Scientists Bracing for the New Climate Frontier

Rapid changes in the environment brought on by warming temperatures and increasing ocean acidification are prompting new direction in research, say scientists who addressed the 2020 Alaska Marine Science Symposium in Anchorage, Alaska.

“Everything is new,” said Cisco Werner, chief science advisor to NOAA Fisheries, in his presentation to dozens of participants gathered to hear his keynote speech at the Hotel Captain Cook on Jan. 27. “We need to be ready and prepared to deal with surprises, to sample, count and make decisions differently.”

Fifteen to 20 years ago scientists were trying to figure out how physical and biological linkages worked, how physics and marine ecosystems come together, he said. Today they are working with new technologies, autonomous unmanned surface vehicles, artificial intelligence and omics, which are novel, comprehensive approaches for analysis of complete genetic or molecular profiles of humans and other organisms. In contrast to genetics, which focus on single genes, genomics focus on all genes (genomes) and their inter-relationships.

“The last comprehensive evaluation of our surveys was the 1998 NOAA Fisheries Data Acquisition Plan,” Werner told fellow scientists, students and fishing industry participants in the symposium organized annually by the North Pacific Research Board. “There is a need to revisit this data collection to include ecosystem considerations, partnerships with industry and communities, new technologies and new analytical capabilities,” he said.

Average surface ocean pH has decreased 0.1 units below the pre-industrial average and is expected to further decrease by 0.13 to 0.42 units by 2100, and marine heat waves have become longer, he explained.

Werner, one of four keynote speakers at this year’s symposium, is leading National Marine Fisheries Service’s (NMFS) efforts to provide the science that will be needed to support sustainable fisheries and ecosystems, end overfishing, rebuild fish populations, save critical species and preserve vital habitats. He supervises the planning, development and management of a multidisciplinary scientific enterprise of basic and applied research. He also oversees NMFS’ science centers and Office of Science and Technology.

Werner’s talk touched on several topics, from changes in the structure of the food web, including changes in the composition of zooplankton, to the warming Blob, which had an adverse impact on waters of the North Pacific between 2014 and 2016. “If scientists could accurately forecast the Blob, how would they use this information?” he asked. “We have to manage for variability, not stability, which is key to adaptation.”