Changes in Latitude: SERC’s Global Reach

Researchers on a boat collecting samples in the Ross Sea.
SERC photobiologist Pat Neale’s collaborators gather phytoplankton samples in Antarctica’s Ross Sea for a study exploring the impact of UV-radiation on photosynthesis. Photo: Pat Neale
SERC research extends far beyond our home base on the Chesapeake Bay. Our scientists use comparisons across latitude to test the effects of atmospheric, climatic and biological gradients. A few examples illustrate the diverse assortment and importance of SERC projects covering the planet.

Pat Neale measures changing levels of ultraviolet radiation in sunlight – UV-B, the cause of sunburn and skin cancer – in response to variations in the ozone layer of the upper atmosphere. Ozone screens out much of the sun’s UV-B. Neale is interested in the effects of UV-B on phytoplankton – the tiny plants at the base of the ocean’s food web. With SERC’s meteorological tower, he records the UV-B hitting Maryland’s temperate latitudes. The data provide the world’s longest record of UV-B impacting the Earth’s surface – 35 years. The ozone layer at the South Pole is much thinner than at other latitudes, forming an “ozone hole,” which exposes organisms to harmful UV-B rays. Neale has served as chief scientist on oceanographic cruises measuring the impacts of increased UV-B on plankton in Antarctica’s Southern Ocean.

Candy Feller standing under the roots of a mangrove tree.
Candy Feller pauses under the roots of a Rhizophora mangle (red mangrove) tree on the Pacific Coast of Panama. Photo: Anne Chamberlain

SERC’s expertise extends to the tropics as well. Candy Feller is a leading expert in mangrove ecosystems, the crucial forests protecting tropical shorelines. She has developed an experimental network to examine how mangroves take up nutrients running off the land and buffer seagrasses and coral reefs from pollution. Feller’s experiments extend from Smithsonian facilities in Florida, Belize and Panama, to sites in Australia and New Zealand.

Greg Ruiz measures how marine invasions vary in an array of 30 bays and ports extending from the Aleutian Islands to Panama along the West Coast, and from Newfoundland to Panama on the East Coast. He is testing how invasion rates respond to the gradient of increasing biodiversity from the poles to the tropics. He is also testing how invasive species respond to changes in transport mechanisms, such as ships transiting the Panama Canal or up the inland passage of Southeast Alaska. Ruiz’s array of sites provides a unique baseline to test if marine invasions increase during major ecological disturbances. For example, they encompass four major bays of the Gulf of Mexico, allowing measurement of biodiversity responses to the recent oil spill catastrophe.

In the 21st century, scientists must think globally. Neale, Feller and Ruiz are just three of SERC’s planet-trekking ecologists. From the poles to the tropics, we are seeking solutions to the world’s environmental problems.

- Tuck Hines, Director