NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science is responsible for working with researchers from across sectors to provide internal, regional, state and local coastal and ocean resource managers with the best science tools for monitoring and mitigating existing and emerging threats to the nation’s coastal and ocean resources. Researchers at NCCOS, OCRM and the University of Wisconsin recently published the first national climate sensitivity indicator using the NOAA’s NERRS system of research sites as the background. In this blog series, NOAA Ocean Science Blogger sat down with key members of the research and coordination team to learn more about what they did and its role in assisting NOAA, regional and states with managing our coastal and ocean resources.
This series also includes Part 1 with Dr. Dwight Trueblood from OCRM/NERRS who provides an overview of this project, and Part 3 featuring University of Wisconsin’s Patrick Robinson who speaks to the socioeconomic component of this research. The NOAA press release is available online here.
Thank you for speaking with our readers, AK.
Happy to do it.
Can you tell us briefly about the goal of this study?
Our goal was to provide a better understanding of how and where climate change and climate variability affects the Nation’s Estuarine Research Reserves. Because these reserves are scattered across the Nation’s coastline, information we learned in this study provides an important brick in the foundation of information and tools NOAA and other coastal managers can use to prepare and protect our Nation’s coastal zone for future climate changes.
Who were the partners in the NOAA project?
The principal partners were the University of Wisconsin, NOAA’s Climate Program Office, and OCRM’s Estuarine Reserve Division. We also engaged with the NERRS research coordinators and utilized data available from NOAA’s National Climate Data Center. We also formed an external steering committee comprised of scientists and managers from the CPO, other NOS offices, and other federal agencies.
What needs were you hoping to fill by completing this project?
NOAA is entrusted with managing the unique, protected estuarine research reserves. Changes in climate are certain to impact these reserves in a number of different ways. Therefore, we needed a better understanding of how different aspects of the reserves are likely to be impacted by climate change. Further, this work scored each of the system’s reserves according to its sensitivity to climate variations, which provides OCRM with the information it needs to strategically focus its limited resources to protect the most vulnerable reserves, and the NERRS system as a whole.
How did you develop the idea for this project? What process did you follow to plan and carry out this work?
OCRM recognized a need for climate change understanding at the reserves and were awarded funds to conduct an assessment by the CPO. We were excited when they contacted us to help devise the plan as to how to proceed. As we mentioned, we advocated for the founding of an external steering committee and for strong interactive product development featuring the input of the Reserve Research Coordinators. We also devised the biophysical assessment approach, which required some careful thought about how to quantitatively evaluate climate ‘sensitivity’ and how to view the system as a whole, while providing useful information for each individual reserve.
What are biophysical characteristics and why were they the focus of your part of this project?
The ERD had been thoughtful enough, more than a decade ago, to initiate a system-wide observational platform to be implemented at each Reserve. Our study was one of the first to exercise the new data acquisition system set up to distribute this data, and one of the first to provide a system-wide assessment based upon this SWMP database.
The SWMP observational platform monitors biological and physical variables, including, for example, water temperature, salinity, and chlorophyll). We assessed and described the sensitivity of these variables to local historic changes in atmospheric temperature and precipitation. Because the SWMP data set is comprised of variables that determine the health, habitat suitability, and distribution of coastal plants and animals, our analysis provides insights into which reserve might experience the strongest shifts in ecosystem conditions given projected regional climate changes. This is important because changing ecosystem conditions will affect coastal communities and the nation’s economy by altering fisheries harvests, recreational opportunities, and employment.
OCRM can use the findings of this study to formulate a strategic approach towards responding to the challenges presented by climate change and to guide future research and monitoring efforts across the reserve system. Because the study provides an index of sensitivity, those resources can be focused on topics and areas of greatest need.
Following on from this work, our biophysical team has proceeded to take the next step, which is to build a coastal ocean climate response indicator, which identifies how the habitat conditions within each reserve have changed over the last few decades. To do that, we used multivariate statistics to look at all of the SWMP variables simultaneously, which allowed us to identify and describe the strongest response in estuarine biophysical conditions at each reserve. This analysis described patterns of change at each site, and also identified regional similarities across the Nation’s coastline. This information provides a more detailed picture of how the Nation’s coastal ocean ecosystems have changed in the past, which is the key to understanding how they are likely to respond to future climate changes.
Were can readers find this report and other climate science taking place at NCCOS or NOAA?
The report is available online at <link>. In addition to the work described in this study, NCCOS scientists are heavily engaged in climate science, including working on tools for predicting impacts to fish and shellfish populations from changes in temperature and precipitation, coastal impacts from sea-level rise, and changes in pathogen distributions based on water quality. Information about these projects is available online at <link>.
NCCOS Blogger Biography: A.K. Leight conducts NOAA research related to the health and management of coastal environments. He has worked on assessments of estuarine conditions ranging from chemical contaminant impacts, nutrient concentrations, bacterial pollutants, and climate modeling. He started working with NOAA at the Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular Research in Charleston, South Carolina in 1994 as a graduate student and later as a contractual employee. He joined NCCOS’s Cooperative Oxford Laboratory in 2002. Mr. Leight earned a Bachelor of Science degree from Old Dominion University, a Master of Science degree from the University of Charleston, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Marine and Estuarine Environmental Studies program of the University of Maryland.