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Conversations with a tide pool
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Monterey Memory | Through a fissure

Conversations with a tide pool

The smallest creatures can have the most important voices, for they are the first to know when the world is changing at a dangerous pace.

By Nancy Bartosek
Photography by Scott Braley

This is the story of a tide pool. Not a particularly unusual tide pool, but one much like the others snuggled against the rocky coast of California. Filled with seaweed and snails and starfish, it is home to waving anemone, skittish hermit crabs and colonies of mussels.

What makes this tide pool special involves a little serendipity, a lot of scrutiny and the sweat and determination of three young marine biology students, beginning with one named Willis Hewatt.

It is important because it is about us, too. All of us. For the tiny creatures in this very small section of ocean have an urgent message for the world -- what you are doing in a big way is disrupting us in a small but significant way.

Which means that our choices are rapidly changing the pattern and flow of nature that has existed for millennia. And ultimately, this will disrupt and challenge all of our lives.

Cabrillo Point juts like a stubborn chin into the Pacific Ocean at the south end of Monterey Bay on the central California coast. In the late-1800s a colony of Chinese immigrants hung shanties over the water and harvested the abundant treasures of the bay. But their success gave rise to jealousy, and a suspicious fire destroyed their settlement and drove them off the point in 1906.

The vacant land was donated that year to Stanford University, and in 1917 a small marine studies outpost the university operated in the area was moved to the point.

Founded in 1892, Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station was the first marine laboratory on the American Pacific coast, and the third in the nation. Small gr-oups of students spent part of their summer on the small rocky point studying the biology and zoology of the ocean and its environs. Among them was one John Steinbeck, who attended classes there from 1919 to 1925. He later chronicled life in the area in Cannery Row and other novels, but though Steinbeck is an interesting side note, this story begins with a curious young doctoral student.

Willis Hewatt landed at Hopkins Marine Station in 1930, newly married and freshly graduated from TCU with a bachelor's degree and master's degree in biology. No one still alive knows what prompted Hewatt to head to the coast with wife Elizabeth the day after their wedding. Nor why he chose Hopkins.

What we do know is that he spent the next two years slopping about in the rocky waters at Cabrillo Point, meticulously recording the ebb and flow of life in the tidal zone. When he completed his study, Elizabeth carefully typed his findings in triplicate on crisp vellum paper. Then Hewatt taped in some photographs and charts and presented a bound copy to a doctoral review board, which stamped its approval and awarded the young scientist a PhD.

The book was shelved in the Stanford University library where it sat undisturbed, and mostly forgotten, for many years.

It was the week before Easter this spring when Joan Hewatt Swaim '56, her daughter Susan and grandson Asher headed for Monterey Bay. Anticipation ran high. Joan had not been to the area since she was a young girl, maybe 3 or 4 years old.

Tucked safely into a carry-on was a copy of her father's dissertation and an old family album. She knew the two men she was meeting at Hopkins would be interested.

That same week Chuck Baxter, professor emeritus at Stanford, entered a secured vault in the Stanford library and removed another copy of the dissertation from a locked cabinet. Baxter, one of the founders and creators of the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium, was one of the few who could take that book from the library.

Friday at 10 a.m., Joan stood peering through the gate at Hopkins. Baxter emerged from a building, strode purposefully toward her and with gusto stuck his hand through the slats for a hearty greeting and handshake -- even before opening the gate to let the visitors in.

For both, this was a momentous occasion. Baxter felt a strong connection to Willis Hewatt, even though the two men had never met. Joan felt instantly that she had connected with a man "just like daddy."

When Willis Hewatt began his ecological evaluation, the waters off Hopkins had been protected from human exploitation for more than 25 years, giving the ambitious young researcher a relatively undisturbed environment to study.

Ecology was a fairly new science then, and focusing on the varieties and relationships between organisms and their environment was considered cutting-edge, and possibly a bit odd. And while Hewatt knew that no one else had done this sort of work in the area, he surely didn't know his study would become an invaluable benchmark 70 years later.

Hewatt focused on the invertebrates living in a one-yard by 108-yard section, or transect, that ran from the shore outward. He marked off the area by driving four brass bolts into granite rocks.

During low tide the lanky young man would pull on some rubber boots, drag a homemade square-yard frame down to the rocks and measure out to the spot he was to study that day. Then squatting in the swirling surf for hours, he would identify, then tally every living invertebrate inside the frame. With meticulous hand and discerning eye, he carefully documented seasonal migrations, food and shelter relationships, water temperature and salinity, the height and depth of the tides and the amount of time areas were out of the water. He took compass readings and even drew detailed maps of the rocks.

It took him two years.

Look forward 70 years. Rafe Sagarin, a Stanford researcher and protege of Baxter's, plucks a bright orange starfish from the Hopkins tidal zone and holds it over his shoulder. Thirteen-month-old Ella, from her backpack perch, reaches out and gently fingers the cool, firm creature. Like Hewatt did with Joan and her sister, Sagarin includes his daughter in his work. And this chilly March morning Sagarin is playing host to yet another photographer and reporter down in the tide pool by Hewatt's transect.

Sagarin still calls it Hewatt's transect, even though he could claim it as his own. From 1991 until 1993, Sagarin and fellow undergraduate student Sarah Gilmore worked under Baxter's tutelage as they followed Hewatt's careful documentation and repeated the study step by step.

They were astonished by what the tide pool told them. So were others. In the intervening years PBS, the BBC, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times and others highlighted the research in documentaries and news stories. In 1998 the study drew the attention of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, who spent nearly an hour with Sagarin and others in the tidal zone trying to understand what those small creatures are revealing about global warming.

Supulorbis squamigerus is a small tube snail that doesn't look or act much like you'd think a snail should. This tubular invertebrate attaches itself to rocks in colonies and sends mucus strands out the open end to collect food that swishes by in the water.

The odd-looking creature is abundant 300 miles south near Los Angeles, but when Hewatt was counting life forms near Monterey, not one was recorded.

Today, this species is so prolific at Hopkins that you can hardly walk in parts of the tidal zone without stepping on a cluster.

Baxter began noting such migrations in the 1980s. Discussions with fellow Hopkins researchers brought Hewatt's study to the forefront, and for nearly a decade, Baxter tried in vain to interest students in replicating the study. During his final year of teaching, Gilmore and Sagarin, who Baxter touts as two of the brightest students to pass through his classroom, took the bait.

In 1995, Science magazine published the findings: More than 58,000 individuals from 105 invertebrate groups had been identified. Of the 45 species chosen for further analysis, 32 exhibited statistically significant changes in abundance, which indicated widespread shifts in population.

After eliminating other possible reasons for the change, the report concluded that the shift was due to the more than two-degree average increase in air and water temperature between 1930 and 1990. In short, record-breaking climate change had significantly impacted life in the tidal zones.

A poster in Sagarin's office proclaims: Global Warming: Early warning signs. Dotted with nearly 100 points of evidence, including the Monterey Bay study, the map is colorful but ominous -- malarial outbreaks in Kenya, wildfires in Russia and Indonesia, ice shelf collapse in Antarctica, devastating flooding, snowstorms and heat waves in North America.

"People might not care if a starfish shifts its range, but people certainly care if a mosquito that carries encephalitis or malaria is shifting its range," Sagarin points out. "Especially if it's shifting its range to higher altitudes and ranges where, for years, cities in Africa, South America and Mexico have existed in part because they haven't had infestations of mosquitoes."

Scientists began to notice significant changes in our ecosystems in the 1970s, though the marked warming of our atmosphere and planet had been observed much earlier. By the 1980s, serious study on the effects of this climate change began in earnest around the world.

In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed to assess the growing data from around the globe. Its third report, released in 2001, states unequivocally that:

- The climate is rapidly warming.
- It is warming faster than expected.
- The warming is definitely ascribable to human influence.

Although local and global temperatures have experienced dramatic changes over the past 10,000 years, for as long as man has populated Earth there's generally been a happy balance of gases in our atmosphere that allows our planet to maintain a pleasant 60-degree Fahrenheit average temperature. Energy from the sun warms the planet's surface, which returns energy back into the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases (water vapor, carbon dioxide and others) trap some of that energy and retain the heat.

But in the past 120 years, which corresponds to the beginning of the Industrial Age, the atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have increased nearly 30 percent, methane concentrations have more than doubled, and nitrous oxide concentrations have risen by about 15 percent, resulting in a rapid and marked increase in global temperature.

There's no guesswork about why -- burning fossil fuels to power our cars, trucks, homes and businesses releases incredible amounts of these greenhouse gases. Deforestation adds to the dilemma since trees and plants help balance the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

Sagarin begins a fellowship in Washington, D.C., this fall. He's not excited about being so far from the sea, but he is excited about helping lawmakers try to change behaviors that will affect the future.

"The Florida delegation should be a lot more interested in this than they seem to be because they are going to be inundated up to Miami, according to most sea-level rise predictions," he noted.

If nothing changes, the current trajectory indicates that by 2050 carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will double. According to sea-level rise predictions based on rise in the past, much of Miami will be under water by then.

"And it's not just what will be under water," Sagarin added, "but the problems from the waves of increasingly damaging tropical storms that are expected."

One group paying attention is the insurance industry. "They are already losing more money than they've ever seen in terms of storm damage," Sagarin said. "And they are hiring people who do these long-range predictions of climate change. They are very, very concerned about this."

We all should be, he added.

"We need the support of new laws and changes in laws. (In March) the Senate debated about whether to encourage automobile manufacturers to get better gas mileage, and they failed to pass that because you have key legislators who live in Michigan who just said, 'No, you can't have safe cars or the cars we want,' which is an absolute lie.

"The biggest problem we have is translating what we know in science into how policy gets formulated. We can predict clearly what will happen if nothing changes, but because we can't prove it will happen, they choose to do nothing."

The intertidal area at Hopkins is actually more diverse now than when Hewatt investigated it. So one can't claim complete gloom and doom just because there have been drastic migrations of the species in the area. And some believe that the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is helping plants be more plentiful and healthier.

But when all the stories from around the world are knit together, the conversations of the small creatures of the tide pools become significant. They are like the canary. "No one cares about the canary in the mines," Baxter said. "But the canary is very important because it tells you what is going on long before you will realize the danger."

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