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03/30/2022 08:30 AM

A Timely Talk on the Resilience of Marine Organisms to Future Climate Change

On Thursday, April 7, at 7 p.m. Dr. Emma Cross will present her timely talk, “The Resilience of Marine Organisms to Future Climate Change,” at Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library in Stony Creek. Registration is open now for the free, in-person talk (also available to attend via Zoom) hosted by all-volunteer Friends of Outer Island as its annual outreach lecture.Photo courtesy of Emma Cross

With help from Friends of Outer Island, Dr. Emma Cross will help interested citizens learn about the resilience of marine organisms to future climate change—and how Long Island Sound, a coastal estuary, is already a bit of a bellwether, showing how some types of organisms will tolerate what climate change brings, while others will struggle.

On Thursday, April 7, at 7 p.m. Emma will present her timely talk, “The Resilience of Marine Organisms to Future Climate Change,” at Willoughby Wallace Memorial Library in Stony Creek. The free, in-person talk (also available via Zoom) is offered by all-volunteer Friends of Outer Island as its annual outreach lecture, given in cooperation with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the library. Participants can come to the library in person (seating limited) or receive a link to view from home. Either way, registration is required at (search “The Resilience of Marine Organisms to Future Climate Change”).

“I hope to get people more on board with what’s going on—being aware of how our actions, on a daily basis, affect our local waters,” says Emma. “Particularly with climate change, it’s quite hard to see it on a daily basis, but our oceans are getting warmer and they’re also getting more acidified and also losing some oxygen, as well.”

Anyone interested in the environment and climate change or just learning a little bit more about their surroundings and what they can do to make a difference will find many take-aways from her talk.

“I think it’s for anyone that has an interest in wildlife and has an interest in how they can make a change, and for anyone that loves Long Island Sound or wants to get to know a little bit more about Long Island Sound,” says Emma, adding, “...I’m a huge believer in everyone should have a connection to Long Island Sound.”

A London, England native and current Madison resident, Emma is a Southern Connecticut State University (SCSU) assistant professor of coastal/marine studies in the Department of the Environment, Geography and Marine Sciences and co-director for SCSU’s Werth Center for Coastal Marine Studies.

In a press release issued by the Friends, Emma is described as “an enthusiastic teacher who is passionate about educating students and the public about the marine environment,” whose work “investigates ocean acidification, warming, and hypoxia impacts on brachiopods (a marine calcifier) and marine fish through fieldwork, laboratory experimentation, and analyses of museum collections. She also investigates potential climate change mitigation strategies for the shellfish aquaculture industry.”

Looking at Island Sound

Instead of relying heavily on projections based on open-ocean models, researchers are now turning to coastal estuaries, such as Long Island Sound, together with other coastal region waters, to help discern the types of impacts climate change will have on marine life in the future.

“All of our oceans are warming, all of them are acidifying...just on different scales. But definitely, in Long Island Sound, it is warming and it is also getting acidified, as well,” says Emma. “Organisms here are already experiencing, on a daily scale, predicted conditions by the end of the century. What recent research is really focusing on is looking at these coastal regions which are right next to the land, where we get all these inputs of nutrients [etc.] and we have a lot more biological activity, and this is basically causing these fluctuations.”

She adds the research is showing that “these organisms are actually quite adaptive to future conditions, because they already experience it in their daily life.”

Another interesting finding: Because conditions in these coastal bodies of water also fluctuate daily much more than in our oceans, “what researchers are basically seeing is that these organisms are more resilient in these coastal regions, because they already experience a range of conditions each day,” says Emma. “Whereas organisms that only experience current [open ocean] conditions, which are less acidic and sort of normal conditions in terms of temperature, then those organisms, when they do experience climate change in the future, are going to be more susceptible to the impacts of climate change, because they haven’t already experienced those conditions.”

Ways We Can Help

“Something that I always touch upon in my teaching, because we go through these sorts of doom-and-gloom things, is to tell them what they can do to help make a difference,” Emma says.

Conserving water is a help, even if it’s just taking shorter showers. Other habits to practice at home or in the office include helping to conserve energy and using less fossil fuels. (One simple tip: Always turn off lights if you leave a room.) Use fertilizer sparingly, and try not to use fertilizer just before rain storms, because “rain will wash it, and all those nutrients, right into our waterways—and everything ends up in the ocean,” says Emma.

Studying Marine Organisms and Warming Waters

As the oceans are warming, they’re also becoming more acidified. That’s a perfect example of how, within the different aspects of climate change, “everything is interacting with each other,” says Emma.

“With the acidification, our oceans are basically having more carbon dioxide, and when plants photosynthesize, they use that carbon dioxide in that process,” she says. “If there’s more carbon dioxide in the oceans, they’re more able to photosynthesize and grow. And other organisms are struggling with ocean acidification, typically shellfish, because with acidified oceans, it becomes quite corrosive to their shell structures.”

In her talk on April 7, Emma will touch on how different groups of marine organisms, such as seaweed, shellfish, and fish, are all being affected by climate change.

“Some of them are going to be more resilient to these changes, and some of them are going to struggle more,” she says.

In a class Emma teaches about Long Island Sound’s lobster fishery, she discusses the reduction of lobster numbers in Long Island Sound. While it has been brought by a combination of different factors, “water temperature and the warming of temperatures in the summer months was a really important factor in the reduction of that fishery,” Emma says.

But on the other hand, impacts of climate change can cause an opening for another type of industry in the Sound: culturing, growing, and harvesting seaweed.

“One type of organism that’s actually going to be somewhat tolerant to warming temperatures and ocean acidification are phytoplankton and seaweed,” Emma says. “So a lot of what lobster farmers in Long Island Sound have done is actually switch from lobsters to looking at seaweed aquaculture.”

The students Emma works with at SCSU’s Werth Center are not only learning in the classroom, they get experiences in the lab and also in the field.

“We have them do lots of field work [including] biodiversity surveys, and working with The Sound School in New Haven; they go on their boat and do surveys in New Haven Harbor [including] collecting of sediments to test for metals and contamination.”

The students also get to work with live specimens representing many of Long Island Sound’s aquatic creatures.

“In the Werth Center, we have these huge display aquariums which house fish that are found in Long Island Sound,” as well as horseshoe crab and other local marine organisms, says Emma. “It’s the responsibility of these Werth Center students to look after these organisms, so they’re at the forefront of learning all these animal husbandry skills and also learning about all these organisms that are found in Long Island Sound.”

A Werth Center student who volunteers with Friends of Outer Island and interns on the island in the summer connected Emma with the friends group to bring her lecture to the library on April 7.

Friends of Outer Island is a volunteer organization working in partnership with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit group affiliated with the Stewart B. McKinney National Wildlife Refuge. Friends help refuge staff with island maintenance, upkeep and as island keepers during months when the island is open for visits. (Among all of the Thimble Islands, Outer Island is the only one open to the public.) The island also hosts environmental education and studies for students up to and including graduate level, as part of the Connecticut State University system.

“I went last summer for the first time,” says Emma of visiting Outer Island. “It’s beautiful there. I would love to get some form of research going there in the future.”