need to for an experiment, but the same core tests are always run. “The power of the time-series is that you do the same thing over and over again rather than try to change it up,” said Tatiana Rynearson, associate professor of oceanography at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography. This allows researchers to see subtle changes over the course of the program’s long history. It’s not just scientists who are interested in the time-series data, either. Rhode Island’s Department of Environmental Management (DEM) uses the long running data to help influence policy decisions.
The warming temperatures have shifted the entire food web of Narragansett Bay starting with the smallest organisms. Microscopic algae are incredibly integral to the ecosystem of the Bay. For years, Narragansett Bay had important winter/spring blooms of diatoms – a chief group of single-celled algae. The Bay would literally turn green during the month of February due to the blooms. Yet with the warming, Ted Smayda, a URI researcher who has spent more than 50 years studying the Bay, saw changes, not only in the timing of the diatom blooms, but also in their function. Because less of the food is falling to the bottom of the Narragansett Bay water column, there are fewer bottom feeders in the Bay and more water column grazers.
“Plankton are the ultimate engine that drive the carbon cycle on the planet,” said URI plankton ecologist Susanne Menden-Deuer. She added that Narragansett Bay makes an excellent study site for plankton research because of its temperate climate – warm in the summer and cold in the winter. “It allows you to look at Biology over a whole range of temperatures and environmental conditions.”
The way phytoplankton interconnects with the food web is another key aspect of Menden-Deuer’s research. Predator-prey interactions show what, when, and how copepods are eating phytoplankton and what the grazing pressures are on the key species of interest. The organisms in the Bay have to deal with seasonal temperature differences of negative 1 °C to 25 °C and knowing different grazing rates at different temperatures allows scientists to predict how fast many of these important organisms are being eaten and how fast they’re being eaten as the Earth’s oceans warm.
“We live on a planet where everything is connected and even the most minute change in the remotest area has an impact on individuals lives,” said Menden-Deuer. “Particularly for people in Rhode Island who depend on Narragansett Bay for tourism and fisheries. We need to understand how Narragansett Bay works and how it’s going to work under future and different conditions.”
“If Narragansett Bay has its own special plankton then understanding how this plankton responds to climate change is super important,” said Rynearson. But if all of the plankton in the world are interconnected, then it may be good enough just to know something about any plankton species. “A lot of people are going out and doing these climate change studies and I don’t know if I can extrapolate what they find to what’s here,” added Rynearson, demonstrating the importance of looking for a genetic link between the world’s species.
If such a link exists, the possibility of collaborative research increases exponentially. Making these observations is also important because it offers scientists elsewhere the opportunity to use Bay research to their advantage. Researchers can discover how Narragansett Bay reacts to climate change compared to other important estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland and Virginia or California’s San Francisco Bay.
Bigger Fish to Fry
With so many research institutions and the work of Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR, Narragansett Bay fosters an inherently collaborative environment. “There are a lot of interested parties. From federal agencies like NOAA and the EPA – to state agencies – to the Narragansett Bay Estuary Program – to commercial fisherman – to DEM – to the academic community and people are trying to work together in a coordinated way to see what’s going on in Narragansett Bay,” said Rynearson. “That’s a real strength and we have to work to make it happen, but I think it’s going to help us be really successful in keeping Narragansett Bay a really productive place.”