Stony Brook Dives Into the Mysteries of the Deep Blue Sea

While throwing around beach balls, playfully splashing friends, surfing gnarly waves, and walking along the shoreline, rarely do people consider the vast amount of life teeming in the ocean besides them. In a single drop of seawater, there can be up to one million bacteria and thousands of species floating around. The world’s oceans cover approximately 71% of the Earth’s surface, measures about 36,200 feet at its deepest point, and contains over one million known species of plants and animals (with millions yet to be identified). With a wealth of knowledge still needing to be explored, Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences is diving into groundbreaking research to uncover the untold mysteries of the sea.

The program, referred to as SoMAS, offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in atmospheric science and marine biology related areas of study. With over 60 faculty, 125 graduate students, 300 undergraduates, and more than 50 staff members, SoMAS is one of the most popular programs at Stony Brook. The National Research Council has ranked the program as the sixth top Marine and Atmospheric Science program in the country.  

Located on Long Island, Stony Brook’s off-campus sites at the South Campus of Stony Brook University at Southampton and the Flax Pond Marine Laboratory allow easy access to the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound. With the ocean right next door, students immerse themselves in hands on experience to study coastal and offshore marine habitats, marine organisms, sustainability practices, and more. In addition, SoMAS has a fleet of seven boats, including their flagship the R/V Seawolf.

With dedicated students, professors, and faculty, SoMAS has been making big splashes in the field of marine sciences.

Turning the Tide of Coastal Water Quality

On Long Island, nearly half the economy is reliant on the quality of coastal waters. Commercial fishing, recreational fishing, beach tourism and recreational boating are all billion dollar industries that help local communities thrive. Over the past decade however, there have been some major changes in the surrounding coastal ecosystems.

Stony Brook professor Christopher Gobler received the Environmental Champion award from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) this past April for his groundbreaking research on Long Island’s water quality problems. His studies have shown that increasing levels of nitrogen in the water have caused harmful effects on ecosystems. Gobler and his team, located at the Southampton campus, have noticed trends including an increase of small microbes in coastal waters, effects on fish and their habitats, 90% loss of seagrass and salt marshes, and a large decrease in shellfish landings.

“All of this is happening in a relatively short period of time, so very big significant changes are affecting everything from the economy to the way of life on Long Island,” said Gobler.

The initiative stemmed from interactions with local government on Long Island to assess the effects of land use on coastal waters. SoMAS plays an important role on Long Island for enacting policy changes to solve these problems. After discovering the negative effects currently affecting coastal waters, Gobler placed heavy emphasis on sharing their research to policymakers to incite positive change.

“A lot of [the initiative] went beyond the science, so a lot of those efforts really involved communicating the findings and implications to the individuals that we feel at a state-level that can do something with that data and try to reverse the trends,” said Gobler.

NY RISEs Above Hurricane Sandy

Following the massive destruction left by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, 8 million people lost power in the U.S., over 500,000 housing units were damaged in New York, and thousands of miles of roads and infrastructure were flooded on Long Island. Stony Brook University’s SoMAS took part the recovery efforts of the super storm’s aftermath.

"Very big significant changes are affecting everything from the economy to the way of life on Long Island"

- Stony Brook professor Christopher Gobler

In response to the impact on coastal communities, the New York State Resilience Institute for Storms and Emergencies (RISE) took form. Established by Governor Cuomo, NY RISE’s goal was to aid recovery efforts, as well as increase preparedness research for future extreme weather events. The initiative is the result of merged efforts of Stony Brook, New York University, Cornell University, Columbia University, the City University of New York, and the Brookhaven National Laboratory.

"This institute within SoMAS brought together biologists, chemists, atmospheric scientists, and oceanographers, to look at Hurricane Sandy and what its effects were both when it came to the coastal ecosystems, but actually more broadly how it affected coastal communities and…in doing that, seeing what lessons we could learn to inform future planning," said Gobler.

NY RISE, partnered with SoMAS, continues to research issues such as flooding of infrastructure and atmospheric science patterns to help understand how, if events like Hurricane Sandy happen again, the region will be better prepared for safety and damage prevention in the future.

The Shark Chronicles

Stony Brook professor Dr. Demian Chapman, who will be leaving Stony Brook at the end of the Spring semester, began a project last July to survey sharks and rays in hundreds of coral reef ecosystems. The first ever global survey to inform shark and ray conservation, aims to identify population hot spots of sharks in an effort to gain a better grasp on monitoring threats to the species. The initiative, named Global FinPrint, will place baited remote underwater video at more than 40 locations in areas including the Indo-Pacific, tropical western Atlantic, and southern and eastern Africa and Indian Ocean islands.

"Global FinPrint will help us better understand one of the ocean’s great mysteries: What is happening with fragile marine ecosystems when sharks are removed?" said Dr. Chapman. "Are coral reefs healthier or faster to recover from disturbances like coral bleaching or hurricanes because they have sharks? These are hugely important questions. Many countries rely on healthy coral reefs for food security, tourism and coastal protection."

Last summer, Chapman and SoMAS graduate student Mark Bond led an expedition into the Bahamian Shark Sanctuary to continue their research. With them was Christine O’Connell, a science communication professional from Stony Brook’s School of Journalism. O’Connell blogged about their experiences in the Bahamas, labeling them the "Shark Chronicles."

"It turns out that these sharks come back to the same place year after year," said O’Connell. "This especially holds true if they have round, swollen bellies: Cat Island seems to be a maternity ward for pregnant sharks!"

At the Heart of the Program

At the heart of the sea, and the program, are SoMAS’s dedicated students. While professors help guide along the way, the undergraduate and graduate students are actively involved in the research process for the program’s initiatives.

"Students are at the core of all the projects," said Gobler. "They’re really the ones that are doing a lot of the work, the professors are the ones communicating the science but the graduate students are the ones involved in the actual research process."

Gobler, a graduate of the program himself, described how SoMAS helped develop a long and prosperous career.

"It gave me a very strong background in research, a very strong background in all aspects of oceanography, and prepared me well for me career as an academic," said Gobler.

Making Waves

Stony Brook University’s SoMAS is making some big waves in the world of marine and atmospheric science. Long Island provides the perfect setting for students and faculty to study the water surrounding the island and the effects of coastal climates. From water quality, storm preparedness, shark research, microbial life, and countless other research initiatives, SoMAS is conducting amazing work every day to help better our state, our country, and our planet.

So next time you head to the beach, remember there’s a lot more to the ocean than you think you might "sea."

Published June 2016