WWU Part of Research Group Awarded New $5 Million Grant to Study the Gulf of Alaska

by John Thompson
Office of Communications and Marketing

Western Washington University Senior Marine Scientist Suzanne Strom of the Shannon Point Marine Center is part of a group of scientists recently awarded $5.6 million by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to conduct research over the next five years in the Northern Gulf of Alaska.

The grant funding supports the formation by the NSF of the Northern Gulf of Alaska Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 28 such sites spread across the country’s mountains, plains, rivers, forests, and oceans.

“Each LTER site is a unique ecosystem,” said Strom. “And what the LTER program does is give scientists the ability to study these ecosystems not for days or for months, but for decades. This will allow us to see long-term trends in the gulf, and to compare those to other ecosystems, where scientists are using a consistent observational framework. By comparing across ecosystems, including some that are very different from the northern ocean, we hope to get new insights into basic ecological processes.”

Two decades of research along Alaska's Seward Line – a series of ocean sampling stations extending from Resurrection Bay near Seward out to the continental slope 150 miles offshore ­– are the foundation of this new coastal observatory.

The new LTER site will allow researchers to make observations across a larger geographic region. It will also give scientists an opportunity to undertake studies aboard the NSF research vessel Sikuliaq, operated by the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Researchers at the site will study the gulf's waters, which support abundant and economically important varieties of fish, crabs, seabirds and marine mammals.

“The new LTER includes a few of us who have been working on the Seward Line for years, as well as some newer folks. We are excited to broaden our scope to include more sampling seasons as well as new areas east and west of Seward, including the region where the Copper River enters the ocean,” said Strom, who is one of five principle investigators on the project. LTER scientists will research everything from physical and chemical oceanography to the biology of single-celled algae and zooplankton in an effort to understand the patterns and fluxes that affect some of the world’s most important commercial fisheries.

Strom said the research group will continue to focus on how changes to the global and regional environment impact the gulf.

“How big an environmental shove does it take to significantly alter this ecosystem? That’s one question we are hoping to find answers for,” she said. “The system is very good at dealing with natural variability, but understanding its resilience in the face of more extreme change is very important.”

Strom will join peers from University of Alaska Fairbanks and University of Calfornia at Santa Cruz to work on the grant. Outside collaborators from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center also plan to work closely with the LTER scientists.

The three newest sites to join the LTER network are the Northern Gulf of Alaska, the Northeast U.S. Shelf, off the coast of Massachusetts, and the Beaufort Sea Lagoons, on Alaska’s Arctic coast. These join 25 pre-existing sites, which include two in Alaska: the Bonanza Creek LTER that monitors boreal-forest habitat in the state’s interior, and the Arctic LTER on the tundra of the North Slope.

For more information on the formation of the Northern Gulf of the Alaska LTER or her work in the gulf, contact Suzanne Strom at (360) 650-7400 or Suzanne.strom@wwu.edu.

Thursday, March 23, 2017 - 9:45am