Scientists have long known that when it comes to the environment and ecosystems, everything is connected. Accounting for those interactions and complexities in nature is a difficult task, yet one that is becoming increasingly important as scientists and managers strive to understand the nitty-gritty of how our world works. The more we understand, the better we can manage and sustain thriving ecosystems and the natural resources that flow from them.

Uncovering those connections is a tall order. Today’s scientists must use innovative approaches and form new and sometimes unlikely collaborations with their peers and other partners who can offer up unique points of view, and thus identify issues and opportunities that are often overlooked.

Waves along the Pacific northwest coast
J Meyer
Waves along the Pacific northwest coast.

That’s exactly what the UW’s IGERT Program on Ocean Change is designed to do. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the IGERT—which stands for Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship—busts disciplinary silos and fosters thinking across disciplines to develop a more comprehensive view of how oceans work and are changing. In many cases, society has failed to stem the tide of environmental degradation because we lack the complete picture. The Program on Ocean Change is working to fix that.

And it’s paying off. The first cohort of five IGERT graduate students – each studying the ocean, but through a different lens – sought to address some of the complexities that arise when determining how a changing climate influences the ocean. Led by graduate student Donna Hauser, the students published their findings in this month’s issue of Global Change Biology. Steeped in interdisciplinary thinking and using innovative approaches that transcend the boundaries of scientific observation, field sampling, modeling, and theory, they took a unique broad-scale view in order to really compare apples-to-apples when looking at ocean change.

“Other review studies have looked at patterns in marine climate change, but have typically focused on abiotic factors and biological responses in isolation,” says Hauser. “We instead wanted to look across those biotic and abiotic boundaries with a more comprehensive review of the current research on ocean change in everything from viruses to whales and ocean temperature to sea ice.”

Comparing 461 published scientific papers across various marine disciplines, they found several key elements that are critical to measuring changes in the ocean, but are often overlooked and need further addressing. These include:

  • a general lack of understanding and exploration of how a species’ evolutionary history might allow them to be better cope with a changing environment;
  • several key species—like bacteria and viruses—that are critical to keeping the ocean healthy remain poorly described and understood in the current ocean change literature;
  • regions like the North Pacific and Atlantic have been well studied in terms of both biological and physical signs of change; in contrast, some regions are poorly studied—like the Indian and Southern Oceans—and are therefore largely missing from the discussion of ocean change.

These findings, which may have gone unnoticed except for new thinking brought to the table from the IGERT class, underscore the importance of using cross-disciplinary approaches to address problems we face in ocean change. The students acknowledge that none of them would have pursued this research without the structure provided by the College’s IGERT program and the mentorship of IGERT-affiliated faculty.  As a result, their work can be used to assess current ocean change research, and highlight important research gaps and disciplinary differences that offer recommendations for future research. And the field of marine science and management is better off for it.

“There is a lot of buzz about interdisciplinary and ecosystem-based research, yet there are generally few ‘roadmaps’ to implement cross-cutting studies,” Hauser remarks. “Besides providing an example of the insights that can be gained from interdisciplinary collaborations, we also encourage continued and increased support for training early-career researchers in approaches that integrate across disciplines in order to build new understandings of the processes shaping future ocean ecosystems.”

Read their paper—Disciplinary reporting affects the interpretation of climate change impacts in the global oceans—online in the Journal of Global Change Biology. The five IGERT students who authored the study are: Donna Hauser, Elizabeth Tobin, Kirsten Feifel, Vega Shah, and Diana Pietri.

Written by: John Meyer