SSU students Jill Stokes, Chelsea Clyde-Brockway and Thomas Nguyen work in the low intertidal zone in a mixed bed of seaweeds dominated by kelp and coralline seaweeds collecting data on growth rates of the larger, dominant, cabbage-like kelp (Saccharina sessilis). This research project, including the salaries for the students, is supported through a competitively awarded grant from the National Science Foundation.
Research into "the other CO2 problem" offers a first-rate experience for SSU undergraduates who work with Biology Professor Karina Nielsen.
Nielsen calls her lab on the SSU campus home to the science of "the salty, the slimy and the spineless in the sea."
She hopes that a recent National Science Foundation grant for $370,000 will help her and her students understand how kelps, surf grasses and seaweeds will be affected by ocean acidification.
The NSF grant funds a first-of-its -kind research effort on the impact of ocean acidification on calcareous coralline seaweeds and their influence on the other marine plants that grow on the wave-swept rocky shores of northern California and Oregon. The coralline seaweeds serve as 'nurseries' for intertidal kelp spores and surf grass seeds, but are also very vulnerable to acidic conditions.
Nielsen and her collaborators at Oregon State University will couple oceanography with field and laboratory experiments to provide unique and valuable insights into how the current state of rocky intertidal ecosystems is likely to be altered in the future as they become bathed in more acidic ocean waters.
The oceans have absorbed almost 1/3 of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released through the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other human activities and as a result are becoming increasingly acidified. The average pH of the surface ocean has decreased by 0.1 pH units since pre-industrial times and is projected to decrease by another 0.3-0.4 units by 2100 if no action is taken to curtail current levels of CO2 emissions.
The proposed work by Nielsen and her colleagues will contribute one of the first studies to test the community consequences of varying ocean conditions, including the degree of acidification, across multiple rocky intertidal ecosystems in the region.
"The ocean is at a tipping point," she says.
"Understanding how increasing ocean acidification will alter the direct and indirect interactions among the key species that provide food and habitat for many marine animals is of fundamental importance in learning how ecosystems will respond to climate change.
Such knowledge is crucial to informing efforts to manage and conserve marine communities facing an array of human impacts, she feels.
The work will provide insight into the consequences of predicted changes in coastal ocean conditions due to human activities and resulting climate change.
Nielsen's work at SSU and involvement in scientific monitoring of newly established Marine Protected Areas in northern California, as well as her service to the State of California as a scientific advisor on ocean policy issues, offers a rare chance for SSU undergraduates to participate in first-rate research experiences and to learn first-hand how science can inform public policy.
She will work closely with SSU's McNair Scholars National Graduate School Achievement Program and the Mathematics, Engineering and Science Achievement Program to help recruit and support historically under-represented undergraduates to participate in research experiences related to this and other projects in her lab.
Dr. Nielsen was recently named the recipient of Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce Excellence in Education Award for her active involvement in research, education and public outreach at SSU which has set her apart as an exemplary educator.