Ecological forecasts predict the impacts of chemical, biological, and physical changes on ecosystems, ecosystem components, and people. These forecasts bring together wide-ranging research and observation programs to allow coastal resource managers to answer the "what if" questions about factors that affect coastal resources.
Forecasts are a part of our everyday lives. Weather forecasts help businesses make plans. Economic forecasts help individuals and businesses navigate the uncertainties of the financial world. Similarly, ecological forecasts allow people to answer the "what if" questions in coastal management. Why do we need this? Because our coasts and oceans are constantly changing!
Just as a weather forecast may help you decide if you need to pack an umbrella, different types of ecological forecasts help coastal managers and scientists make better decisions based on what may lie ahead for a local beach, a large Bay, or even an entire coast.
This knowledge can help us respond to extreme natural events like hurricanes or human activities like wastewater runoff. And it can help us solve resource management problems, such as how to best manage an important fishery.
Improving ecological forecasting capabilities is one of NOAA's top priorities.
Many of the ecological forecasts produced by NOS are short-term and localized, similar to weather forecasts.
A type of jellyfish called the sea nettle seasonally infests the Chesapeake Bay. During this period, vacationers avoid the water to avoid painful stings. Sea nettles are more than just a nuisance to beachgoers, though. They're voracious predators that devour copepods (tiny crustaceans), fish eggs, larvae, and comb jellies. This predation can impact the food web in the Bay, leading to a reduction in the abundance of fish in the bay.
As you might imagine, knowing where and when to expect this nuisance may help people better plan their activities and reduce the problems they experience.
To meet this need, NOAA and partners produce daily forecasts of probable sea nettle presence. This framework is also being adapted to help predict harmful algal blooms (HABs) in the Chesapeake Bay.
Harmful Algal Blooms, often called "red tides," occur in every coastal state and have caused a cumulative economic loss exceeding $1 billion over the last two decades. Movement of HABs from the ocean to shore can cause illness and death in humans, fish, and marine mammals. Florida red tides, for example, release neurotoxins that have killed fish and marine mammals and caused respiratory impairments for people along the shore.
Several NOAA offices work together to produce red tide forecasts for the Gulf of Mexico. The forecasts are based on satellite imagery, models, and field data from federal, state and local monitoring programs, research vessels, buoys and AUV's. Combining this information allows NOAA to alert coastal officials of the location and movement of blooms. The forecast system also provides public condition reports daily.
Improved understanding of how physical and biological processes interact to promote bloom development enables scientists to develop reliable forecast models. Their forecasts can then support rapid response by monitoring agencies and health departments to safeguard public health, local economies, and fisheries. HAB forecasts for other regions of the U.S. are now in development.
The NOAA Office of Response and Restoration's Emergency Response Division (ERD) responds to oil and chemical spills in coastal U.S. waters.
Using information about the amount and type of oil spilled, as well as information about winds and currents in the region of the spill, scientists forecast the movement and behavior of spilled oil or chemicals, evaluate the risks to resources, and recommend protection priorities and appropriate cleanup actions. The forecasts are a critical part of the nation's response to both minor and major spill events. The ERD team develops and uses a range of models that predict the movements of the spills, including potential for coming ashore and damage to sensitive environments.
By including ecological information such as the effects of oil and its breakdown products on aquatic vegetation and animal species in trajectory forecasts in the future, NOAA can provide better predictions of the effects of oil and chemical spills on surrounding habitats.
Some ecological forecasts focus on longer-term or broader issues, such as year-to-year variations in fish stocks or predicting hypoxic 'Dead Zones.'
Sea grass beds are valuable ecosystems that provide refuge and food for wildlife, fish, shellfish, and the food webs that support them.
NOAA's National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science has developed forecast models that identify the best areas for sea grass restoration based on the probabilities that beds will not be lost in severe storms.
Other models forecast rates of sea grass recovery so planners can set realistic restoration milestones. NOAA's work to identify suitable sites and to forecast recovery rates increases restoration project success. These methods also provide a basis for habitat damage assessments.
Nutrient pollution is one of our nation's most serious coastal pollution problems. The most dramatic example of this impact is the area commonly called the "Dead Zone" in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
This massive region of very low water oxygen levels (hypoxia) stretches from the Mississippi River to Texas coastal waters. While the size of the "Dead Zone" varies from year to year, it has grown to sizes larger than the state of Massachusetts in recent years.
Forecasts developed through the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science have shown that reducing the current annual nitrogen load of 1.6 million metric tons from the Mississippi River system by 30 to 40 percent would dramatically reduce the hypoxic area. The forecasts are based on nitrate loads from the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers and incorporate the previous year's load to the system.
The Gulf contains almost half of the nation's coastal wetlands and supports approximately 20 percent of the dollar value of its commercial fishery landings.
While NOAA and partners produce a wide range of ecological forecasts today, there is still much more work to be done—not only in producing new short- and long-term ecological forecasts for locations around the nation, but also in improving existing forecasts.
It's important to stress that these efforts only work because of partnerships at all levels—with universities, local and state governments, and other federal agencies. Our strong partnerships help decision-makers identify what is needed to develop the forecasts and support the capability to respond to those needs.
Ecological forecasting is a new and challenging science that ties together a wide range of research and observations. Forecasts integrate physical, chemical, biological, economic, and social data about the present condition of the coastal environment and predict future conditions, based upon different management strategies.
Ultimately, these forecasts allow managers to evaluate what future conditions are acceptable to us as a society and to take appropriate actions to make those conditions reality.