The Seascapes

The Seascapes

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The “Butterfish Smackdown” III. On the vital role of the integrated ocean observation system IOOS


Index of surface current divergence/convergence (upwelling/downwelling) calculated from MARACOOS High Frequency Radar Data in the Mid Atlantic Bight.  Inset is a statistical relationship showing that long fin inshore squid (Loligo pealeii) become more abundant as the index of divergence/upwelling increases.  The index of divergence is a calculation of how often the velocity of the water moving up or down higher than a threshold.  The “soil” (nutrients) sinks in the ocean while the “trees” (phytoplankton) are tiny and live fast, reproducing extremely quickly so "they" remain as long as possible in the sunlit surface water where they can photosynthesize.  Upwelling is therefor the essential process that brings the “soil” to the “trees” of the ocean.  We believe squid may be more abundant near areas of strong divergence where the upwelled nutrients fuel the phytoplankton based food webs upon which they and their prey depend.

T-15 days

Our collaboration with the fisherman to develop and test the prototype of a regional scale operational statistical habitat model for a keystone marine species would not be possible without an integrated ocean observation system (IOOS).  The real time ocean observations and models that MARACOOS provides is essential.  But the project would also not be possible without the atmosphere of collaborative networking characteristic of the regional IOOS association.

The task of monitoring and forecasting a marine ecosystem is so big, complex and expensive, that it is impossible unless a diverse group of experts and interests share their resources and expertise to do it.  The collaborative and diverse culture of the IOOS provides a neutral ground for government scientists such as myself and fisherman,who are often at odds, to get together with experts in operational oceanography such as Josh Kohut (Rutgers University) and Matt Oliver (University of Delaware) to work to develop an open source networked marine habitat science at the scale of the whole ecosystem.  Our approach reflects the new way of doing things that digital hammers and networked nails make possible. It is exactly the technologically driven loose collaboration Clay Shirky from NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications program believes is changing the way society works (1)



There is something very beautiful about applying this approach to natural resource science; we are working to develop scientific solutions to avoid “tragedies of the commons” using the strength of the creative commons.  The IOOS “culture” makes this possible and I believe this is far more important for ecosystem science than the ocean observations, although the observations are essential too. 


As a marine habitat ecologist I have often felt relegated to the “left field” by fisheries scientists.  I think there are two reasons for this.  One is that many of us haven’t been doing our science at large enough scales to be relevant to applied problems at the whole ecosystem level.  Secondly we have borrowed our scientific approach from terrestrial landscape ecology and have a hard time remembering that fish and other marine animals live in the water.  This sounds silly, but I believe it is an extremely difficult problem to overcome.  Building a seascape ecology that explicitly considers how the properties and flow of seawater forms habitats requires that we largely abandon the landscape perspective we have developed millions of years of successful evolution in terrestrial environments.  We need to develop an alternative framework appropriate for the ocean that is alien and inhospitable to us. Our terrestrial landscape perspective is an ecological bias and a hindrance to thinking about habitats in the sea.  However, the data and operational oceanography IOOS provides us can help by making regional scale descriptions of the processes of the oceans fluid available. 

Here are two examples. Josh Kohut is an expert in measuring surface currents using high frequency radar.  He and Laura Palamara have used the HF radar to construct the index vertical current flow depicted in the map at the top of the post. We usually think about currents flowing horizontally but they also flow vertically and move things, including the nutrients plants need, up and down. These flows are critical because habitats in the ocean can be thought of as nodes where the pipes that bring essential ecosystem building blocks from sometimes distant sources connect in one place and time. The habitat isn’t the node.  The habitat is the sources of essential building blocks, the “pipes” that deliver them, as well as the nodes where the concentrations are high enough to support organisms and their interactions. Connectivity is also important in terrestrial landscapes, but gravity and the thinness of the air makes the stuff that falls to the ground more or less stay put.  The flux of materials across landscapes is slower and many more supporting process probably occur locally in habitats on land than they do in the sea.  The HF radar begins to describe the pipes for us and we can use it to look “upstream” for the sources.  But in addition to describing the oceans “pipes”, the IOOS also allows us to consider the movements of important features of ocean habitats.  Since many important habitat feature in the sea are defined by the fluid, ocean habitats are often much “faster” than habitats on land.  Fronts between water masses are defined by changes in temperature and other properties over short distances.  They are important habitat features in the sea because nutrients, organic matter, and organisms tend to flow toward them on currents.  Fronts are where the thin soup of the ocean thickens; many animals are concentrated near fronts. Matt Oliver and his student  have classified satellite ocean color data to identify fronts and have made a movie ocean fronts in the Northwest Atlantic from 2002-2010.






These are the kinds of regional scale data that records the dynamics of the ocean that we can now consider in our ocean habitat models. In addition since these observations are being processed in near real time we can incorporate them into our models to make near real time “nowcasts” of habitats. 

1) Clay Shirky 2010. Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Penguin Press



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