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At the Ocean Memory Lab, part of California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, scientists are undertaking a study of the world’s oceans and marine life before plastic and chemical pollutants were introduced to the water. By studying the feeding habits of seabirds over the course of almost 130 years, they hope to learn how the ocean has changed during that time. Ivette Feliciano reports.
At northern California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, scientists are conducting an experiment in time travel.
KYLE VAN HOUTAN:
We put it in one of those little vials and send it off.
They're part of what's known as the Ocean Memory Lab.
So we can sort of go back in time from zero to the very end here.
Its mission: to paint a picture of what the ocean looked like 200 years ago.
Imagine opening up a book at the last chapter and trying to understand what the story's about. We're kind of doing that right now with the ocean.
Science director Kyle Van Houtan heads the project.
We've studied the land. We live on land. And we've studied the land for centuries. We know—quite a bit about the dynamics of how things work in forests and deserts and grasslands. We know a bit less about the ocean.
Studies on the ocean's environmental health only go back a few decades, so scientists often can't say what marine life was like before pollutants—including plastics and chemicals—were introduced to the water.
We really wanna generate an informed baseline for what a healthy ocean is. To do that, we need more data than we have. And to—we have to get creative.
To that end, the year-old ocean memory lab draws on specimens collected by naturalists and explorers over the last two centuries. Using modern techniques, lab scientists can analyze those specimens and compare them with samples collected today.
The seabirds and the turtles and the whales, all these things that we study, they're essentially drones taking information about their ecosystem experience out in the ocean and recording it in their feathers, in their bones, in their blubber, various parts of their body, and storing that away. So by using this approach and using the animals as drones to measure the environment, we can actually go back in museum archives and records and repositories and go back much further than if we started measuring today.
Seabirds—gulls, cormorants, and albatross—provide the Ocean Memory Lab with a particularly valuable data set.
Seabirds—are famous for nesting on land, of course, but flying thousands of kilometers out into the ocean, sometimes spending more than 95% of their life on the wing, in flight. And these air—these animals search huge areas of the ocean for fish and squids, and then will come back to their colonies to breed.
To get data on the ocean from sea birds, scientists cut small fragments from their feathers and then grind them into a fine powder. They then send the samples to a lab for protein analysis.
They're recording all sorts of information about their food in their feathers. And so we recently did an analysis looking at 130 years of seabird feathers and recreating their diets from those feathers, from the ratio of amino acids and proteins in those feathers.
With this technique, the Ocean Memory Lab has been able to map out the changes in diet for several seabird species over time.
What we learned was that, over the past 130 years, these birds have gradually been shifting their place in the food web, and they've been eating more squid and less fish, about twice as much squid than they were eating in the late 1800s. From our analysis, that's due to climate change and due to the fisheries activity, that humans have been taking a lot of fish out of the ocean.
But it's not just animal life that provides clues to the ocean's history. Algae samples have been collected at the Hopkins Marine Station—right next door to the aquarium—for 125 years.
This is from 1916. It's amazing that they've been preserved, so—but what we hope to do is to recreate what the ocean was like just here, down the coast, in 1916 through the experience of that—of that specimen.
Scientists can analyze the specimen and extract information on the state of the ocean from the time it was preserved.
So, we can get the temperature of the ocean, we can get pollutants in the ocean, we can get the nutrient levels. What we hope to do is—is to kind of repeat some of these things today, but then, pricelessly, go back in time to these specimens.
Other specimens can provide the lab with centuries' worth of data. This is the ear bone of a bowhead whale—which can live to be over 200 years old. The bone can provide information about the ocean throughout the animal's lifetime.
Yeah, so this animal could have been several hundred years old and this sample is from the early 1950s. This animal, uh, could have been swimming around in the ocean before the Declaration of Independence was written. So, that's quite amazing. And all of the information here, it's not just a snapshot of the recent life of that animal, it's the entire life. It's kind of like a black box for an airplane, you know, it records all of the data that happened in that whale's lifetime.
Van Houtan says that furthering our understanding of the ocean's history isn't just important for posterity. It's also vital to understanding how changes in the ocean's makeup affect people now.
The ocean is the beating heart of the climate system. And we need to understand that, and we need to explain that and to educate the world about that. We want to– them to understand the importance of the ocean, not just—for fish and things that swim in the ocean, but the importance of the ocean for them.
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Ivette Feliciano shoots, produces and reports on camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Before starting with NewsHour in 2013, she worked as a one-person-band correspondent for the News 12 Networks, where she won a New York Press Club Award for her coverage of Super Storm Sandy, which ravaged the East Coast in 2012. Prior to that, Ivette was the Associate Producer of Latin American news for Worldfocus, a nationally televised, daily international news show seen on Public Television. While at Worldfocus, Ivette served as the show’s Field Producer and Reporter for Latin America, covering special reports on the Mexican drug war as well as a 5-part series out of Bolivia, which included an interview with President Evo Morales. In 2010, she co-produced a documentary series on New York’s baseball history that aired on Channel Thirteen. Ivette holds a Master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she specialized in broadcast journalism.
Zachary Green began working in online and broadcast news in 2009. Since then he has produced stories all over the U.S. and overseas in Ireland and Haiti. In his time at NewsHour, he has reported on a wide variety of topics, including climate change, immigration, voting rights, and the arts. He also produced a series on guaranteed income programs in the U.S. and won a 2015 National Headliner Award in business and consumer reporting for his report on digital estate planning. Prior to joining Newshour, Zachary was an Associate Producer for Need to Know on PBS, during which he assisted in producing stories on gun violence and healthcare, among others. He also provided narration for the award-winning online documentary series, “Retro Report”.
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