New research tools are opening the 'black box' of coastal ecosystems

DENVER, CO Characterized by unimaginably complex, three-dimensional currents and sharp, shallow reefs too hazardous for oceanographers to navigate, coastal ecosystems have traditionally been a mysterious "black box."

But, at least four emerging research tools in oceanography and marine ecology are now opening new doors to shed light on coastal ecosystems, researchers noted in a peer-reviewed article forthcoming in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, the journal of the Ecological Society of America.

The peer-reviewed research, unveiled at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting, provides the knowledge needed to design effective strategies for sustaining delicate coastal marine environments, said Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University, lead author of the journal article. "It's a collaboration of high technologies that together allows us to visualize and predict the way marine ecosystems work. Those technologies focus unprecedented power on understanding ocean life."

Examining the "human footprint" on coastal ecosystems grows increasingly important as more and more people settle near ocean coastlines and evidence of rapid changes in these areas continues to emerge, AAAS speakers noted.

"We need to know how these ecosystems work so that we can make better use of applied management strategies," said Robert R. Warner of the University of California, Santa Cruz, a co-author on the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment paper. "Right now, it's a little like knowing that someone is sick and a particular pill helps, but not understanding why or how. We need to know the underlying mechanisms crucial for sustaining coastal ecosystems."

A key question, Warner noted, is where various coastal marine species travel as they grow and disperse. "These underwater environments are characterized by very complicated ocean processes and by tiny organisms that are drifting in a 'blanket' for weeks o


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