Science: the foundation for climate solutions

The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Monterey Bay Aquarium works on multiple fronts to address the ocean impacts of climate change. Here, we present several recent scientific findings on the complex ocean-climate connection.

Science powers the Aquarium’s mission to inspire ocean conservation. It’s the basis of our public education programs, our work to protect vulnerable marine species, and our efforts to address climate change and ocean acidification.

We advocate for policies—from the local to global levels—to reduce carbon emissions, end our reliance on fossil fuels, promote clean energy and mitigate the unavoidable impacts underway. And we believe those policies must be based on the best available scientific evidence.

The Aquarium conducts climate research to help fill those gaps, often in collaboration with our peers. Engineers and scientists at our partner institution, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), are developing new tools to study and monitor ocean change.

To solve the climate crisis, we must invest in science, and use science to inform our decision-making. Here are a few recent studies that might help point the way toward climate solutions.

Marine animals make global moves

We can learn a lot from animals that travel the world’s ocean—like the importance of being better global citizens. A recent study published in Nature Ecology & Evolution highlights the myriad threats that highly migratory marine predators face as they travel through the saltwater boundaries of different countries.

Sooty shearwater MBA owned
Sooty shearwaters travel all the way across the Pacific Ocean, passing through multiple national boundaries.

A team of scientists led by Dr. Autumn-Lynn Harrison (Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) analyzed data collected from 1,648 individual ocean animals, representing 14 species.

They found that animals such as white sharks, tunas, elephant seals and turtles visited the waters of 86 percent of all Pacific Ocean nations. That means that even if they’re protected within the ocean boundary of one country, they may become vulnerable when they swim, fly or drift into the boundary of another.

The study, which included white shark tagging data from Aquarium Senior Scientist Dr. Sal Jorgensen, recommends nations cooperate to protect these migratory animals. Doing so could significantly reduce species’ decline—especially as the ocean changes.

Elephant seals at Ano Nuevo MBA owned
Researchers tracked migratory marine animals, like northern elephant seals, to see which countries they visit, and when.

Helicopter vs. absentee parenting

Humans have evolved to nurture our children from infancy to adulthood. But a new study by Dr. John Halley (University of Ioannina, Greece) and Aquarium Director of Science Dr. Kyle Van Houtan reveals that animals like sea turtles, which don’t benefit from such parental care, are especially at the mercy of climate change.

Published in PLOS Onethe study puts forth an innovative new theory. It’s based on a comparison between animals that produce more offspring at once, but don’t spend time raising them (the “absentee parents”); and animals that have fewer offspring, but put significant effort into raising them (the “helicopter parents”). The study finds that the offspring of absentee parents are more sensitive to climate change.

Giant squid, for example, release billions of eggs and provide no childcare to their squidlets. This leaves their offspring more exposed to the vagaries of climate. Whales, on the other hand, generally give birth to only one calf at a time, and invest a lot of time and energy in rearing each one. By doing so, they help shield their young ones against harsh climate conditions.

Loggerhead turtle baby MBA owned
Loggerhead turtle nesting sites helped scientists discover how climate change can impact different species based on their parenting styles.

“Now climate change is forcing us to recognize these disproportionate vulnerabilities across marine and terrestrial species,” explains lead author Dr. John Halley. “And we have to respond.”

By measuring the different impacts of climate across species, this study provides practical advice for resource managers to prioritize their own investments in conservation.

Sea otters promote coastal resilience

Our one-of-a-kind sea otter surrogacy program rehabilitates stranded pups so they can eventually return to the wild. To date, almost 60 percent of the 140 or so sea otters living in the central coast’s Elkhorn Slough are a result of the Aquarium’s surrogacy program.

Sea otter in Elkhorn Slough MBA owned
Healthy populations of predators like sea otters help our coast resist and recover from climate impacts.

Since otters have returned to the slough, they’ve acted as “ecosystem engineers,” restoring the health and biodiversity of the estuary.

As the impacts of climate change intensify, communities around the world will need to rely more on resilient natural habitats—both on land and at sea—enabled by robust numbers of predators like otters. How much might California’s coastline improve if sea otters could return to more of their historical range? We hope to find out.

— Athena Copenhaver

Learn more about the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s research to understand and protect key ocean species.


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