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Partial view of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

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Why Aquariums Are Obsessed With Climate Change

By Ari Phillips  

"Why Aquariums Are Obsessed With Climate Change"

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MONTEREY, CALIFORNIA — The Monterey Bay Aquarium, on California’s central coast, is just about the most soothing environment imaginable. Strolling through dimly lit caverns of muted colors while surrounded by slow-moving, serene aquatic life, it’s easy to fall under the impression that you too are just another fish in the sea. Until a school of students swarms by, hungry to see and learn more, or just hungry to get to the cafeteria. Or until one of the Aquarium docents brings up some of the many jarring challenges facing aquatic life in the 21st century, such as: marine pollution and debris, overfishing and unsustainable seafood, and climate change.

Turns out it’s not so easy just be a fish in the sea these days.

On a recent afternoon, Sarah-Mae Nelson, Climate Change Interpretive Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, sat on a bench observing an exhibit of giant kelp wafting in the water’s gentle current. Taking the plunge from the crisp open air into the mysterious environment below may feel like two different worlds, but when it comes to climate change and other environmental issues, they are intricately linked.

“This represents our open ocean, and that probably seems far away to you,” Nelson said, repeating what she tells visitors. “Well it’s as close as the tailpipe of a car, because anything we put in our air is going to eventually make it out here.”

Nelson became the Climate Change Interpreter at the Aquarium, the first to hold that title, in 2009, but has been refining her message on climate change for eighteen years since she first volunteered at the Aquarium. Now she is a trained marine biologist who splits her time between reading up on marine science and figuring out how best to inform the public of what she learns.

“I could walk to any exhibit in the building and tell you a story about climate change and what you can do to make a positive impact,” Nelson said.

In 2010 the Aquarium hosted one of the first aquarium exhibits in the country to focus explicitly on climate change. Called “Hot Pink Flamingos,” the exhibit featured four live animal galleries with creatures like flamingos and penguins. Interactive stations addressed the many impacts greenhouse gases have on the ocean, including rising sea levels, melting polar ice, ocean acidification, warming waters, and disappearing food sources.

For example, oceans are now about 30 percent more acidic than they were just a few hundred years ago. This is devastating coral reefs and other marine life that are adapted to living at a certain pH level. A recent State of the Ocean report found that levels of acidification are “unprecedented” and that ocean health is declining at faster rates than previously thought.

“These clams with the tall shells build their skeletons out of calcium carbonate,” Nelson said, pointing out a small exhibit. “As the oceans become more acidic, it takes more and more energy for them to build their skeletons. So we’re seeing smaller adult individuals and less active reproduction because they’re being forced to divert more energy to shell building. Some of these are food species that we eat, and that’s what really gets people to take notice.”

The Aquarium conducted a visitor survey on the “Hot Pink Flamingos” exhibit that found that of the guests that walked away with a message about climate change, 97 percent of those guests got their message from a staff member or volunteer rather than any of the other available educational materials. Nelson works with the Aquarium’s 600 volunteer docents and 500 staff members to help them learn how best to convey the impacts of climate change in an effective manner.

Sarah-Mae Nelson, Climate Change Interpretive Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, instructs a young visitor on the benefits of energy conservation.

Sarah-Mae Nelson, Climate Change Interpretive Specialist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, instructs a young visitor on the benefits of energy conservation.

CREDIT: Ari Phillips

“Our messages really look at how you can be the solution,” Nelson said. “People don’t respond to doom-and-gloom scenarios. When we communicate with someone we try and identify with their values, because if you can connect with their values that’s something they’ll be activated by. People overwhelmingly want to know what they can do as part of their community to make a difference. A lot of people have adopted individual actions already — recycling, composting, solar — now we are trying to get people involved at a community level.”

Nelson is a member of Climate Interpreter, an organization for people working to improve public understanding of climate change and encourage both individual and community sustainability.

Scott MacKenzie, Online Program Director for Climate Interpreter, told Climate Progress in an email that Climate Interpreter, which has around 500 members, works with educators at aquariums, zoos, museums, parks, and marine sanctuaries around the country.

The impetus for the website originally came out of a 2008 summit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to address a growing concern among aquariums around the country about the impact of climate change and acidification on the ocean.

“Aquariums and other informal science education institutions are in a unique role as they have a high level of public trust,” MacKenzie said. “Their front line staff are uniquely trained to interpret complex science topics in ways that are accessible to the majority of citizens.”

The Monterey Bay Aquarium isn’t alone in its commitment to educating the public about climate change. MacKenzie notes that the New England Aquarium is leading the National Science Foundation-funded National Network for Ocean and Climate Change Interpretation (NNOCI). NNOCI works to synthesize climate change research with social and cognitive research to create best interpretive practices and enhance visitor learning.

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is also part of this project, which includes initiatives like training high school students to serve as climate change interpreters.

Nelson calls the federal government a “slow-moving boulder” when it comes to action on climate change, whereas people can act quickly at the local level by becoming engaged citizens and simply considering the impact their actions have on aquatic life. From there momentum can build toward the state level, and maybe even get national traction.

“The most important impact I can have on people is to raise awareness,” Nelson said. “To show people how what they do every day impacts the atmosphere, which is inextricably linked to the oceans. If I can just tilt the frame a little and make people think, ‘Now this soda bottle has made me happy, what’s going to happen to it after I throw it away?’”

Monterey and Pacific Highway 1, the major thoroughfare through the area, are at sea level. According to Nelson, during the last big El Niño in 1997, to the north the highway was flooded and to the south it was blocked by a landslide, turning the peninsula into an island for one day.

“Things like that make people sit up and say, ‘What’s going to happen if this become the new normal?’” Nelson said.

Exhibits in the Aquarium illustrate that under the ocean’s surface, there’s already a new normal. Nelson pointed out several small exhibits where cold water species were getting pushed out and replaced by warmer water species that didn’t previously appear so far up the coast.

“When I started working here almost 20 years ago, this exhibit had five rocks covered with cobalt blue sponge,” Nelson said as a crowd gathered around a small tank to hear her explanation. “Cobalt blue sponge is a cold water sponge. Now, not a single rock has that sponge on it. So in my time here I’ve seen entire species’ assemblages change.”

Jellyfish are another invasive intruder that can proliferate under warming ocean temperatures. These “weeds of the sea” have become more common in the Monterey Bay over the last decade, according to Nelson.

“We always had sea nettle jellyfish here in the late summer,” Nelson said. “But in the last eight to ten years we’ve been having huge blooms of them periodically — so much so that they’ve actually collapsed our water intake filters.”

Standing in a room lined floor to ceiling with jellyfish tanks, it was easy to imagine these boneless, brainless creatures expanding out from the aquarium and far into the ocean, decimating native species in their path.

Jellyfish population explosions have been happening in coastal areas with more intensity, frequency, and duration, Lucas Brotz, a jellyfish expert at the University of British Columbia, recently told Quartz. These jellyfish blooms have not only caused the Monterey Aquarium operational troubles, but they’ve led to power plant outages and destroyed fisheries as well.

Leaving the jellyfish exhibit, Nelson stopped to talk to a young boy and his father and engage them in one of the Aquarium’s education stations where visitors guess how much energy different conservation measures save. Behind them the ocean loomed large through a panel window, all that separated us from the brisk day outside. On nearby rocks sea lions sunned themselves, while occasionally sea otters and dolphins poked out from the depths bellow.

“We use the sea otter a lot — people love those furry things,” Nelson said before heading back to work. “Clams, crabs, mussels, sea urchins — they’re all impacted by climate change. If there’s no more food for sea otters, then there won’t be any more sea otters either.”

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