A Scientist’s Life: Clarissa Anderson

Biological oceanographer predicts ocean hazards and creates a more informed public

Clarissa Anderson is the Director of the Southern California Coastal Observing System (SCCOOS) and the NOAA Cooperative Institute for Marine, Earth, and Atmospheric Systems (CIMEAS) at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. A biological oceanographer, she received her bachelor of arts degree in integrative biology and art history at UC Berkeley in 1999 and a marine science PhD. at UC Santa Barbara in 2007. She joined Scripps Oceanography in 2016.


explorations now (en): What do you do for a living?
Clarissa Anderson (CA): I'm a biological oceanographer with a huge desire to play with plankton! 

The ocean is a big place. We're really focused on the coast, but the coast means a lot of different things to different people. It could be when you go to the beach and you look at the waves crashing, and just that region could be thought of as coastal, but what we're looking at is everything out to hundreds, if not sometimes thousands, of kilometers offshore in a section of the ocean on the continental shelf where a lot of processes are happening that are pertinent for coastal communities. Those could affect fisheries, which often exist far offshore; that could include phenomena like harmful algal blooms that impact the offshore environment as well as the near-shore environment. 

We're used to seeing bioluminescence in the waves here. That is an indication of  one type of potential harmful algal bloom that we worry about and for which we need a lot of data to communicate, not only about how intense these blooms could get, but understand how they're changing with respect to climate.

I work with an incredible team of many different scientists throughout California to bring together and enact science, vision and mission across many different aspects of the Earth's system. I'm working to push the science forward by enabling scientists to do the work, which means finding funding, finding resources, deploying those resources.

But it also means communicating results from these collective scientific endeavors to the public, to all the different resource managers who need to make decisions about those data and what they mean, and then really push forward how we think about policy, particularly ocean policy in the United States.

en: What are some of the main questions in your field?

CA: One of the biggest questions that we are facing is how do we think about the intersection of stressors that you often hear in the news about, such as marine heat waves or ocean acidification. 

The big challenge we have right now is understanding what happens when you've got all of these things happening at once: heat, heat content changing, waters becoming more acidic, areas of hypoxia, anoxia, which are areas of  low or zero oxygen expanding throughout the ocean. Animals are experiencing all of this together. Marine organisms are experiencing this in one giant soup.

We don't understand how all of these things work together to influence the physiology or the population scale changes in these organisms, or even how they're going to affect the amount of oxygen that we breathe in the next few decades. 

Figuring out a way for academics and industry to come up with solutions together is a big push for us. We want to make sure that the public investment in understanding these problems is always nurtured and we have to bring in as much technology as we can. If that means partnering as much as we can with private industry, that's what we're doing.

We recognize that these challenges are not going away. If anything, they're accelerating.

en: What tools do you use in your research? 
CA: To really get at this holistic ecosystem problem, we have to think a lot about prediction. One of the big tools in my field is modeling. We couple physical models to realistic simulations of what's happening with biogeochemistry, which explains how nutrients are cycling through the ocean. Plankton are mediating nutrients throughout the ocean, so our models need to represent them, whether those are phytoplankton, the little tiny ones that are photosynthesizing, or the slightly larger ones like zooplankton, which we're familiar with because that's what whales eat – krill, for instance.

When we want to predict what happens when there's a marine heat wave and we want to know which fish species or which mammal species are going to be impacted the most, those models are critical for getting an idea, either on a short timeframe or on longer timescales, where we want to be able to project what happens as climate changes.

The models are really critical for prediction, but they are only as good as the observations that feed them and train them. The observation systems that I'm involved with here at Scripps are everything from real-time temperature sensors on piers to real-time sensors for oxygen, but the thing that we've been pushing the hardest on is biology; how do we observe real-time biology? We've built a system of robotic microscopes that look at plankton in real time and tell you everything that's in the phytoplankton community every hour. And that can be relayed through machine learning algorithms that tell you exactly what those plankton are, a type of image recognition. The microscopes are on moorings offshore or on piers including Scripps Pier. They're working collectively as a unit to give us an incredible snapshot every hour of the plankton environment. 

SCCOOS has several major platforms that are the basis of its flagship programs. One of those is high-frequency radar, and this gives us real time surface currents. Those measurements are incredibly critical for a number of models that impact society directly, things like search and rescue. They can reduce the time it takes for somebody to find someone who's lost in the water by 40% because the models ingest the real time data every hour or so. 

The thing that I've been working on for most of my own career and what I think really brought me here is harmful algal blooms. There are many of these HABs, as we call them, that are increasing in intensity in California. We don't entirely know why. We just know they're getting more toxic and they do impact wildlife.

We've had really big harmful algal blooms the last two years and one particular type of plankton produces a neurotoxin. It's deadly to us. Luckily, the state of California is really good at checking the shellfish that we consume and protecting us from that.

But it's harder to protect sea lions who are feeding offshore, eating fish from the subsurface. Those are the animals that we see come to the beach often in distress, having seizures, foaming at the mouth. This is a reaction to this neurotoxin. What really gets me going is thinking about how to predict that and how to use all of the observational and model tools that we have to forecast whether we're going to see this toxin in the water.

We can help the rescue centers that get inundated and don't really have the capacity often to deal with a lot of these animals coming in. We can help the animals themselves. Then also think about what are the ramifications on human health in coastal communities, particularly coastal fishing communities, as we move forward in time thinking about how this can impact somebody like a Dungeness Crab fisher who cannot go out for an entire season because those crabs become contaminated with this toxin.

en: Why did you want to come to Scripps?
CA: I'm at Scripps because the experts here bring to the table all the tools and knowledge that we need to understand really challenging problems in the ocean.

I'm a biological oceanographer and that would suggest that I only focus on biology, but if you think about the fact that photosynthetic organisms in the ocean, like land plants, are taking up nutrients. They're using light to photosynthesize. They're also getting eaten by things just like a tree growing on land would. The difference is the ocean organisms are constantly moving with the currents. They're moving vertically andmoving horizontally in the water, so you also have to think about fluid dynamics. 

This opens up a whole new discipline: the physical component. An oceanographer is dealing not only with the biology and chemistry and physics, but then also trying to tie all of that together. Something appealing about Scripps is that we have all of those experts here and we tend to understand that these big wicked problems in the ocean and the climate require this kind of interdisciplinary approach.

en: What do you hope your research yields?
CA: There's a need to get information to people who live along the coast, but also people who don't live along the coast to really thoroughly understand what the ocean brings to us, whether that’s food security, oxygen, or joy because we like to be around physical environments like the ocean. They need information on how it connects to weather, because we're reliant on water, reliant on food sources that are heavily connected to climate and weather, so even if you don't live along the coast, your life is clearly being impacted by what happens because of the coupled nature of the ocean and the atmosphere and weather and climate. 

What I'm hoping is that not only do we improve ocean literacy in the community, but that on a more practical level, on the daily to yearly time frame, we have the capacity to influence and change the trajectory of how we use resources from the ocean, protect those resources, and then also protect the livelihoods of people who depend upon them.

The thing that drives us on the daily to produce the kinds of data that we produce is our desire to protect the livelihoods of people on the coast, but also push us to think about the long term drivers and impacts and about what it means to preserve and protect the ocean and its resources for future generations. 






About Scripps Oceanography

Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego is one of the world’s most important centers for global earth science research and education. In its second century of discovery, Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet, and investigate our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps offers unparalleled education and training for the next generation of scientific and environmental leaders through its undergraduate, master’s and doctoral programs. The institution also operates a fleet of four oceanographic research vessels, and is home to Birch Aquarium at Scripps, the public exploration center that welcomes 500,000 visitors each year.

About UC San Diego

At the University of California San Diego, we embrace a culture of exploration and experimentation. Established in 1960, UC San Diego has been shaped by exceptional scholars who aren’t afraid to look deeper, challenge expectations and redefine conventional wisdom. As one of the top 15 research universities in the world, we are driving innovation and change to advance society, propel economic growth and make our world a better place. Learn more at ucsd.edu.

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