Within any given area, living and nonliving interact with each other. Together, these things form an ecosystem. Because all of the elements within an ecosystem are interrelated, these systems can be quite complex. Changing even one element can impact the entire ecosystem—for good, or for bad. We rely on coastal and marine ecosystems, for food, recreation, transportation, and more. And yet, our use of these resources can upset the balance of the entire ecosystem if we aren't careful. NOS is working to understand the science of ecosystems, so that coastal managers and decision makers have the information to make coastal-use decisions that benefit us and do not harm the environment.
What impacts ecosystems?
Because ecosystems are intertwined webs of living and nonliving things, even the smallest change can impact the entire ecosystem. Things such as climate change and associated changes like increases in sea level and ocean temperature, as well as extreme natural events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and harmful algal blooms, can all impact ecosystems.
WE can impact ecosystems, too, by causing pollution, introducing invasive species, or irresponsibly using land and water resources.
How does NOS study ecosystems?
NOS uses research, monitoring, and assessments to better understand, and manage, things that stress coastal ecosystems. The programs and projects that support this effort are lengthy. They span from broad ecosystem-wide and watershed-scale projects to microbiological and analytical chemistry projects that delve into DNA analysis and bio-chemical reactions. To synthesize the array of many science investigations on an ecosystem scale, NOS develops integrated assessments. These describe the ecosystem, assess its current condition or health, forecast future ecological health based on current management, and evaluate alternative management options and their consequences.
The coastal ocean encompasses a broad range of saltwater ecosystems, from estuaries and coral reefs to rocky shores and mangrove forests. NOS works to understand and anticipate changes in coastal ecosystems as they become stressed. For example, scientists from the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science (NCCOS) are studying the warmer bottom water temperatures found along the continental shelf off North Carolina and how these temperatures are affecting the area's species composition. NCCOS is also evaluating different habitat restoration techniques for seagrass beds, oyster beds, and coral reefs.
U.S. coral reef ecosystems cover less than one percent of the Earth's surface, yet are among the most diverse and productive communities on Earth and we rely on reef ecosystems for food, shelter, tourism and recreation. Despite the importance of reefs, these ecosystems are in trouble. NOS coastal ecosystem science is working to understand the extent of and reasons for the decline of coral reefs and to provide managers with more effective ways to protect them. From providing data and models help coastal managers predict the impacts of alternative management decisions regarding marine protected areas, fishing regulations, recreation use, pollutants, and coastal development, to performing inventories, developing maps, and monitoring coral reef ecosystems using computer and remote sensing technologies that inexpensively map coral reef ecosystems with increased speed and accuracy, NOS scientists are helping decision makers respond to changing environmental conditions.
Estuaries, places where rivers meet the sea, are among the most productive environments for supporting commercial fisheries around the world and are vital to the economy. This makes the protection and restoration of these complex ecosystems particularly important. NOS is working to identify the link between human activities and ecological disturbances in estuarine environments. For example, researchers at the National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science are using remote sensing and physical observation to provide coastal managers with the tools needed to protect public health, restore damaged habitats, and improve community interactions with surrounding ecosystems.
National Estuarine Research Reserves
The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 27 protected areas established for long-term research, education, and stewardship. The sites within the estuarine reserve system protect more than 1.3 million acres of land and water in 23 states and Puerto Rico. These living laboratories are places to conduct long-term research, and monitoring, education and also serve as reference sites for comparative studies. Reserve field staff work with local communities and regional groups on natural resource management issues, such as non-point source pollution, habitat restoration and invasive species.
National Marine Sanctuaries
The Office of National Marine Sanctuaries manages a national network of underwater marine protected areas. Designated by Congress, these special ocean and Great Lakes areas are designed to protect natural and cultural resources, while allowing people to use and enjoy our oceans and coasts. Within the nation's marine sanctuaries, NOS conducts research to help understand the status and trends of sanctuary resources on local, regional, and national scales; the nature, level, and trends of human uses within each sanctuary; and the nationally significant themes at the sanctuary level such as essential habitat identification, biodiversity, and conservation.
The National Estuarine Research Reserve System is a network of 27 protected areas established for long-term research, education, and stewardship. The sites within the estuarine reserve system protect more than 1.3 million acres of land and water in 23 states and Puerto Rico.