Study Overviews Seasonal Shifts in Gulf of Maine


Many researchers and amateur naturalists keep track of the date that the first robin of spring arrives, or when ice-out occurs on local ponds. While such observations are common in terrestrial systems, a new report in the journal Fisheries Oceanography shows there is limited understanding of similar events in the Gulf of Maine and other ocean ecosystems.

“This study connected the dots about many seasonal changes in the Gulf of Maine, and it also identified gaps in what we know,” said Nick Record, a senior research scientist at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences and one of the study’s authors. “There’s still a lot we don’t know about how different species interact and connect in terms of their seasonal timing.”

Data on the timing of plant and animal life cycle events, known as phenology, are invaluable to understanding climate change. The study’s 26 authors urge researchers to increase observations and use more phenological datasets to understand how marine species are responding to climate change in the rapidly-warming Gulf of Maine and other coastal regions.

In their comprehensive review, the researchers found only 20 studies documenting shifts in phenology in the Gulf of Maine, indicating that this topic has received less attention compared to other responses to climate change. They provide a summary of the existing evidence, and offer examples of the implications, remaining research questions, and available long-term datasets appropriate for assessing shifts in the region. These data come from a range of federal, state, academic, and citizen science monitoring programs.

“We’re trying to increase awareness of the importance of understanding phenological shifts, the usefulness of existing data, and the possibility of applying them to marine ecosystems,” said Michelle Staudinger, who is science coordinator at the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center at University of Massachusetts Amherst, an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and the study’s lead author. “We also need to continue to invest, and in some cases, expand regional monitoring programs to better capture shifts in phenology and other responses to climate change in the Gulf of Maine.”

New England has an exceptional heritage of phenological studies, such as groups that count alewives and other fish that spend parts of their life cycle in both salt and fresh water. Staudinger and colleagues hope such data will be incorporated into climate studies and that similar efforts are launched for other marine life from puffins to whales, lobsters, and coastal fish from Newfoundland to Cape Cod.

Citizen science monitoring efforts can also help researchers forecast ecosystem events, just like meteorologists forecast the weather. Record, a mathematician, writes algorithms that combine weather data with animal sightings and calculates the likelihood of more sightings. As changes to global climate progress, reports by citizen scientists could comprise a powerful tool to help scientists understand and anticipate these shifts.

“Phenology is a really important signal of climate change, and it can also magnify climate effects,” Record said. “In the Gulf of Maine, coordinated seasonal timing is essential to make the system really productive – and if that timing is lost, there's the potential for a lot of that productivity to be lost.”