New Scripps-based Research Program to Analyze Ecosystems of the California Current

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Building upon a half century of research, scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, and their colleagues have embarked on an unprecedented effort to uncover the mechanisms underlying changes in the ecosystems off California's coast.

A grant of nearly $5 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will establish the Scripps Institution-based California Current Ecosystem (CCE) site, a program that will peer into the California Current as never before. CCE, one of two newly established sites, is part of NSF's Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, a network that focuses on ecological research over long time periods in different terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

CCE will benefit from more than 50 years of research conducted by the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI)-a unique partnership of Scripps Institution, the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service-which was launched to examine the dynamics of the important California Current, the eastern portion of the large, clockwise circulation of the north Pacific Ocean that travels just off California's shores. CalCOFI, originally founded to understand the plummeting harvests of the Pacific sardine, is one of the world's longest-running multidisciplinary field programs concentrating on one of the most productive coastal ecosystems in the world's oceans.

"We are fortunate to be standing on the shoulders of the scientific giants who built the CalCOFI program over more than five decades, enabling us to see further into the workings of pelagic ecosystems here in the California Current than is possible anywhere else in the ocean," said Mark Ohman, a professor of biological oceanography at Scripps Institution and lead principal investigator of CCE.

Ohman said the scientific findings established through CalCOFI have uncovered multiple, interacting processes that influence the California Current system, including an ocean warming trend, El NiƱo events, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. More than 26 scientists involved in the CCE site will work to understand how these climatic influences modify marine ecosystems.

Understanding the mechanism of change in coastal ecosystems is important to the management of living and non-living resources in the coastal zone, the researchers believe. They hope to develop an understanding of how these phenomena affect changes in food webs, predator-prey relationships, the movement of organisms into and out of the region and the transfer of groups of organisms along the California coast.

"The California Current is a highly productive upwelling ecosystem that sustains a variety of fish, invertebrate, marine mammal and kelp populations of importance to the people of California. It also helps to modify the climate of much of the western United States," said Ohman. "This new LTER site will enable us to understand how climate change affects the California Current ecosystem and to build this understanding into mathematical models that will, eventually, help us forecast the effects of climate change on living marine resources."

The NSF has now established 26 LTER sites. The two newest, including a site investigating coral reef processes, will receive approximately $820,000 each per year for the next six years, for a total of nearly $5 million each. The CCE site also will capitalize on Scripps's ship fleet, including 80 days of experiments at sea on the research vessel Revelle and 24 days on the R/V New Horizon, in addition to the quarterly CalCOFI cruises.

"The California Current system sustains active fisheries for a variety of finfish and shellfish, modulates weather patterns and the hydrologic cycle of much of the western United States, and plays a vital role in the economy of myriad coastal communities," said Phil Taylor, director of NSF's biological oceanography program.

Ohman said it is difficult to distinguish the differences between human and naturally produced changes in the marine environment because of the widely variable forces interacting there.

"With this new LTER site we have a rare opportunity to tease out the causes of the natural sources of variability," said Ohman. "This will prove invaluable in managing the living marine resources of importance to California."

The other new LTER program, the Moorea Coral Reef site, will be located at the University of California's field laboratory on the island of Moorea in French Polynesia. Research there will help scientists better understand coral reef processes that drive the functions of this ecosystem; the nature of coral reef animal and plant community structure and diversity; and the factors that determine the abundance and dynamics of related populations.

Participants in CCE include scientists from Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Scripps), Pacific Fisheries Environmental Laboratory (PFEL), Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech), Duke University, Point Reyes Bird Observatory (PRBO), the Birch Aquarium at Scripps (BAS), the California Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (CA COSEE) and Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC) of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

The participants are, including their area of CCE study:

Mark Ohman: lead principal investigator, Scripps, mesozooplankton ecology

Lihini Aluwihare: co-principal investigator, Scripps, dissolved organic matter

Karen Baker: co-principal investigator, Scripps, information management

Katherine Barbeau: co-principal investigator, Scripps, iron geochemistry

David Checkley: co-principal investigator, Scripps, mesozooplankton, ichthyoplankton

Peter Franks: co-principal investigator, Scripps, biophysical modeling

Ralf Goericke: co-principal investigator, Scripps, phytoplankton ecology

Michael Landry: co-principal investigator, Scripps, food-web structure and function

Art Miller: co-principal investigator, Scripps, physical oceanography, modeling

Greg Mitchell: co-principal investigator, Scripps, remote sensing, bio-optics

George Sugihara: co-principal investigator, Scripps, nonlinear modeling

Farooq Azam: associate, Scripps, bacteria/microbial food webs

Steven Bograd: associate, PFEL, physical oceanography

Ron Burton: associate, Scripps, molecular probes for protists

Dan Cayan: associate, Scripps, atmospheric physics

Teresa Chereskin: associate, Scripps, ADCP currents

Emanuel DiLorenzo: associate, Georgia Tech, biophysical modeling

Sharon Franks: associate, CA COSEE, education and outreach planning

David Hyrenbach: associate, Duke/PRBO, seabird ecology

Cheryl Peach: associate, BAS and CA COSEE, education and outreach planning

Brian Palenik: associate, Scripps, microbial diversity

Dan Rudnick: associate Scripps, mesoscale ocean physics

Christian Reiss: associate, SWFSC, planktivorous fishes

Ken Smith: associate, Scripps, deep-sea benthic ecology

Bill Sydeman: associate, PRBO, seabird ecology, marine mammals

Elizabeth Venrick, associate, Scripps, phytoplankton floristics

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NSF is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, with an annual budget of nearly $5.58 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives about 40,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes about 11,000 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $200 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Related Video: On California Current Processes

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