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Themes and Approaches

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1997 El Nino

The Consequences of Environmental Variability

Variability in the marine environment, including currents, temperature, dissolved oxygen and carbon chemistry (e.g. pH, pC02), occurs over time and space. The scales of variability in these drivers range widely; from tidal cycles, to weather patterns on the decadal scale (e.g. El Niño Southern Oscillation) to the global rise in ocean temperatures. These changes, alone or in combination, can directly affect the physiology, development, growth and behavior of individuals; along with processes such as transport and dispersal. By understanding the relationship between environmental drivers and the success of individuals we further our ability to understand how both natural and anthropogenic changes shape communities and ecosystems.

Kelp forrest

The Role of Interactions in Shaping Communities

Species exist within communities, where assemblages of multiple species within a given area interact. These interactions can have important consequences for the abundance, distribution and diversity of species across habitats and the overall structure and function of marine ecosystems. These interactions can be direct, such as predation (consumption), competition, mutualism or parasitism or indirect, as in the classic “trophic cascade”, e.g. where sea otters benefit kelp by eating urchins that graze on them. The understanding of how species interactions shape communities, and how environmental drivers mediated the strength and direction of these interactions, is an additional key to understanding how marine ecosystems are shaped. Photo: Patrick Webster,


Resilience of Coupled Human-Natural Systems

Ecological resilience, the capacity of the biosphere to continually provide ecosystem services while absorbing and adapting to disturbance, will be dependent on interactions between human and natural factors. Traditionally these have been studied separately, with social scientists focusing on human interactions, deemphasizing ecological and environmental factors, and ecologists and physical scientists generally relegating the role of humans to external drivers. Using a coupled human-natural systems approach, which focuses on studying the linkages between human and natural drivers across scales, we can understand how diverse factors such as species interactions, disease dynamics, environmental variability, fisheries management and marine spatial planning shape populations, communities and determine the resilience of ecosystems today and under future climate change scenarios.


SCUBA diver

Field Studies and Monitoring

Central to our work is the monitoring of environmental variability (e.g. temperature, dissolved oxygen and pH), with more advanced oceanographic field studies used to explore a range of topics, including physical drivers of environmental change and larval dispersal. Surveys of species populations, across time and environmental gradients, are a key ecological tool and important for informing modeling efforts. In addition, experimental approaches, such as caging and deploying artificial substrates across environmental gradients, allow us to explore how both abiotic drivers and species interactions directly and indirectly structure marine communities. Our social science efforts also reach the field, including quantitative approaches such as interviews and game theory experiments, and provide critical data on how both fisheries management and conservation efforts help determine resilience in marine systems.


Laboratory Experiments

Laboratory experiments provide an arena to explore individual and interactive effects of environmental drivers on in the physiology, behavior, development, growth and behavior of individuals, as well as how abiotic factors mediate species interactions. In addition, results from the laboratory help us better interpret field studies and provide important information to parameterize models. This work encompasses a range of species (including primary producers, invertebrates and fish) and life stages (from gametes and larvae to adults) and utilizes facilities that control temperature, dissolved oxygen and pH, with the ability to simulate specific oceanographic conditions, such as upwelling. Laboratory experiments are not limited to biology and ecology; oceanographic flume studies provide insight into how physical forcing may affect important ecological and biogeochemical processes.

Model output

Oceanographic, Demographic and Bio-Economic Modeling

We utilize quantitative models to interpret empirical results, generate new testable hypotheses and better understand how the changing environment, management actions and economic forces may affect populations and the resilience of marine ecosystems. This approach is integrative, incorporating data from field studies and results of laboratory experiments to establish initial conditions for demographic models and determine how key rates, such as reproductive success and predation rates, are mediated by abiotic drivers. We build upon these models by incorporating human factors, such as fisheries impacts, economic tradeoffs and spatial management. By deploying these models under current and potential future climate scenarios (determined by oceanographic models) and incorporating results from our social science research, we gain a better understanding of marine resilience in a couple human-natural context.