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Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research

Hypoxia means oxygen in water is too low to support most aquatic life. Driven by excess nutrients from farms and cities, hypoxia hurts coastal ecosystems and the economies they support. We are the largest funder of research on the causes and impacts of hypoxia in the U.S. We support the annual Gulf of Mexico "Dead Zone" forecast and we evaluate the effectiveness of upstream nutrient reduction strategies.

We administer NCCOS Extramural Research - a portfolio of 11 programs consisting of 73 multi-year awards held by over 370 university, state and government scientists and managers. Research programs often cumulate with the development of models explaining how ecosystems work and how they will respond to change, both negative (e.g. pollution or drought) and positive (e.g. protection or restoration). These are used to support sound coastal management decisions and support an ecosystem approach to managing coastal resources. In 2011, NCCOS’s competitive life-cycle portfolio exceeded $100M, focusing on:

  • Harmful Algal Blooms
  • Hypoxia
  • Regional Ecosystem Research

We solicit proposals for research that addresses specific coastal management needs. Research teams are selected through a competitive, merit-based process that identifies the most qualified teams of scientists in the nation, drawing from academic institutions, companies, and government laboratories. Funded efforts typically involve multi-disciplinary research teams (5-15 primary investigators covering multiple disciplines), an ecosystem approach, and a significant long-term commitment of resources ($500,000 to $1,000,0000 dollars per year for 3-5 years).

Management and stakeholder involvement is maintained throughout the project. As projects near completion, we work with the team to synthesize results and to transition information into tools for coastal decision-making.

Ecosystem Stressors Research

Leadership: Dr. Alan Lewitus, Branch Chief, 240-533-0287

Our research examines the major stressors affecting the nation’s coastal and Great Lakes resources including nutrient and other types of pollution, hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, and climate change. We look at interactions across the whole ecosystem and encourage a multidisciplinary approach (e.g. integrating physical and social sciences). Focus areas include:

Harmful Algal Blooms

Our HAB programs (ECOHAB, MERHAB, PCMHAB, and Event Response) develop and transition tools to prevent, control, or mitigate the occurrence of HABs and their impacts. Tools for detecting cells and toxins are more accurate and efficient. Early warning of toxic blooms, better predictions of when and where the blooms will move, and new partnerships have resulted in more effective response.

Key achievements (from over 160 projects funded since 1997) include:

  • HAB monitoring products and partnerships with state agencies monitor HAB outbreaks with greater accuracy, speed, and geographic coverage.
  • Developed models describing and predicting bloom events.
  • Supported the Interagency Task Force on Harmful Algal Blooms and Hypoxia and produced 9 congressionally mandated reports and plans.

Hypoxia and Nutrient Pollution

Our hypoxia programs (NGOMEX, CHRP) address the condition of low oxygen (hypoxia), a major and increasing concern for many of our nation's coastal systems and waterways. NCCOS-sponsored scientists and their partners in government, academia and industry are studying the causes of hypoxia, especially nutrient over-enrichment, and its impacts on living resources.

Key accomplishments include:

  • Applied new scientific understanding of hypoxia to the development of management strategies through an interagency Action Plan that will reduce nutrient inputs into the Gulf of Mexico, mitigating the “Dead Zone” and restoring Gulf ecosystems.
  • Developed models that predict the size of the “Dead Zone” on an annual basis.
  • Expanded hypoxia research to areas outside of the Gulf of Mexico including Narragansett Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and Lake Erie.

Ecological Effects of Climate - Sea Level Rise

Our Ecological Effects of Sea Level Rise Program (EESLR) brings together university and NOAA scientists to help coastal managers and planners prepare for changes in coastal ecosystems resulting from sea level rise, coastal storms, land subsidence, and erosion. Specialists in biology, geomorphology, and modeling are joining forces to integrate physical modeling with ecological models for more precise predictions of how future sea level rise will affect coastal wetlands, beaches, submerged aquatic vegetation, and oyster reefs.

Key activities and accomplishments include:

  • Provided coastal managers in the Northern Gulf of Mexico with information and tools to prepare for the impacts of tides and storm surge from sea level rise with increased certainty in scale, timing, and local detail.
  • Developed a topographic-bathymetric digital elevation model, combined with the hydrodynamic model to integrate recent airborne LiDAR data.
  • Improved forecasts of ecosystem responses to sea level rise and storms, enabling coastal managers in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere to more effectively assess alternative management strategies for mitigating future ecological and societal impacts of sea level rise.

Continue reading for more information.

Regional Ecosystems Research

Leadership: Dr. Alan Lewitus, Branch Chief, 240-533-0287

We apply a multidisciplinary and regional approach to study coastal waters including estuaries, National Marine Sanctuaries, coral reefs, coastal ocean, and Great Lakes. We identify threats to the health of the ecosystems and synthesize information needed to manage in an ecosystem context. This work cumulates in the development of ecological forecasts, including long-term scenarios of alternative management options and short-term forecasts of ecosystem condition.

We require the scientists we fund through our Regional Ecosystem Prediction (REPP) program to include resource managers as members of project advisory boards and as integral members of the project team. They help plan the research and ensure the transition of research results into application. Focus areas include:

REPP: Integrated Ecosystem Research: Our integrated ecosystem research projects combine expertise from multiple disciplines to determine the structure of an ecosystem and increase our understanding of the mechanisms and processes that regulate their function. The projects typically use this information to model these mechanisms and processes to evaluate the impacts of multiple ecosystem stressors and forecasts the effects of these stressors on ecosystem conditions. Such models and forecasts allow resource managers to design and compare alternative management strategies before they are implemented. The models can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of management strategies after implementation so that adjustments can be made or new strategies implemented.

Key accomplishments include:
  • Developed new approaches to analyzing and managing the cumulative effects of climate change, land use, invasive species, and other environmental stressors on the Great Lakes.
  • Developed a science-based consensus about the defining characteristics and fundamental regulating processes of a South Florida coastal marine ecosystem that can sustainably provide necessary ecological services.

REPP: From Science to Management: Sometimes the scientific information about issues affecting specific ecosystems and the tools necessary to address them are available but the connection between the science and the management needs is lacking or inadequate. In other cases, the typical length of a research project is not enough to fully develop the necessary scientific information and apply it to management decisions. To resolve these drawbacks, we support projects that facilitate the transition of scientific information and research results to resource managers. When and where appropriate, projects transitioning information from science to management are designed to also include stakeholders in the decision-making process.

Key accomplishments include:
  • A moratorium on clearing and grading of mangroves in Airai Bay, Palau was the direct outcome of NCCOS-supported research on the cause and cost of mangrove declines.
  • Developed sociological and biological criteria for planning and establishing Marine Protected Areas.

REPP: Concept and Tool Development: Ecosystems are under constant threat of new stressors or stressors that are novel to that ecosystem. At the same time, scientists and resource managers also often find themselves in need of improved or innovative tools necessary to better understand and address the impacts of ecosystem stressors. Within this program we support concept and tool development to improve ecosystem management.

Key accomplishments include:
  • Developed, applied and interpreted biomarkers for determining specific causes of coral reef decline.
  • Compiled and evaluated techniques for quantifying uncertainty in ecological forecasts.

Facility and Personnel

Leadership: Dr. Robert Magnien, Director, 240-533-0299
Dr. David Scheurer (Acting), Branch Chief, Research Coord. & Admin. Services, 240-533-0301

Sixteen scientists and administrators oversee our competitive research. The extensive end-to-end process involves research prioritization, planning, execution and research oversight, and transition to application. We work out of the NOAA complex in Silver Spring, MD.