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New projects receive funding to study Narragansett Bay

Funds awarded to faculty members for three projects to model Narragansett Bay, assess its ecology

As ecological change affects the world around us, University researchers are looking at its impact close to home.

The Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council announced Feb. 19 that it will award a total of $814,042 in funds to six projects studying various aspects of Narragansett Bay, according to a press release on the council’s website. Two of the six projects involve University researchers.

Bay watch

Baylor Fox-Kemper, assistant professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, is part of a team working to build two computer-generated, numerical models of Narragansett Bay. The first model, the Ocean State Ocean Model, will simulate the entire Narragansett, building on earlier, smaller-scale models.

“The model will help us better understand the processes that lead to hypoxia — lack of oxygen when you don’t get enough mixing of the water to balance out the consumption of oxygen by microbes or fish,” Fox-Kemper said.

Studying hypoxia and weather conditions may help with future projections, Fox-Kemper said. “We could predict new problem places where hypoxia might arise.”

The model’s tracking of currents and turbulence is useful for ecological analysis, Fox-Kemper said, adding that the model could predict where spills would flow in the bay. Future researchers can also use the model to study how disease propagates between reefs.

The second model, which fits into the first, will generate high-resolution simulations of smaller, more specific regions of the bay. While the first model builds on previous work, the second is truly innovative, Fox-Kemper said.

“My group has been working in an open ocean environment and doing very high-resolution simulations of turbulence caused by the wind and waves and cooling of the surface,” he said. “We are very interested in how those processes can impact the coastal environment.”

The modeling project has significant implications for society because of the interests different groups have in the bay for fisheries, recreation and power, Fox-Kemper said.

Fox-Kemper is working with Associate Professor of Marine Biology David Taylor and Associate Professor of Biology Dale Leavitt, both of Roger Williams University, as well as Professor of Oceanography Christopher Kincaid, Associate Marine Research Scientist Dave Ullman and Professor of Oceanography Lewis Rothstein, all of the University of Rhode Island.

Delving into diatoms

David Murray, senior research associate and facility manager in the department of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, and Warren Prell, professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences, bolster a team that will use diatoms — microscopic phytoplanktons — to measure changes in the Narragansett ecosystem.

“Phytoplankton are basically the bottom of the food chain, so everything else depends on them for sustenance,” Murray said. “They should be sensitive to things like temperature and nutrient levels. They’re not mobile, so as the temperature changes there’s a very rapid turnover.” These properties makes phytoplankton a good research subject, he added.    

The researchers have been observing the phytoplankton to examine their response to temperature changes, Murray said, adding that they have identified diatom shells that have been preserved in the sediment of the bay and plan to look at them more closely.

Prell and Murray are working with Associate Professor of Oceanography Tatiana Rynearson, Associate Professor of Oceanography Rebecca Robinson and Professor of Oceanography Edward Durbin, all of URI.

A ‘model organism’

James Clifton, assistant professor of medical science, is involved in a team examining proteins in two varieties of Ciona intestinalis, a common marine invertebrate. His team is studying the species to determine whether it can adapt to temperature and ecological changes in the bay over one generation, or whether adaptation occurs over several generations through genetic change, he said.

Ciona intestinalis is “a model organism for marine biology that has been studied for a very long time,” Clifton said. Since its genome has already been sequenced, it is possible to perform experiments to better understand the organism’s proteins, he said.

Clifton said the invertebrate is a good research subject because it is “a filter feeder, processing liters of sea water per hour — loss of this species would alter the quality of sea water and damage the ecology of the bay.”

The species is found around the world, so his team plans to investigate it in both the bay and the Gulf of Maine.

Clifton is working with Professor of Biology Thomas Meedel of Rhode Island College as well as Associate Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology Niall Howlett and Associate Professor of Biological Sciences Steven Irvine, both of URI.

A fresh environment

All of the awarded researchers said Narragansett Bay is a unique environment in which to conduct research. For example, the bay has features such as islands, necks and inlets that affect the flow of water, Fox-Kemper said. It is also an estuary where salt and fresh water mix, Murray said.

The bay is shallow compared to other bodies of water such as Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound, said Mark Bertness, professor of biology, who is not involved with any of the projects. He added that it has been affected by industrialization and, in the distant past, glaciers.

“Recent ice ages extirpated many shallow water marine organisms from the Bay, leaving only short-lived weedy species that have managed to survive or recolonize,” Bertness said. “In addition to the heavy pollution during the Industrial Revolution, today this has left a bay with low species diversity of weedy species.”


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