Tomorrow, I start my last water sampling on this trip… By the time we leave Oregon I will have collected 600 lbs of water over the last month! Why so much water? Well, I’ll tell you.
My research broadly focuses on the interaction between climate change and the natural variability of coastal marine ecosystems. Over the last 10 years, most of my research has been on coral reefs in Hawaii and Florida (see nyssasilbiger.com for info on my coral reef research), but, now, I am working on tidepools in temperate rocky intertidal ecosystems. Although field work in temperate tidepools are much much colder than coral reefs, are not located on tropical islands, and don’t require any SCUBA diving (my favorite activity!), I really enjoy tidepools because they are located along stunning coastlines and provide a platform for some really cool science.
Tidepools are depressions in the rocks that can be anywhere from the size of a coffee mug to a bath tub and are located in rocky intertidal habitats. Intertidal means between the tides, so in this ecosystem, during the low tides organisms in the intertidal are exposed to air while during the high tide they are covered with water. Because tidepools are depressions in the rock, they are always filled with water, but become completely separated from the ocean during low tides; thus, the organisms living in tidepools have to put up with quite an extreme environment. Understanding what is causing this extreme environment, how the critters living in tidepools are able to deal with it, and how this already extreme environment will change even more with climate change is what fuels my current research endeavors.
One of the really cool things about tidepools is that the organisms in these pools both respond to these extreme environments and they also help create it just by breathing or photosynthesizing. During the day, marine plants and algae photosynthesize, removing carbon dioxide (CO2) and adding oxygen. And, during both the day and night, the animals breathe, or respire just like you and me, taking up oxygen and releasing CO2. Extreme swings in carbon dioxide occur in the pools throughout the day because they are separated from the ocean during low tide and, through a chain of chemical reactions, changes the pH of the surrounding water (you may recall that ocean acidification, a major climate change issue, is caused by rising CO2 in the atmosphere being absorbed by the ocean). For these organisms, low tide is analogous to being locked in a car with the windows closed and absolutely no air flow. Overtime the CO2 builds up, which, for us, eventually makes it hard to breathe, but for tidepool plants and animals it means that they have to put up with extreme changes in their surrounding environment. My research takes advantage of these extremes to better understand how different marine organisms shape the environment around them. Understanding how plants and animals change their environment can help us to better understand how climate change, which is also changing the chemistry of the water, will impact our coastal marine ecosystems all over the world.
OK, so that is the reason behind the 600 lbs of water, but how do I collect it? Well, my teammates (Piper and Savannah) and I head out to the tide pools during a daytime and nighttime low tide at each site (so far we have been to Monterey CA, Bodega Bay CA, and now Bob Creek OR—we will also work at littler Corona is Southern California and collect an additional 200 lbs of water in September). We work both during the day (~ 6am to noon) and night (~10pm to 5am) so that we can capture both photosynthesis (daytime only) and respiration (day and night). During a 6-hour stint, we collect water every hour for the entire low tide in 15 pools for different types of water chemistry, some of which I can analyze right in the field, but a lot of which has to be brought back to UC Irvine to be processed. It is quite an intense endeavor, but it is fun and will yield some *hopefully* exciting results. Plus, at night, we get to see some animals that are typically not active during the day. After next week, I will have completed somewhere around 18 different all-night experiments (coral reefs, tide pools, and fiddler crabs)! My friends tell me I’m crazy for all the nighttime work, but I just tell the, that I only like science that requires glow sticks. ;)
Time-lapse of nighttime water sampling in Bodega Bay, California.