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The power of ocean research

Posted by Alana Milner on June 7, 2015 in News
Our internationally recognized researchers are creating global solutions to the complex challenges facing our life-sustaining oceans
Our internationally recognized researchers are creating global solutions to the complex challenges facing our life-sustaining oceans

To mark World Oceans Day, we’re exploring some of the areas of ocean research happening at Dal and meeting some of the researchers who are providing Nova Scotia and Canada with the ability to innovate, commercialize and impact public policy.

Over 100 researchers across nine faculties at Dal are working every day to make new discoveries about the ocean. From basic science research to new technologies, our internationally recognized researchers are creating global solutions to the complex challenges facing our life-sustaining oceans.

A sustainable marine ecosystem

Communities of marine organisms and their physical ocean environments make up marine ecosystems. According to Sara Iverson, Professor of Biology and Scientific Director of the Ocean Tracking Network, marine ecosystems are incredibly complex, making them difficult to understand and to predict how they are changing under pressures from human activities and climate variation. Sara studies marine mammals, seabirds and fishes, to learn about the impacts of changing oceans on their populations.

Learn more about Sara's research

“Marine ecosystems can be altered by many factors, including climate change and fisheries activities,” explains Sara. “As ecosystems evolve, the abundance, distribution, interactions, and survival of marine species also change.”

Sara uses tracking technology to understand how marine species move through their underwater world, with whom they interact, how they survive, and how they react to environmental change. The results can then be used to devise ways to help protect these species and yet still look to the oceans as a major food source.

“For instance, with changing climate, some marine species are moving north as the water temperatures increase,” says Sara. “As populations and species re-locate, their ecosystems will change, as also will new fishing opportunities and pressures. By tracking how, when and where marine species are moving, we can better inform policy makers to improve governance of our oceans.”


Looking at aquaculture with an integrated approach

With ocean research taking place in nine of our faculties, Dal researchers are looking at the oceans through different areas of expertise and collaborations. Jon Grant, Department of Oceanography and NSERC-Cooke Industrial Research Chair in Sustainable Aquaculture, brings new ways of thinking and training to aquaculture research.

Read more about Jon's research approach

“Aquaculture is a growing area of research,” explains Jon. “We are not only discovering new aspects of the industry; aquaculture infrastructure is also helping us learn new information about the ocean.”

As an oceanographer Jon brings novel approaches to the aquaculture industry. Using mathematical models, Jon can predict where a fish farm should be placed, how it may impact the marine ecosystem and how the industry can be more sustainable in its practices and growth. He also works with collaboratively with other researchers across Dal’s faculties to help answer questions around the industry.

“I was approached by industry with the concern of farmed fish escaping their enclosures and interacting with wild fish,” says Jon. “I helped them engage Darrel Doman in the Faculty of Engineering to measure stress factors on enclosures and help improve cage design.”

By using research to understand more about aquaculture, industry and environmental concerns can be prevented and mitigated for a more sustainable food future.

“Our research findings can be applied to understand how aquaculture can fit into the marine ecosystem without impacting other areas of fisheries or the environment,” says Jon. “It can also be applied to how the industry growth can not only be sustainable, but also a benefit to our economy. Cooke Aquaculture is an excellent partner in these endeavours.”

Jon also indicates how the growing aquaculture industry can help us understand other areas of ocean research.

“While the industry is engaging researchers for information, researchers can also engage the industry,” explains Jon. “Due to their location and fixed structure, aquaculture enclosures are a great place to deploy oceanographic instruments allowing researchers to get consistent information about the marine ecosystem.”

As we look to learn more about the ocean, aquaculture research is a great example of how we use new methods within different areas of research to do so. 


Harmonizing marine and environmental laws

Transporting 90 per cent of world trade, shipping is central to globalization. A ship is mobile property with many international interests on board as it navigates through numerous jurisdictions. Although accident rates have declined significantly in recent years, ships continue to produce impacts on human health and the marine environment.

Read more about maritime regulation

Practically all ocean users rely on maritime regulation for safety and environment protection. Home to the Marine & Environmental Law Institute (MELAW), Dal is an international leader in ocean and shipping law research and education.

“International navigation, sustainable shipping and trade rely on uniform rules,” explains Aldo Chircop, a professor at the Schulich School of Law and MELAW’s Acting Associate Director. “In my research, I explore factors that facilitate or constrain uniform standards and their enforcement in shipping, and how international and Canadian maritime law can be further developed and harmonized.”

The arctic is of particular interest to Aldo. He is working with the Comite’ Maritime International, an organization of legal experts from around the world devoted to the development of international maritime law, to identify gaps and weaknesses in current rules.

“In recent years there has been a discernible increase in transit and destination shipping in the Canadian and Russian Arctic,” says Aldo. “This growth is occurring at a time when international rules and standards for safety and environment protection are relatively basic and therefore insufficient to meet the particularly harsh navigation conditions of the region.”

As we rely more on maritime trade and commerce, the importance of safe shipping practices grows. Research, like Aldo’s will help identify issues that call for international and Canadian maritime regulatory reform.

Analysis of ocean research data

Across our campus and across other research institutions around the world, exploding amounts of information is being gathered on ocean research. This information is diverse and requires advances in acquisition, management and analysis. Stan Matwin, a professor in the Faculty of Computer Science and Canada Research Chair in Visual Text Analytics, is supporting ocean researchers to address this need.

Learn more about Stan's research

“One area of research I am looking at is the analysis of ship trajectories,” says Stan. “This includes using information from ships Automatic Identification System (AIS) to mine interesting facts, regularities and anomalies.”

The information identified can then be applied to help answer a variety of questions such as what is the normal path of a tanker traveling from South East Asia to the West Coast of North America or how to determine if a trawler is fishing or not?

“GSTS, a Canadian company who provide solutions that improve the safety, energy efficiency, security, and environmental sustainability of the transportation, maritime, oil and gas, and energy sectors, is one of the users of the information,” says Stan. “They use the information to aide in the development of their modeling software.”

The data gathered can also be used to support policy development around shipping practices. Researchers in Boris Worm's lab are using the information to see how fishing fleets are behaving around marine protected areas worldwide.  

The link between the atmosphere and ocean

The atmosphere consists of millions of particles that affect cloud formation, the quality of the air we breathe and in turn affect human health and the environment. Particles in the atmosphere come from many different areas including the ocean.

Read more about how the atmosphere and ocean are connected

“Our Canadian Arctic research looks at how particles in the marine atmosphere affect climate and clouds,” explains Randall Martin, Professor in the Department of Physics and Atmospheric Science, and in Department of Chemistry. “Knowledge from learning about these processes contributes to the understanding of this environmentally sensitive region will be affected by climate change.”

Once in the atmosphere, particles play a role in our climate. Some heat up the earth, while others are known to have a cooling affect. These changes can impact our climate, changing environments like the ocean and the air we breathe. These changes can then impact populations of marine organisms and impact human health through diseases such as cardiovascular disease.

By applying a combination of satellite remote sensing, chemical transport modeling, and in situ measurements, Randall’s researcher furthers our understanding of global atmospheric composition relevance for climate change and air quality.

“The atmosphere and ocean are connected in a variety of ways such that progress in understanding either one benefits the other,” says Randall. “With our research we can gain insight into what the future climate may look like and use this information to see how the change may impact local, national and international environments.”

New technologies support ocean research

As we learn more about the ocean through growing areas of research, a need for new research technology develops. Researchers in the Faculty of Engineering are developing state-of-the-art technologies that allow researchers to minimize research costs and gather real-time information.

Learn more about how new technology is supporting ocean research

“In working closely with ocean scientists we can develop the technology that can expand their research scope and capabilities,” says Zhizhang (David) Chen, Department Head of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Researchers in our faculty are leading the way in areas of underwater acoustic communications and sensing as well as marine robots.”

The research technology can be applied to the real-time monitoring of the ocean environment, fast extraction of biogeochemistry data for understanding the state of the oceans, operations of search and rescue missions, and discovering of new marine phenomena by allowing researchers to look further and deeper into the oceans than before.

“Dal’s location gives us a big advantage at being a leader in this area,” says David. “Not only are we located close to the ocean, we are part of an economy that is ocean driven. The technology discovered by the Faculty of Engineering is also being applied by local industry and helping to drive our economy. The combination of location and researcher expertise will help Dal become a leading ocean technology center and assist local private sectors to continue to be a front-runner in ocean technology. ”

Supporting adaptive fisheries

The species that support Canada’s fisheries usually consist of multiple populations (or ‘stocks’), each associated with a particular environment, and often harbouring adaptations to the local environment. Fisheries benefit from this adaptive diversity by being more productive, stable, and subject to fewer closures. However, to gain these benefits, fisheries must target individual populations in a controlled fashion; this in turn requires tools that enable identification of those populations, where they occur, and how much mixing occurs between them. Paul Bentzen, a professor in the Department of Biology, is seeking to develop those tools.

Read more about Paul's research

“We are using DNA sequencing technologies that examine millions of DNA bases and thousands of genes to detect the genetic differences that distinguish fish stocks,” explains Paul.  “By developing novel software tools and improving existing software we can ease analysis of the huge amounts of data involved, and enable management of mixed-stock fisheries and conservation of biodiversity within economically and culturally important fish species.”

Paul’s current projects address these objectives in Atlantic salmon and Atlantic cod along Newfoundland and Labrador's coast. These species support mixed stock harvests, have suffered major declines, and risk losing important diversity.

“Other research in my laboratory has identified many genes in Atlantic cod that are strongly associated with variation in marine sea temperatures,” says Paul. “Each of these genes consists of two variants, one associated with ‘warm’ and another associated with ‘cold’ sea temperatures.”

The ocean off of Nova Scotia marks a transition zone between ‘warm’ associated cod (which predominate to the south of Nova Scotia) and ‘cold’ associated cod, which occur northward of Nova Scotia. Such temperature (and therefore, climate) associated diversity within marine species is an important dimension of biodiversity that has gone unrecognized until very recently. Paul’s research will help us better understand this particularly in light of climate change.