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Big Ideas for Oceans grants fuel ‘unconstrained creativity’

Sea Ice - credit Rob Dunbar

The inaugural awards will enable research teams to pursue interdisciplinary ocean and coastal projects that address impacts of environmental change in the Bay Area and beyond.

As rising temperatures accelerate coral bleaching, fuel toxic algal blooms, and unleash more powerful storms, the world’s oceans are at once vulnerable to climate change impacts and vital to buffering them. A new grant program jointly awarded by the Stanford Oceans Department and Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment supports research designed to help address climate change and conserve the ocean.

“Unlike other funding programs, which can be safe but slow, Big Ideas for Oceans grants support unconstrained creativity and high-risk, potentially high-reward projects that foster interdisciplinary collaborations across the university,” said Fiorenza Micheli, chair of the Oceans Department in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions. “Time is of the essence. We have to pursue bold, creative solutions – even though some might fail.”

The annual program, which awarded its first round of seven grants in March 2023, prioritizes projects that focus on climate adaptation and mitigation, and those involving marine mammals, coral reefs, marine protected areas, and deep ocean environments in what’s known as the twilight zone. Awardees will explore how natural processes and marine life – spanning tiny drifting organisms known as plankton to vast coral colonies and migrating whales – help regulate the climate and could play a role in mitigation strategies. 

Priority regions include Antarctica and the tropical Pacific. Converging currents and seasonal ice surrounding the frozen continent play a central yet understudied role in regulating Earth’s climate. Meanwhile, island nations in the tropical Pacific must adapt to sea level rise and other climate-driven events that damage coral reefs, threatening food security and livelihoods.

“We’re witnessing an era of unprecedented environmental change. These grants allow us to accelerate research in priority areas that could buy us time to avoid catastrophic tipping points,” said Micheli. “It's all hands on deck until we identify and scale collaborative solutions.”

Supported and administered by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment’s Environmental Venture Projects program, the new program encourages diverse project teams that span disciplines, education levels, genders, and geographies. This approach reflects the Ocean Department’s commitment to encouraging partnerships across and beyond the university, and bridging traditional disciplines like marine science with engineering, business, and the humanities to generate new knowledge and advance sustainability solutions.

Learn more about the inaugural recipients of the Big Ideas for Oceans grants below.

Simulating plankton migrations on a tabletop

Every day, tiny drifting plants and animals known as plankton ascend with starlight and sink as the sun rises, sometimes traversing up to several miles in their vertical migration, in the largest daily movement of biomass in the world. Given the vast depth and timescale, plankton distribution is difficult to study, though scientists estimate that plankton convert nearly half of all atmospheric carbon into more stable forms and store it for long durations. A team led by Manu Prakash, associate professor of bioengineering and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, seeks to further develop a “rotating microscope” they’ve designed to characterize the behavior of individual plankton. For the first time, a single cell or organism traveling long distances along a vertical axis can be imaged and tracked, linking cellular physiology to ecosystem scales. In this next phase, the Prakash Lab will develop methods for manipulating climate variables such as light, temperature, salinity, pressure, and nutrients. By enabling a “virtual reality” in this tracking microscope, the team can build long-term data sets of plankton migration and map future behavior based on predicted ocean conditions.

Manu Prakash (Bioengineering, Biology, Oceans), Prakash Lab

Forecasting harmful algal blooms in the Bay Area

Harmful algal blooms should, in theory, have struck the San Francisco Bay Area far more often over the past few decades. Yet the region, home to 7.5 million people, has experienced relatively few events compared to other nutrient-rich estuaries. Scientists have attributed this anomaly to invasive algae-eating clams and high levels of tidal and wind-driven mixing in the bay, which limits the exposure of plankton to the sun they need to grow. That all may have changed last fall, when a massive bloom that tinted the bay red for a month depleted dissolved oxygen and killed fish. Prolonged periods of dry weather and heavy nutrient loads will likely give rise to more “red tides” in the future, yet resource managers lack tools to inform prevention and response. Oliver Fringer, professor of civil and environmental engineering and of oceans, will partner with the San Francisco Estuary Institute to create a system for predicting future harmful algal blooms. Using a machine learning algorithm, they will combine historical data sets from numerical models, field measurements, and satellites to assess the likelihood of blooms in different regions of the bay and at desired times.

Oliver Fringer (Oceans, Civil and Environmental Engineering), David Senn (San Francisco Estuary Institute)

Understanding rates of carbon dioxide removal through ocean alkalinity enhancement

At a time when removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is urgently needed to halt and reverse climate change, an interdisciplinary team is working to leverage the ocean’s ability to serve as a natural carbon sink. Led by Matthew Kanan, associate professor of chemistry and director of the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy, and Rob Dunbar, professor of oceans and of Earth system science and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, the team will assess various ways of adding alkaline substances to seawater to promote the transfer of carbon dioxide from the air into the ocean. They will measure how adding magnesium hydroxide (a compound that can be produced synthetically from abundant rocks) to seawater, freshwater, and brines affects the rate of carbon dioxide uptake. In addition to potentially removing carbon dioxide, adding alkaline substances like magnesium hydroxide to oceans can make them less acidic, helping calcifying organisms such as corals and bivalves maintain their shells and skeletons. Their research will assess how adding large amounts of alkaline substances impacts the ocean and whether this approach can be scaled safely to sequester more carbon dioxide.

Matthew Kanan (Chemistry), Rob Dunbar (Oceans, Earth System Science)

Protecting heat-resistant corals

Around the world, scientists are working to find coral colonies that can most easily withstand rising temperatures due to climate-driven heatwaves. The Super Reefs project brings together researchers, conservation groups, and governments to protect these corals in partnership with local communities whose fate is tied to these vulnerable reef ecosystems. Steve Palumbi, professor of oceans and of biology, and his team will pilot a new approach in the Republic of the Marshall Islands to enable widespread adoption of coral testing tools among local stakeholders. By streamlining the science, providing reliable test equipment, and mentoring local students and professionals on how to confirm heat-resistant colonies, the team hopes to help coastal communities protect these corals and build nurseries that meet national commitments to protect their reefs.

Steve Palumbi (Oceans, Biology), Anne Cohen (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution), Elizabeth Mcleod (The Nature Conservancy), Dolores deBrum-Katill (Marshall Islands Conservation Society), Glen Joseph (Marshall Islands Marine Resources Authority)

Tracking fish spawning events in Palauan reefs

Every lunar cycle, an array of coral reef fish descend on a reef in the western tropical Pacific known as Shark City. Here, and at other sites along the island nation of Palau, massive spawning events take place and offer a feast for sharks and other top predators. In recent years, the frequency of these events has declined, threatening fish populations and associated reef ecosystems along with the many health and livelihood benefits they provide to coastal communities. Fiorenza Micheli, professor of oceans and senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, and team seek to better understand the life history and population dynamics of Palauan fish species. In partnership with the Palau International Coral Reef Center, they will deploy acoustic tags on fish and sharks to track their movements around Shark City and other fish aggregation sites, generate foundational knowledge about coral reef ecology, and inform local conservation efforts.

Fiorenza Micheli (Oceans), Barbara Block (Biology, Oceans), Natalie Arnoldi (Oceans)

Documenting Antarctic sea ice floes

Due to amplified surface warming at high latitudes, sea ice has become a bellwether for global climate change. However, current climate models struggle to produce the observed decline in sea ice coverage, especially within the marginal sea ice zone, the dynamic transition zone that separates homogenous pack ice from the open ocean. Characterized by a mosaic of loosely consolidated ice chunks called floes, this zone provides a buffer against ocean waves and storms that otherwise accelerate melting rates. Earle Wilson, assistant professor of Earth system science, and team will collaborate with Capella Space, a San Francisco-based company, to source radar imagery from their constellation of polar-orbiting satellites and train algorithms to track sea ice floes within the Antarctica sea ice pack. These data will allow the team to document how this critical transition zone fluctuates in response to powerful winter storms, thereby helping to improve existing sea ice and climate models.

Earle Wilson (Earth System Science, Oceans), Dustin Schroeder (Geophysics, Electrical Engineering)

Connecting the blue humanities and the ocean sciences

Over the past twenty years, Margaret Cohen, professor of English, has helped define an emerging field known as the blue or oceanic humanities. The new discipline explores human connections to the sea expressed through cultural constructs like the arts, literature, and maritime history. This project will define the guiding principles for pursuing research at the intersection of the blue humanities and ocean sciences both within the Oceans Department and beyond Stanford at partner institutions. Through a series of workshops, collaborative writing, and partner discussions, the team will examine scientific and cultural research on the sea to articulate how and where these distinct disciplines overlap. They hope this work will raise awareness about the blue humanities, open new directions of scholarship that bring together the environmental humanities and sciences, and encourage public engagement in reimagining our relationship to the oceans.

Margaret Cohen (English), Fiorenza Micheli (Oceans), Steve Palumbi (Oceans, Biology), Meghan Shea (Oceans), Alexander Sherman (English)

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