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Research Themes

ECCO: Evolution and Climate Change in the Ocean
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The marine science community has become increasingly aware that in order to predict the response of marine communities to climate and environmental change, it is essential to understand the ability of marine organisms to adapt to global change. They also recognize that this understanding requires a greater degree of communication and collaboration between ocean scientists and evolutionary biologists. To encourage this interaction, the Biological Oceanography Program supported a catalytic workshop at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center (NESCent) in Durham, North Carolina (October 1-2, 2009) led by co-PIs David Hutchins (University of Southern California) and Gretchen Hofmann (University of California, Santa Barbara) with participation of marine and evolution scientists. Building on recommendations generated by this initial catalytic activity a larger community workshop was held May 7-9, 2010 at the USC Wrigley Institute conference facility on Catalina Island, California. A workshop report should be available early in 2011. ECCO is a nascent community building and research development effort that the Program expects to facilitate and support, perhaps as a joint effort with programs in the Directorate of Biology.

Ocean Acidification
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Since the publication of The Royal Society's report Ocean Acidification Due to Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide (June 2005), there has been growing concern for the potential adverse impacts of a slowly acidifying sea upon marine ecosystems. The unprecedented build-up of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the past two centuries, driven by the burning of fossil fuels, is generally accepted as the primary cause for rapid warming of the global atmosphere. An additional consequence is a significant change in the chemistry of the sea. The physicochemical relationship between the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the carbonate controlled acid-base system of the sea is well understood, and accordingly, the scientific community has anticipated that acidification of the ocean will occur. However, the consequences of ocean acidification are poorly understood. How rapidly will ocean acidification proceed? How will it alter the chemistry of the ocean? What is the breadth and severity of the impacts on organisms and ecosystems? Are there parallel events in the earth's history, and what can we learn from them?

A variety of scientific workshops have been held in the U.S. and abroad to evaluate what is currently known about ocean acidification, to consider its potential impacts on ocean ecosystems and the earth system, and to chart a research course for the future to address the myriad of unknowns. There is broad consensus that there is an urgent need for (1) ocean surveys, monitoring and time-series studies to establish the present day picture and future course of ocean acidification, and its ecological and environmental consequences and (2) basic research to discover and understand how the chemistry and physics of the ocean interplay with changes in acidity, how marine biota and communities function in an acidifying ocean, how historical excursions of seawater acidity have played out in the geologic past, and what they might reveal for the future.

The Biological Oceanography Program has been supporting research focused on ocean acidification with unsolicited proposals submitted to the Program at regular target dates. In addition, the NSF Climate Research Investments include a special solicitation for crosscutting research on Ocean Acidification (Solicitation 10-530). We anticipate these crosscutting initiatives will continue through 2015. The Program will continue to accept proposals on ocean acidification for the 15 February and August target dates, although we strongly urge PIs to consider the Ocean Acidification initiative. PIs are reminded that similar proposals cannot be concurrently considered.

Long Term Research
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Time-series research is critical to understanding ecosystem processes and continues to be actively supported by the community (as recommended in the EDOCC, OCTET, and Millenium reports).   Sustained observations of the biota and their environmental context, coupled to both experimentation and modeling over periods of time are needed to reveal the ecological timescales, and variability, of many important ecosystem processes throughout the oceanic environment.

The Biological Oceanography Program supports time-series research through different mechanisms.  The Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) program, coordinated with the Division of Environmental Biology, supports several marine ecological programs.  Several investigators have maintained Biological Oceanography funding and produced invaluable time-series data and research, such as Joseph Connell's work on the Great Barrier Reef exceeding 40 years and Peter Glynn’s work in the eastern tropical Pacific ongoing for 35 years.  We also have investigators who have gathered data spanning hundreds of years to answer ecosystem process questions, such as Daniel Schindler's work with Sockeye Salmon in Alaska.  In addition, the program supports the deep-ocean HOT (Hawai'i Ocean Time-series) and BATS (Bermuda Atlantic Time Series) stations (with Chemical Oceanography). 

The Program's involvement with an array of activities is of part of the Division of Ocean Science's commitment to time-series research. This will be increasing in the near future with the development of the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI).


Ocean Ecology and the Carbon Cycle
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The structure of oceanic food webs influences the quality and amount of carbon exported from ecosystems, as well as the elemental ratios of their biota and the nutrient pools in the water. Food web structure varies in space and in time over seasonal, annual, decadal, and geologic scales. Elemental stoichiometries are often key elements of biogeochemical models. They are emergent properties of marine ecosystems, dictated by the differential partitioning of elements that flow through the food web. We do not fully understand what constrains these ratios, but do know that results of biogeochemical models can be very sensitive to assumptions about stoichiometry.

The EDOCC, OCTET, Millenium and OCCC reports all point strongly to delineating the role of biological processes in the oceanic carbon cycle and the Earth's climate system (past, present and future) and understanding the basic mechanisms of the biological pump. Studies that integrate physical, biogeochemical and biological observation, experimentation and modeling over relevant spatial and temporal scales are needed to understand the ecosystem dynamics and food-web structure in controlling the rates of carbon fixation and fate of organic carbon in the marine environment. Specifically research should continue to 1) determine the probable responses of marine ecosystems to climate shifts, 2) identify feedbacks from these systems to climate and 3) elucidate the factors that contribute most significantly to ecosystem resilience and stability and thereby determine the efficiency of the biological pump and its current and probable future behavior.

The Biological Oceanography Program, in concert with Chemical Oceanography provided the majority of support for the US Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) program over the past decade plus.  We have been actively involved with the Carbon and Water in the Earth Systems crosscutting NSF-initiative in 2006-7, as well as the many other and various solicitations involving carbon cycle research (Biocomplexity’s Coupled Biogeochemical Cycles; GEO’s Biogeosciences, etc.).  We will continue, along with the Chemical Oceanography and Physical Oceanography Programs, to support the research on the fundamentals of the ocean's cycling of carbon as part of an interdisciplinary focused program, and individual investigator science.


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