From the Field: Stepping out of the lab and onto the floor of COP 23


As a scientist swimming up and down a transect line while counting small crabs, snails, and other invertebrates in the field or transferring liquids from one vial to the next in the lab, one can lose sight of what happens to research once it is published.

I am a postdoctoral scholar studying the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems, and I am aware that this research is becoming increasingly important as the world works to curb global greenhouse gas emissions and to reduce the impending threats of climate change.

That is why I was thrilled to join the UC Revelle Delegation to the 23rd United National Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Conference of the Parties (COP 23) happening next week. The main goal of the UNFCCC is to have countries commit to reducing global temperatures and carbon emissions. The current roadmap for reductions was drafted at COP 21 via the Paris Agreement and much of COP 23 will likely center on implementing this landmark agreement.

I was fortunate to attend COP 22 in Marrakech, Morocco last year as well. I was fascinated to witness firsthand how climate science applies to global policymaking decisions. One of my most vivid memories is of sitting in a negotiating room listening to 50 countries from all parts of the globe - from China to Germany to Vanuatu to Nigeria - state why and how their countries are working to reduce emissions. This moment inspired me to produce research that informs countries on how their pledges are impacting ecosystems.

To work towards this goal, I have been collaborating with coral reef ecologists in the Sandin Lab at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego and the Tolley Lab in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at UC San Diego to engineer conservation technologies that will help researchers determine how ecosystems are responding to climate change.

Specifically, I am coordinating a multidisciplinary effort to build a small robot that will be able to look and sense the environment inside coral reefs. These inaccessible sections of reef are essential to reef health and viability but we currently lack the technology to document them.

Ultimately, data from this robot on the internal spaces of reefs will contribute to the 100 Island Challenge at Scripps. The Challenge is a research effort in which scientists work with local partners to combine classic field survey methods with novel imaging and data technologies to describe variation across coral reefs around the world. This approach has allowed researchers to see something that has been very difficult to document in the past: the growth of coral reefs. Even in the face of headlines about coral bleaching events and demise, researchers see that some reefs are able to bounce back. This is exciting, given that islands are particularly susceptible to the effects of increased sea surface temperatures and sea-level rise. On islands where there is human influence, the ability to cope with bleaching stress can be attributed to successful local management of reef resources. Countries such as Palau and Kiribati that have designated large marine sanctuaries, have coral reefs that have been able to recover from or even withstand the impacts of climate change thus far.

This year at COP 23, I and two of my lab mates in the Sandin Lab, Dr. Emily Kelly and Ph.D. student Beverly French, aim to highlight the heroic efforts of Small Island Developing States (SIDS) to protect their reefs and the ability of the 100 Island Challenge to track the resulting positive effects. On Nov. 11 at 10am (Oceans Day at COP 23) we will host a press conference to draw attention to this work. We will feature conservation efforts of other partners, such as Palau and Kiribati, with which we share scientific data. We are especially excited because COP 23 is hosted by Fiji*, a SIDS that has long been engaged in coral reef management. We look forward to contributing to the meeting’s efforts to showcase the productive climate change solutions that the SIDS have implemented and that are backed by sound scientific research.

My experiences at COP 22 and my preparation for COP 23 have reiterated my commitment to producing science that contributes to effective climate change solutions and to communicating this science to broad audiences. I see how critical it is to take my research out of the lab and apply it to policy both locally and around the world.

* COP 23 is hosted by Fiji, though it will be physically located in Bonn, Germany.

Photo: Dr. Maya deVries (right) with Dr. Emily Kelly (left) in Maui, Hawaii after a dive to explore inside coral reefs and to image coral reefs as part of the 100 Island Challenge. August 2017.


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