Early Wednesday morning, the NOAA Ship Ronald Brown reached Station 120, within spitting distance (for a ship) of Cape Flattery, the northwesternmost point of the continental United States. After collecting samples by starlight, the ship swung round and headed south, back towards the wild stretch of Washington coastline that is recognized for its extraordinary natural history by three federal designations – the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuges, Olympic National Park (ONP) and Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (OCNMS).
The reason for this antipodean turn of events? So that our visits to three stations located within the sanctuary would coincide with the daytime sampling efforts of our scientific partners in the National Park Service and NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuary. The idea was to simultaneously sample the deeper coastal waters (approximately 95 meters), the shallower near-shore waters, and the intertidal zone. This snapshot in time linking intertidal conditions with a transect of offshore locations would provide insight into how acidification varies as oceanic waters meet the coast and its diverse biological communities. Being able to compare the seawater chemistry of these three environments will also help us understand how well our measurements agree between the onshore and offshore locations.
The waters of the sanctuary, which covers an area the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined, teem with marine life. According to OCNMS Living Sanctuary page, “Twenty nine species of marine mammals and scores of seabird species spend parts of their lives there. Gray whales visit as part of the longest mammal migration on earth, and albatross gather food from its waters to return to nestlings on mid-Pacific islands and atolls. Sea otters inhabit the majestic kelp forests waving just offshore, and fish occupy myriad niches from the deepest ocean canyons to the shallowest tide pools.” The diverse biological assemblages found in this wave-swept wilderness are vulnerable to ocean acidification, both directly and via impacts to the food web.
While June 1 marked the first time that both ONP and OCNMS have coordinated with NOAA PMEL to collect simultaneous samples (PMEL and OCNMS have been collaborating on OA observations since 2008), this kind of monitoring is nothing new for the National Marine Sanctuary and Park Service staff stationed on the Olympic coast. Understanding how natural resources are impacted in the face of environmental change is central to the missions of both agencies.
Sanctuary staff, led by acting Research Coordinator Liam Antrim, regularly sample Washington’s coastal waters from their 40 foot research vessel the R/V Tatoosh, which is based in La Push during the summer field season. Since 2000, OCNMS has deployed seasonal (spring through fall), instrumented oceanographic moorings at nearshore sites between Makah Bay and Cape Elizabeth, to characterize key oceanographic parameters: temperature, dissolved oxygen, salinity, current speed and direction, and plankton density.
Olympic National Park has been conducting long-term monitoring of intertidal biological assemblages since 2004. In 2010, the park began monitoring the pH of intertidal water at two sites, Sokol Point and Browns Point, to begin to understand how changes in near-shore water chemistry may be influencing changes in the structure of intertidal communities. In 2015, the park upgraded the field instrumentation at these sites to state-of-the-art SeaFET pH sensors that continuously record data, and began regular sampling of other ocean carbonate system parameters for analysis in its ocean acidification laboratory. This monitoring program is being used as a template to expand ocean acidification monitoring to other National Parks along the Pacific coast.
As scientists aboard the Brown sent their instruments down to sample the deep ocean, sanctuary staff deployed their own CTD and water sampler through the water column at multiple depths along two transect lines. Where those lines met the shore, at the Sokol and Browns Point stations, Olympic National Park coastal ecologist Steven Fradkin and Park staff chased the tide in the fading light to collect intertidal samples. These collaborations with PMEL will help link ONP and OCNMS long-term seawater chemistry data sets with the CTD ‘snapshots’ captured by the scientists aboard the NOAA Ship Ronald Brown. All together, these measurements will generate a more comprehensive picture of ocean acidification from the shore out across the continental shelf off Washington’s outer coast.
Like any team effort, these coordinated efforts leverage the work of each agency to accomplish greater things. And this collaboration is a perfect example of what OCNMS is working to promote in its effort to have Washington’s outer coast and OCNMS recognized as a Sentinel Site for ocean acidification, an area where monitoring and research is focused to improve our understanding of ecological and economic impacts from changes in ocean chemistry.