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Advancing oceanic discovery in the desert

June 27, 2023

ASU School of Ocean Futures director discusses the future of ocean research, how Arizona desert dwellers are inextricably tied to the ocean

Since childhood, Susanne Neuer has been fascinated with the mysteries under the sea.

As a kid, summers were spent exploring Mediterranean waters with her family; as a teen, she picked up jobs to buy a microscope and examine the microscopic organisms in ponds near her home; and as an academic, she’s advanced crucial phytoplankton research around the world, deepening the understanding of the vital role tiny sea organisms play in preserving ocean health and human livelihoods. 

“My love for the ocean and my interest in plankton has shaped my desire to become an oceanographer and my career path ever since,” said Neuer, director of Arizona State University’s School of Ocean Futures.

At the helm of ASU’s highest oceanic post, Neuer oversees the ocean discovery and research initiatives spanning three campuses and two oceans, dozens of faculty members, students, staff, a fleet of undersea drones in Bermuda, an airborne observatory in Hawaii and labs in Arizona that will be growing coral.

ASU News spoke to Neuer about her love for the ocean, the future of ocean research in the face of climate change, and why a renewed focus on ocean health is important for everyone — even if you live in the desert.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. 

Susanne Neuer

Question: What first compelled you to get involved in ocean research?

Answer: My passion for studying the oceans goes back to when I was a child. My parents would take me and my brother to the island of Ibiza in the Mediterranean where we discovered the underwater world, which has fascinated me ever since.

Then back home in southern Germany, I discovered aquatic life in nearby ponds. For some reason, I became interested in plankton life and studying small crustaceans and microscopic algae. First, I used a microscope I assembled from a kit that I got for Christmas, but then I bought a better scope with money saved up from a summer job in a flower shop. 

Q: Why is ocean research necessary? And why is it important for someone living in the desert to care about ocean health?

A: Our lives are so closely intertwined with the ocean, even though we do not experience a coastline in Arizona. Simply, life here would not be possible without the ocean.

Through the absorbance of heat and its distribution from low to high latitudes through currents, the ocean makes this a livable planet. Without it, we would have extreme day-night differences in temperature, somewhat like the desert planet Mars. The minuscule algae in the ocean are also the basis of our oceans’ food web, from planktonic crustaceans all the way up to whales, and they produce about half of the oxygen through the photosynthesis that we breathe; the other half comes from land plants. And all the rain that falls in Arizona and enables us to live in this desert originates from evaporated moisture that comes to us from the Pacific, the Gulf of California or Gulf of Mexico, depending on the season.

The ocean takes up a quarter to a third of all CO2 emissions that we emit into the atmosphere every year by fossil carbon emissions. Without this important ocean service, our CO2 levels would be much higher and our planet warmer. This affects us anywhere on the earth, whether we live in the desert of Arizona or near a beach.

Q: What are some pressing issues or threats the oceans face today?

A: The oceans are affected by a myriad of changes that are mainly caused by human activities. The increasing CO2 uptake I mentioned causes the oceans to become more acidic. Our oceans are warming, and the heat makes the ocean water expand, causing sea-level rise. Melting ice sheets and glaciers can cause even more global sea level rise. Extremes in weather affect people from coastlines to far inland. Overfishing of the oceans has removed valuable top predators, causing us to "fish down the food web" that seriously affects the diversity of sea life and its natural abundance. Some think oceans are already in collapse. There is great urgency to act.

Q: What can or should be done to combat these challenges?

A: ASU is working on many fronts. We have faculty and researchers monitoring coral health (in) coastal ecosystems; we’re working with native communities and finding common solutions that are in harmony with nature; we’re researching coral bleaching, advancing the understanding and monitoring of changing ocean chemistry, working on the front lines to combat overfishing, and working with policymakers to find sustainable solutions to marine conservation. An additional focus is teaching and educating (the) public and K–12 schools with hands-on learning through our Ocean Academy and experiential learning opportunities.

Susanne Neuer (center) with ASU students aboard ASU's Atlantic Explorer in March 2023. Photo courtesy Susanne Neuer

Q: What role do interdisciplinary collaborations and partnerships with local communities play in understanding ocean health and advancing solutions? 

A: We are very fortunate to have among our faculty several scientists that are native Hawaiians and embedded in this land-ocean-people connection. We have learned how important it is to work with local communities to find solutions that serve people and integrate their wisdom into the way we study and teach about the ocean.

Q: What unique perspective do you believe ASU has on ocean research where seemingly two contrasting environments are at play — the arid desert landscape and the vast ocean?

A: This is a strength. Our main (headquarters) in Tempe is located in the Walton Center for Planetary Health, not by accident. Indeed, our strength lies in our faculty on the three campuses, and that we combine knowledge, inquiry, learning and teaching across the two major oceans of our planet, which drive the majority of climate on Earth, contain most of the life and are a beacon for finding solutions to our oceans' crises.

We combine different perspectives and experiences and teach each other how to work on coastal and coral ecosystems, closely aligned and integrated with people’s culture and wisdom. And we have two major vessels that are integral to the monitoring of both ocean ecosystems: The RV Atlantic Explorer at BIOS and the Airborne Observatory in Hawaii. 

Q: In a changing climate with growing threats, what is your hope for the future of ocean research?

A: My hope is that we will arrive at meaningful solutions for our crises. We need people who are ocean-literate and understand climate change and how it affects the oceans, coastal regions and people living there, the ocean services that enable us to live comfortably on our planet, and importantly, how ocean life suffers from unsustainable exploitation and pollution.

We need to find solutions and we have to all work together – scientists, engineers, educators, practitioners and policymakers. This is our call. While conducting solutions-based and forward-looking research, we need to educate the next generation. Our school, embedded in the Global Futures Lab, is uniquely equipped to work across disciplines — from learning to discovery to finding solutions.

Top photo courtesy of Unsplash.

David Rozul

Media Relations Officer , Media Relations and Strategic Communications


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ASU bioarcheologist unearths medieval life through burial remains

June 27, 2023

Brenda Baker continues her ongoing research this summer in Cyprus

Editor's note: This is the first in a series of Q&As highlighting Arizona State University researchers working around the world this summer. Read about tool excavation in Africamotorbike research in Vietnam and conserving jaguars in Costa Rica.

Brenda Baker flew into Cyprus in early June. The divided island is located southwest of Turkey. 

After securing a rental car, the ASU bioarcheologist followed the signs (written in both Greek and English) for more than 100 miles along the southern coast of the island, and then north from Paphos, on a winding, rural road to Polis. This small town rises on a bluff from the coast of the Mediterranean Sea, which Baker says varies in color from turquoise to cobalt blue.

It is here that Baker, an associate professor in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change, has been returning to since 2005 to conduct burial excavations.

Trip from Larnaca, Cyprus to Poli, Cyprus on Google maps

Baker's route from the Larnaca International Airport to the excavation site in Polis, or Poli Crysochous, Cyprus. Image courtesy Google maps

The trip not only takes her a long way from her home in Chandler, Arizona, but her research takes her back hundreds of years — to the early sixth century when two stunning, sun-soaked basilicas were built on a bluff overlooking the bay and used for burials on and off until the 1500s.

The area continues to be the focus of her work as part of the Princeton University Cyprus Expedition. The goal of the project is to examine Hellenistic and Roman layers of the town that were discovered, as well as the late antique-to-medieval basilicas. Baker is the project’s bioarchaeologist and is in charge of studying the skeletons of people buried in and around the two churches some 500 to 1,700 years ago. 

Her research has a two-fold purpose. It gives her a greater understanding of the history of Cyprus and the lives of the people who once lived there, and provides rich experiences to share with her students at ASU. 

This year, Katelyn Bolhofner, a former graduate student who worked on the project more than 10 years ago, joined Baker in Cyprus. Bolhofner is now an assistant professor of forensic anthropology at ASU’s School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences

ASU News checked in with Baker in Polis last week to hear about her summer research of uncovered skeletons in Cyprus. 

Excavation cite of basilica in Polis, Cyprus

ASU researcher Brenda Baker has been working at this excavation site in Polis, Cyprus, for many years. The excavations are near two basilicas. Baker is studying the skeletons of people buried in and around the churches 500 to 1,700 years ago. Photo by Katelyn Bolhofner

Note: Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: Your typical work day starts at 8 a.m., with a tray of bones to study. What are skeletal bones from 1,700 years ago like?

Answer: Most skeletons are in a fair to poor state of preservation in the lab. The skeletons look complete when first exposed, but they have had all the organic components, such as collagen, leach out of them, so they are very brittle and crumbly. The many tiny roots that go through the bones also break them up, so we have a lot of fragments to work with rather than complete bones. It’s a giant puzzle to put back together. 

Q: What is it like to spend so much time with skeletons?

A: It can be both frustrating, given the way the burials were excavated prior to my participation and preservation issues, and it can be rewarding, (especially when) relating to current residents about these ancient people, who were not so different from them. It can be exciting at times, as it was when finding evidence of leprosy in a young adult female. 

Q: That was one of your most important discoveries. Why? 

A: Her skeleton was the first archaeological example from Cyprus. Her burial within the entry hall of the church shows she was not ostracized by the community or barred from burial in sanctified ground. 

The separation of people suffering from leprosy on Cyprus did not occur until Ottoman colonization, and they were further subjected to separate leper houses and stigmatization with British colonialism. So it is quite important to recognize that this female who died in her 20s participated in regular activities like sewing until she was no longer able to do so.  

ASU professor Brenda Baker examining skeletons in her lab in Cyprus

Baker works in her lab in Cyprus. Photo by Katelyn Bolhofner

Q: What have you been working on this week?

A: The last couple of days, I’ve been documenting the skeletal pathology in a man I excavated from a cistA cist is a small stone-built coffin-like box or ossuary used to hold the bodies of the dead. Source: Wikipedia tomb outside of the basilica back in 2005. His tomb was constructed of ashlar (limestone) blocks and covered with limestone slabs. 

Many people were buried in simple pits dug into the ground, some with coffins evidenced by remnants of nails and some without coffins. The latter sometimes had stones placed on either side of the head to keep it in position. Most people were common folk, though some of the earlier burials within the main areas of each basilica were clergy or wealthier people. 

Q: What else have you learned about the culture through your work? 

A: The people in this area performed a lot of manual agricultural work, suffered mostly clavicle (collarbone and shoulder injuries) and rib fractures. They probably fished and, based on grooves in their teeth, did regular tasks like sewing and weaving. 

The skeletons have revealed evidence of a division of labor through the different proportions of females versus males with grooves or notches on their teeth and in patterns of trauma.

While more adult males had trauma, it’s all accidental. In adult females, some is probably accidental but other injuries were certainly intentionally inflicted as indicated by cranial depression fractures and a “parry fracture” of a forearm bone that happens when someone is warding off a blow to the face.

Q: Sometimes excavations unearth extraordinary discoveries, but smaller observations are equally significant. Can you explain?

A: Yes. I’ve been documenting notches and grooves on incisor teeth that show they were being used as tools — mainly doing things like snapping thread along the side of a tooth. An adult female buried around 1,000 A.D. in the cemetery, excavated in 2005, was the first, we noted, to have grooves on her teeth. She had other skeletal alterations that support the contention that she was a seamstress. 

Since then, I’ve documented grooves and notches on teeth of many other individuals, both male and female, though females predominate. 

One of the most rewarding aspects of the discoveries here has been the discussions I’ve had with women who do local crafts — weaving, lacemaking, embroidery. When I told one shop owner in Polis about the teeth of our seamstress, with the deep grooves on the side of her top second incisor teeth, she exclaimed that she does the same thing and her dentist keeps telling her to use scissors instead of her teeth or she will break them off!  

A Cypriot archaeologist who heard a presentation I gave told me that his mother does that, and it made this medieval woman come alive. 

Top photo: Brenda Baker, an associate professor in ASU's School of Human Evolution and Social Change, spends time in a lab in Polis, Cyprus. Baker begins her work day by retrieving trays of bones from storage. The lab provides good light and a lot of table space to analyze the bones. Baker takes an inventory of what bones are present or absent and then determines the sex, dental wear and more. Photo by Katelyn Bolhofner

Dolores Tropiano

Reporter , ASU News