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ASU leads a new wave in ocean research

sunset with clouds over ocean waters
April 19, 2023

Vast, complex and partially unexplored, the oceans form the world’s largest biome — and hold the power to shape our global future. There are many systems that come together to make a healthy ocean, and many ways that human activities disrupt them.

One of the ocean’s most prominent threats is warming, which impacts currents and ocean layers, the cycle of nutrients, and sea creatures and their ecosystems. Other perils include acidification, overfishing, pollution, declining biodiversity, coral bleaching and melting ice caps.

But in good news, Arizona State University has a fleet of ocean researchers who are finding solutions for healthier, more sustainable relationships with our oceans that support a thriving planet and prosperous communities.

prow of a ship looks out on clear blue ocean water with green islands on either side

The BIOS research vessel Atlantic Explorer ventures into the ocean surrounding Bermuda. Photo by Jeff Newton

Where desert meets ocean

ASU is located in the state of cactuses, rattlesnakes and sweltering summers. How are those of us living in the Sonoran Desert affected by anything ocean related?

“We are so dependent on climate cycles that are happening in the Pacific,” said Professor Susanne Neuer, an oceanographer and the founding director of the new School of Ocean Futures. “Our storms bring water from the Pacific that has evaporated there. Next time you get drenched in the rain, just think about how this is all water that originally came from the Pacific. In summer, we get the monsoons from the Gulf of Mexico and Gulf of California. Life in the desert, and the supply of water, are really dependent on the ocean.”

More than that, the entire globe depends on the ocean in some way or another. That’s why ASU’s School of Ocean Futures is critical to the overall mission of ASU’s Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory, which aims to ensure a habitable planet and a future in which well-being is attainable for all.

In that spirit, ASU has formed connections across the globe to scale its ocean research. In the Pacific Ocean lies ASU’s Hawaii location, which is home to the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science. In the Atlantic is ASU’s new partner, the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences

Read more: Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences joins ASU's Global Futures Lab

“We have these two locations now on islands in the middle of the ocean, Hawaii and Bermuda. This is really expanding our capabilities to include the two largest oceans,” said Neuer. “We are no longer landlocked.”

Working with coastal communities

Can fishing be sustainable?

Commercial fishing is a vital source of income for coastal communities around the world, but it can harm at-risk species that are accidentally caught along with the target fish.

Marine biologist Jesse Senko’s research has demonstrated that new fishing technology can benefit both vulnerable marine wildlife and fishers’ productivity on the Pacific coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. Adding solar-powered lights to gillnets, a type of large fishing net, dramatically reduced the bycatch of animals like sharks, rays, sea turtles and unwanted fish. At the same time, catch rates for target fish remained steady, and the reduced bycatch saved fishers precious time.

“This likely occurred from fishers needing to remove fewer entangled animals in the illuminated nets, which included considerably less turtles, sharks, skates, rays, squid and small finfish, which can be time consuming, difficult and even dangerous to remove,” said Senko, an assistant research professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

Fishing sustainably provides an opportunity to not only protect ocean wildlife, but to improve the livelihoods of fishers and their communities that rely on the industry.

Read more: Saving the seas with lighted nets

Senko examines a light attached to a net while on a small boat

Jesse Senko working with fishers in Baja Sur California, Mexico. Photo courtesy Arizona State University

Is there plastic in food and water?

Microplastics, heavy metals and other contaminants can end up in your seafood platter. 

Beth Polidoro, an associate professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences, studies marine pollution and how it impacts the health of aquatic life as well as people who eat seafood. With this information, she can help guide conservation and environmental policies.

“Here in the U.S. and in Europe, we’re really blessed. We have lots of data, scientists, equipment and capacity for looking at pollution and impacts. We have a lot of good regulations, too, monitoring and mitigating those pollutants from impacting the environment,” Polidoro said. “Step outside those countries and you don’t see the same things at all. There’s very little regulation, practically no monitoring and very little capacity to do those things.”

Polidoro helps fill that gap in places like the Philippines, which has the highest marine biodiversity in the world but is also one of the globe’s top plastic polluters. Through her work, countries can prioritize the biggest risks to human and ecosystem health in their coastal areas and work to reduce risks and impacts.

Read more: Tiny little pieces of plastic are getting into everything

Polidoro sits at a bench in her lab

Beth Polidoro studies marine pollution and how it impacts the health of aquatic life as well as people who eat seafood. Photo courtesy ASU

How do Native Hawaiians care for the land and sea?

Born of volcanoes, the Hawaiian Islands have a very steep geography. Mountain rains can flow down quickly, bringing runoff to coastal marine environments. But the mountains’ forest cover can help absorb that rain or even add more nutrients to the water that makes it to the ocean.

“We call that the mauka-makai relationship. Mauka means mountains, makai means oceans, and that connection is really important in Hawaii,” said Katie Kamelamela, an assistant professor in the School of Ocean Futures.

Kamelamela studies how people of Hawaii gather and use plants from the forest to the ocean through interviews with cultural practitioners. She completed the first analysis of forest gathering permits for the state of Hawaii with the goal of streamlining county communication across the islands.

Historically, Native Hawaiians have made clever use of the mauka-makai relationship to engineer closed food systems. For example, wetland patches growing crops of taro root collect rain and add nutrients to the water. This water feeds the seaweed downstream, which fattens the fish in Hawaiian-made stock ponds.

Through her work with Native communities and her own experience living in Hawaii, Kamelamela sees how Hawaiians have mastered adapting to the islands’ extreme weather as well as stewarding the health of their natural resources.

“Adaptation and gratitude are what conservationists can learn,” she said. “The health of the land is the health of the people.”

Hawaiian lei garlands laid out on display

Kamelamela goes to markets and cultural fairs like the annual Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo, Hawaii, to see how people use native plants to craft goods such as these haku lei that are worn on the head. Photo courtesy Katie Kamelamela

Creatures great and small

What lives at the bottom of the ocean?

The seafloor is one of the ocean’s most mysterious regions, where life persists despite intense pressure, scarce food and complete darkness. 

Elizabeth Trembath-Reichert’s research has shown that microbes living below the seafloor are surprisingly lively and hungry, despite living in a place with few food sources. These microbes are also crafty in how they use carbon to grow.

“Our theory is that these microbes are being resourceful and using carbon dioxide directly as a building block without having to convert it into a food source first,” said Trembath-Reichert, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration. “And this could have major implications for the deep ocean carbon cycle.”

Understanding the many clever ways that these microbes of the deep use carbon dioxide to survive in their home will give scientists a better idea of how the ocean works to cycle CO2 out of our atmosphere and expand the definition of an environment hospitable to life.

Read more: Deep under the ocean, microbes are active and poised to eat whatever comes their way

Where is coral most at risk?

Coral reefs support an estimated 25% of marine species, protect coastlines from destructive storms, and support coastal communities’ economies through food and tourism. We know they are under threat from warmer and more acidic waters — but where are the reefs, and what areas are suffering most?

The Allen Coral Atlas is an effort led by Greg Asner at the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science to map and monitor the health of coral reefs around the world. Asner’s team completed the first global map of shallow-water coral reefs in 2021 and continues to expand the map’s capabilities today.

The Allen Coral Atlas wouldn’t be possible without a key methodology created by Robin Martin, an associate professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning. Her research project, Spectranomics, uses spectral imaging to detect chemicals present in an environment. Martin has found that different coral species give off different chemical signatures, and those signatures change depending on their state of health. Using spectral imaging data gathered from planes and satellites, Martin can tell what types of coral are present in a given area and how well they’re doing.

“One of the advantages of being able to use remote sensing is that you can take measurements in places that you can’t physically get to, and you can also look at patterns over much larger areas,” she said.

Read more: Saving oceans from the sky

Aerial photo of beach in Dominican Republic

An overhead shot of coral reefs helped the Dominican Republic protect a growing tourism-focused coastline. Photo by Greg Asner

How can we restore coral reefs?

Corals live in a symbiotic relationship with algae: Corals give algae a safe home, and algae give corals photosynthetic energy (plus some technicolor hues). Coral bleaching happens when corals experience stress from higher temperatures and the algae are expelled.

“We don’t know whether it's the host coral, or whether it's the algae partner, or whether it's both,” said Liza Roger, an assistant professor in the School of Molecular Sciences. “We’re trying to look at how they are handling this stress and understand it at the molecular level.”

Roger is leading a new lab in the School of Ocean Futures that will grow and study corals to find solutions for combating this stress.

Read more: Deciphering the mysterious relationship between coral and algae

Cliff Kapono, an analytical chemist and professional surfer based in Hawaii, studies an area of coral reef that seems impossibly resilient. For thousands of years, Honoli’i beach on Hawaii’s Big Island has naturally experienced runoff from heavy rains. This flushes brown sediment into the water that can block sunlight from the reef and even smother corals.

“What I’ve noticed from surfing this wave just outside of town is despite having constant brown water throughout the year, there’s a brilliant reef that exists out there. Reef and coral species that are only found here in Hawaii,” he said.

Kapono, who is also an Indigenous Hawaiian, blends a cultural heritage of surfing and native wisdom with chemistry to investigate how these reefs survive hostile conditions, which may one day help reefs elsewhere.

Read more: Native knowledge

Where are baby sharks born?

Sharks are a key part of a healthy ocean; as predators, they keep other wildlife in check and promote more biodiversity and thriving coral reefs. Because of their slow growth and long life spans, these creatures are especially vulnerable to threats, so protecting their nurseries is a focus for conservation.

James Sulikowski spends his time studying these misunderstood antiheroes of the ocean. At the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab, he and student researchers collect movement patterns, growth rates, fishing pressure and other data on sharks, skates and rays to help conserve these fish populations.

In a recent study, Sulikowski implanted a shark-safe intrauterine transmitter into pregnant scalloped hammerhead and tiger sharks. Each transmitter released and emitted a signal when a shark gave birth to let his team know the location.

“In order to protect sharks as babies, we have to protect their moms,” said Sulikowski, a professor in the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences. “Being able to see exactly where sharks are giving birth — something we’ve struggled to do in the past — is the holy grail of shark science and conservation.”

Read more: Shark-saving technology makes waves

Oceans in hot water

What’s special about plankton?

In the sunny upper layer of the ocean’s waters is a group of tiny creatures — microscopic algae called phytoplankton. Through photosynthesis, marine phytoplankton use sunlight to absorb carbon dioxide that has dissolved into the water and convert it into carbon in their bodies.

Professor Neuer also studies the critical role that phytoplankton play in the carbon cycle and how they’re affected by the increase of CO2 in the atmosphere and other factors.

“When most people think of the ocean, they think of large creatures, like whales, dolphins or turtles,” said Neuer, who is also a researcher in the Biodesign Center for Fundamental and Applied Microbiomics. “But in reality, the ocean is run by microbes. The enormous importance of these tiny organisms is unbelievable.”

As temperatures rise, the smallest of phytoplankton may also prove to be the most hardy, making their work in the carbon cycle all the more important to understand.

Read more: Priming the ocean’s carbon pump

Neuer and a PhD student look at beakers of plankton cultures

Probing the world of microbes, Susanne Neuer (right) and PhD student Bianca Nahir Cruz observe different types of phytoplankton cultures in their ocean lab. Photo by Jarod Opperman/ASU

Can we protect sea ice?

Sea ice does a lot for the planet. When seawater freezes into ice, the salt is left behind in the waters below. This denser water sinks down and flows around the world’s oceans, bringing oxygen to deep waters around the world. Sea ice also reflects sunlight, keeping Earth’s poles chilly and influencing weather systems. In places where the ice is thinner, sunlight shines through to grow algae beneath, inviting plankton, fish, seals and polar bears — a vibrant ecosystem that the Inuit call the under-ice garden.

But the ice is also under threat. Sea ice forms along the northern coasts in the winter, then over a period of years it travels across the Arctic, becoming thicker as it goes. With the warmer air and ocean heating the ice from above and below, it’s harder for thick ice to form. Stephanie Pfirman tracks where the oldest, thickest ice is, because this ice will take longest to melt in a warming world.

“There’s one special spot called the Last Ice Area, north of Canada and Greenland. It’s the size of Madagascar. And it will keep ice, we think, for decades longer than anywhere else in the Arctic in summertime,” said Pfirman, a professor in the School of Ocean Futures.

Using satellite data, Pfirman studies sea ice movement to inform policy for managing the Last Ice Area — for example, which areas should be protected and what kinds of activities to avoid in those areas, like oil development or shipping.

She is also improving Arctic science communication by working with Indigenous communities on outreach efforts and translating materials into languages like Inupiaq. She developed a game called EcoChains: Arctic Futures, hosted by ASU’s Ask a Biologist, where players strategically manage sea ice ecosystems in the face of warming, ocean acidification and overfishing.

Listen: Ask a Biologist podcast: The last stand for ice

aerial view of sea ice breaking off of glacier into ocean

Sea ice helps oxygenate the ocean's deep waters, reflects sunlight to cool the Earth, and provides a unique marine environment. But, it is also under threat. Photo courtesy Shutterstock

What is ocean acidification?

While you may have heard about ocean warming, sea level rise or melting ice caps, did you know that the ocean is also becoming more acidic? As CO2 molecules absorb into the ocean, they shift the balance of carbonate and bicarbonate, lowering the ocean’s pH level to make it more acidic.

This acidity has big consequences for marine life. Hard structures like coral skeletons and the shells of sea butterflies, for example, have become more fragile.

“In the last 40 years, we’ve seen a pH change of 0.1. Now it doesn’t sound like very much, but it’s on a logarithmic scale. The reality is that the acidity of the subtropical North Atlantic Ocean has increased in the last 40 years by about 40%,” said Nicholas Bates, a professor in the School of Ocean Futures and director of research at the Bermudia Institute of Ocean Sciences.

Bates studies changes in ocean chemistry over time using decades-long studies called time series. The Bermudia Institute of Ocean Sciences is home to the planet’s oldest time series program, called Hydrostation “S,” which has been measuring the ocean’s physical properties every two weeks since 1954. The Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study is another that has been collecting information on the ocean’s pH level since 1988.

Data from this work also goes beyond the lab to inform international policy. Bates’s record of ocean acidification has been included in past IPCC reports. BIOS also works with the nonprofit Sargasso Sea Commission to create protective policies for the international waters within the Sargasso Sea.

Technicians on a boat pull a large piece of equipment with lots of sampling tubes out of the ocean.

Aboard the research vessel Atlantic Explorer, Bermudia Institute of Ocean Sciences marine technicians pull equipment from the ocean that takes a variety of samples and measurements as part of the Bermuda Atlantic Time-series Study, or BATS. BATS has been collecting information on the ocean’s pH level since 1988. Photo by Jeff Newton

Hope for the ocean

Creating powerful agents of change who will shape a positive future for the ocean is a key focus of the School of Ocean Futures.

“A lot of it begins with education, and that’s why we are very focused on developing academic programs,” Neuer said.

Faculty are developing bachelor and PhD programs in marine science, which are slated to be offered in fall 2024. The school aims to bring students of many backgrounds into its programs. Since Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are underrepresented in marine science, Kamelamela and Kapono — themselves Native Hawaiians — are finding ways to increase diversity, support graduate students and do meaningful work in students’ communities.

“We thought that it would be a great opportunity to provide homegrown talent in the islands' access to resources of ASU that are available in Hawaii and online,” Kamelamela said.

Neuer pointed out that ASU’s recent designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution also provides the school with opportunities to increase diversity in the next generation of marine scientists.

To help train new scientists in the field and find solutions for the ocean, the school has access to a suite of high-tech tools, like the Global Airborne Observatory plane laboratory, Carbon Mapper satellites, the BIOS Atlantic Explorer research vessel and the BIOS MAGIC autonomous underwater gliders. This equipment allows researchers to study marine ecosystems from the air, space, open ocean and deep ocean layers, respectively.

“It enables us to ask and to answer many more questions on the large-scale context of changes that we see in one place,” Neuer said.

Read more: This imaginative tech is transforming conservation

A large white boat docked next to an island with smaller boats and a large building nearby.

Access to high-tech equipment, like the Atlantic Explorer research vessel above, allows scientists at ASU to ask — and answer — more questions about our oceans. Photo by Jeff Newton

And there are even more reasons to be optimistic. Last month, more than 100 countries agreed on the United Nations High Seas Treaty, which protects marine life and biodiversity in the international waters that make up nearly half of the world’s surface.

“Now that this is done, it is incumbent upon us as a community to put this to work and to do it fast and to do it quickly, equitably and effectively. That is the real challenge that we have right now, but there's a real opportunity around that as well,” said Jack Kittinger, a research professor in the School of Ocean Futures. “The global ocean could look very different in a decade's time because of this, but only if we put this treaty to work.”

Read more: New UN treaty aims to protect ocean biodiversity — what's next?

The ocean plays a critical role in supporting life on our planet — including maintaining a healthy climate, promoting biodiversity on both land and sea, and providing for communities’ livelihoods. Ultimately, it deserves our attention, even here in the Sonoran Desert, because it holds the key to a more sustainable future for Earth.

“We cannot understand our world,” said Neuer, “without understanding the ocean.”

Top photo: A view of ocean skies from aboard the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences research vessel Atlantic Explorer. Photo by Jeff Newton

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