GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Scientists are already observing climate change in the Gulf of Mexico. Tropical species, such snook and black mangrove, are moving north. Flows of freshwater into estuaries are dwindling.
The hard part: predicting how climate change will affect the plants, animal and people who depend on the Gulf.
To make these predictions, you need a lot of data. Normally, researchers collect the data in the field, which means going out and finding the conditions they are studying, such as higher water temperatures.
But this approach takes time. And when you’re studying climate change, time is of the essence.
“To do the experiments I want to do out in the field could take months, just waiting for the tides and the conditions to be right to sample,” said Scott Alford, a doctoral student in the University of Florida/IFAS department of fisheries and aquatic sciences.
So, to save time and resources, Alford is conducting his experiments in a wet lab. Furnished with rows of tanks, pumps, heaters and chillers, the wet lab allows researchers to simulate specific environmental conditions and observe how marine life responds.
Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation, the wet lab is the latest addition to the UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station, located in Cedar Key, Florida. UF/IFAS researchers are already using it to study everything from shellfish aquaculture to seagrass.
In the lab, Alford will test how largemouth bass, red fish, blue crab and shrimp respond to changes in the salt content and temperature of the water around them. He wants to know how these commercially important species behave differently under different scenarios linked to climate change.
“The wet lab lets us to set up controlled experiments where we can isolate what we are trying to study,” said Charlie Martin, research assistant professor of estuarine ecology at UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station, who is directing Alford’s doctoral research. “It’s a very useful tool, especially research on climate change, because we can use it test how the different aspects of climate change, like warmer water, will impact ecosystems in the Gulf.”
These experiments don’t just give scientists a preview of what’s to come. They also allow researchers to develop recommendations on how to prepare for the climate conditions of the future.
“Climate change happens slowly, making it hard to know now how it will affect us. The lab gives us a preview of what future conditions might do to fisheries and ecosystems. That knowledge gives fisheries managers and others time to prepare,” Martin said.
For communities that depend on the natural resources of the Gulf, this kind of forecast can help make their way of life more sustainable, he said.