In the early days of ocean acidification research, experiments were simple, says benthic ecologist Jim Barry. Some involved plopping fish into containers of high-carbon seawater. This sort of lab test allowed researchers to observe animals’ physiological responses to our ocean’s changing chemistry.
These days, many studies attempt to address the more difficult question of how acidification and ocean warming might affect interconnected marine species. “What you can’t learn from tests of fish in a jar,” Barry says, “is how climate change affects the way energy moves through a food web.”
That line of inquiry may start in the pages of scientific journals, but it leads somewhere more intimate: our dinner plates.
Monterey Bay is home to an astonishing array of marine life, from kelp forests to sea otters to migrating whales. The secret to its productivity: the California Current.
The California Current flows southward along the West Coast of North America delivering cool, nutrient-rich water from British Columbia to Baja California. Prevailing northwesterly winds drive the current and stimulate upwelling, a process by which cold water rises from the depths to support biodiversity off the coast.
Monterey Bay’s rich ecosystem naturally varies in response to physical changes in the environment. But human-caused carbon dioxide emissions are driving long-term shifts that could impact fisheries and vulnerable marine species in ways we’ve never seen before.
Weird is the new normal
Life in the California Current naturally fluctuates from year to year, partially due to temperature changes, said John C. Field, a fisheries biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
In cold-water years, he says, upwelling brings nutrient-rich deep waters to the surface, typically supporting an abundance of rockfish, krill and market squid. Warm-water years, when less upwelling occurs, bring more sub-tropical species, such as pelagic red crab. Some years, jellies and other gelatinous creatures dominate the current, for reasons scientists don’t yet understand.
For the past six years, he has led several initiatives in global change and protected species from the director’s office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center in Hawai’i. His research and teaching focus on multi-faceted approaches to marine biodiversity conservation, and his work spans a range of topics from animal behavior, foraging ecology and physiology, to fisheries stock assessments, climate change and ecosystem-based management.
His latest research paper uses bomb radiocarbon from Pacific nuclear tests to aid in the conservation of critically endangered hawksbill sea turtles. He has also spoken and written widely about issues of environmental policy and ethics.
Dr. Van Houtan earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Virginia, a master of science from Stanford University and his Ph.D. from Duke University, where he serves as an adjunct associate professor in the Nicholas School of the Environment.
A passionate science and conservation communicator, his research has been featured on National Public Radio, in the New York Times, Nature, Science, National Geographic, WIRED andSmithsonian. He is also a recipient of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers from President Obama for his pioneering research into how climate influences sea turtle populations.
When he received the award, NOAA Fisheries Chief Science Advisor Richard Merrick, noted that Dr. Van Houtan “has shown how a deep understanding of biology, ecology, and climate science can provide answers to the important question of how climate change can affect animal populations over decades and vast geographies.”
“We are fortunate to have Kyle Van Houtan as our director of science,” said Margaret Spring, vice president of conservation and science, and chief conservation officer for the aquarium. “He brings new perspectives to our work on behalf of iconic ocean wildlife at a time when marine ecosystems face unprecedented challenges from climate change and ocean acidification.”