In Hot Water: How Global Warming Threatens Rhode Island’s Iconic Narragansett Bay
One such change is now afoot: It is called global warming, and its signature is unmistakable. Data kept by the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography show that since the 1960s, the average water temperature in the Bay has increased by 3.9 degrees Fahrenheit. Already, that has been enough to trigger measurable changes to marine life. To give just one example, there has been a clear shift from cold water to warm water fish species in the Bay: Winter flounder have declined by 90 percent since 1980. They’re being replaced by smaller fish, more accustomed to warmer waters—but not nearly so favored by the seafood industry. The economic cost of the decline of winter flounder now amounts to about $ 2 million per year.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about how global warming is changing the Bay, however, which is where the work of the Rhode Island Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) comes in. With funding from the National Science Foundation and cost sharing from the state, Rhode Island EPSCoR is tackling the problem of how global warming will change marine life, focusing on three key questions—how marine organisms will adapt to a changing environment, how climate change will impact food webs, and what kinds of potentially dangerous changes to marine pathogens and parasites we’ll see.
Take phytoplankton, for instance—tiny algae that play a critical role in the food web, converting sunlight into energy and blooming in winter-spring as they cycle nutrients and carbon through the oceans. Alas, the size of the phytoplankton bloom in Narragansett Bay has declined by 70 percent since the early 1970s, and while many factors seem involved in this occurrence, warming sea temperatures are surely one of them. Moreover, changes to phytoplankton ripple throughout the Bay ecosystem, as they are at the bottom of the food web and their life cycle affects anything from marine worms to fish species.
But precisely how are phytoplankton responding to a changing climate? That may depend on their genetic identities. Tatiania Rynearson of at the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography is investigating precisely this: Are the phytoplankton of Narragansett Bay genetically similar to other species that have already been found to be very sensitive to climate change, or is there some important difference? The research might be dubbed “CSI in the ocean”—that’s what Rynearson calls it—and it relies on gene sequencing and bioinformatics to determine the evolutionary history of these organisms and, thus, how they’ll respond to environmental stress.
At Salve Regina University, meanwhile, Rhode Island scientists are gathering baseline data on populations of marine invertebrates like crabs and lobsters, a first step towards determining these populations’ vulnerability to climate change. These species are very temperature-sensitive, and of course, also central to the seafood industry. Indeed, lobsters have been declining in the past decade, perhaps in part due to rising temperatures. Changes in marine invertebrate numbers or distributions might also be detectable in changes to the behavior of the seabirds that prey on them—another area of research.
And then there are pathogens and parasites. Just as global warming chases some desired species away, it may also provide more friendly conditions for unwanted ones. The state’s $ 2 million oyster industry, for instance, now has to worry about Roseovarius crassostreae, a bacterium that causes Juvenile Oyster Disease and whose devastating potential seems exacerbated by warmer temperatures. Dr. Marta Gomez-Chiarri of the University of Rhode Island is using genetic techniques to study which oysters better survive the disease, and which genes are involved in their successes. The goal is to breed oysters that can better cope with the diseases prevalent in a changing climate.
As these cases show, global warming is already causing measurable damage in Rhode Island. And in a state whose economy is so deeply reliant on Narragansett Bay, the urgency of better understanding what’s happening could not be more paramount. Rhode Island may already be in hot water, but undertaking this research now means we’ll be able to respond much better than the proverbial boiling frog did. Instead, this science will serve as an early warning signal, alerting policymakers and the public about the need to adapt and prepare for climate change before it’s too late.
For more on global warming and Narragansett Bay, watch this video of testimony from Narragansett Baykeeper John Torgan: