Climate Change Hits the Beach

An international workshop held at USC and organized by USC Dornsife’s Douglas Capone and David Hutchins probes how climate change affects our oceans.
BySusan Bell

“Climate change is already here,” warned Douglas Capone, William and Julie Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife.

“And it’s going to affect everything that we care about in terms of the local environment, both on land and in the ocean, from the temperature to the cloudiness to the amount of fish that are produced in local waters and everything in between,” added David Hutchins, professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife.

Capone’s and Hutchins’ comments followed the highly successful international workshop on climate change they organized and co-chaired on Oct. 3 as part of the USC Dornsife 2020 thematic research initiative in which scholars take a close look at solutions for global challenges. 

Titled Inside Out: Modeling and Monitoring Climate Change in the Southern California Bight, the day-long conference held at the Doheny Memorial Library drew more than 70 leading scientists in climate change, oceanography and marine biology. Key representatives from the local water districts and fisheries also participated. The workshop was well-attended by USC Dornsife graduate students and faculty from earth sciences, and the marine and environmental biology departments.

Speakers from Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego,  UCLA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administrations (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center and from as far away as Indiana and Saudi Arabia, joined experts from USC Dornsife to present their findings on climate change in the Southern California Bight and on the urban environment as a modulator of local and global climate change.

The Southern California coast offers scientists an ideal environment to study climate change and its effects on the natural environment. For the purposes of their research, scientists focused on the Southern California Bight, the ocean area stretching south from Point Conception in the north down to the waters off Ensenada in Mexico.

“We live in a place where one of the world’s largest urban areas meets one of the world’s most dynamic natural coastal systems,” Hutchins said. “The effects of climate change on those dynamics and its interaction with the 18 million people in our greater urban area will be a crucial matter to people in the near future.”

The oceanographer was quoted in a recent article in the Los Angeles Times about how radically rising acidity in the ocean resulting from the absorption of carbon dioxide will eventually threaten marine wildlife, the multi-million dollar seafood industry and even our own health should we eat contaminated seafood. West Coast oyster farmers have already seen tens of millions of baby oysters die as a result of increasingly acidic seawater.

Hutchins’ research shows that harmful algae off the California coast thrive in acidic conditions. The algae produce increased toxins that can contaminate shellfish, sickening and possibly even killing humans who eat it.

Dale Kiefer, professor of biological sciences in USC Dornsife, noted that the Southern California Bight appears vulnerable to this acidic, or corrosive, water that is enriched with carbon dioxide and depleted of oxygen, and which seems to be expanding with global warming.

“If it continues to expand there is a greater chance that this deeper, more acidic, water enters surface waters, therefore increasing the risk that it will damage resources,” he said.

“Our region is dominated by small, pelagic fish, including squid, sardine and anchovies, which will move north as temperatures increase and their predators such as larger species of pelagic fish and sharks will have to follow. So there will be a march up the coastline.”


Conference organizers David Hutchins (left), professor of biological sciences and Douglas Capone, William and Julie Wrigley Chair in Environmental Studies and professor of biological sciences, oversee the “Climate Change in the Southern California Bight” research cluster in the USC Dornsife 2020 initiative. Photo by Susan Bell.

Kiefer announced the upcoming early November launch of Bight Watch, a USC Dornsife-based Web site he has created to allow scientists to consult geographic information on indices of environmental conditions such as water temperatures, coastal circulation, oxygen concentration and chlorophyll. The site will make available selected time series of measurements of these properties in the California Bight.

Kiefer and postdoctoral fellow Lori Luo of USC Dornsife teamed up with modelers from California’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and the California Institute of Technology to examine how the California Bight would be affected by regularly occurring natural conditions associated with climate change such as El Niño, La Niña and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

By using statistical analysis to compare satellite images with JPL’s global circulation models, the team was able to confirm that the models do an excellent job of predicting climate responses to the factors that drive the ocean’s circulation patterns.

“This means that we know these global models are reliable and we can use them to make predictions,” Kiefer said.

“A series of climate indices which we investigated with satellite imagery show that the Southern California Bight is a relatively quiescent oceanographic region. Although it is clearly influenced by these climate indices, the response is muted both because of the dramatic change in direction of the coastline that occurs at Point Conception to the north and the Channel Islands which act as buffers against climate events like La Niña, El Niño, etc.,” Kiefer said.

Burton Jones, a professor of biological sciences at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, spoke about urban influences on local and global oceanography. Jones, a former USC Dornsife professor for 31 years, called for more detailed sampling methods, including the use of gliders, to track the movement of human discharged materials such as nutrients and metals coming from sewage treatment plants. He also called for the increased use of high resolution coastal circulation models that offer greater detail because they concentrate on a smaller area.

Climate change is upon us, participants agreed, but uncertainties still remain about the exact forms it will take and the ultimate effects it will have on the environment. However, Capone and Hutchins are confident that scientists will be able to make increasingly accurate predictions.

“We know that even if we stopped putting carbon dioxide out into the atmosphere, we are going to be experiencing something like a two to three degree centigrade increase in temperatures on land throughout the (Los Angeles) basin by 2050,” said Capone, explaining that the seas have already absorbed over 500 billion tons of carbon dioxide, a long lasting green house gas, that has built up in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, mainly from the combustion of fossil fuels.

Kiefer joined Capone and Hutchins in paying homage to the cutting-edge credentials of the speakers and participants. Capone said the outstanding achievement of the workshop had been “getting all these people together in the same room to talk to one another and exchange ideas.”

The Southern California Bight is a model system. It is one of the most carefully monitored coastal regions in the world and its universities and governmental agencies provide tremendous scientific expertise, so it really behooves us to marshal those forces,” he said.

Capone, chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, and Hutchins will sustain and develop the interconnections forged at the workshop by creating a Southern California Bight Urban Ocean Climate Change Network.

“I’m hoping that the informal interactions here will lead to new collaborations,” Capone said.