By Meghan Savona, First Flight High School Intern
With the possibility of harnessing energy from our oceans becoming an increasingly feasible idea, it’s important to look at how alternative energy development may affect other marine life and impact open ocean ecosystems. The North Carolina Renewable Ocean Energy Program (NCROEP) has identified the Gulf Stream as an important potential energy resource for the state of North Carolina and is researching ideal locations for energy development. In addition, NCROEP researchers are studying the potential impacts of energy development on offshore pelagic ecosystems.
In North Carolina, the Gulf Stream is being studied off the coast of Cape Hatteras with the goal of acquiring baseline information about its ecology and protected species and habitats. These factors will provide insight into synergies and negative impacts that could possibly arise when alternative energy is harnessed. Previous research done by NCROEP has identified species native to coastal North Carolina that could possibly be at risk with negatively interacting with marine hydrokinetic (MHK) energy installations.
Dr. Lindsay Dubbs with UNC CSI is researching how certain marine organisms, including phytoplankton and two species of Sargassum, could be affected by MHK energy installations. Serving as the basis of the pelagic food web in the Gulf Stream, phytoplankton and Sargassum are vital parts of a healthy pelagic ecosystem. Beyond providing habitat for many types of marine life, Sargassum and its associated community also provide nutrients capable of increasing planktonic productivity in the Gulf Stream.
“The overall goal of the project is to harness energy from the Gulf Stream. We’re looking at the ecology, including what lives there and important processes and we’re focusing on the Sargassum community,” Dr. Dubbs explained. “If they were to put in these energy installations, we’re exploring how they would affect communities that live there.”
Expanding upon research previously conducted in other parts of the Gulf Stream, Dr. Dubbs will collaborate with a team of experts to assess the ecology and environment specifically of the Gulf Stream off the coast of Cape Hatteras. Experiments are being conducted with Sargassum and Gulf Stream water to determine changes in phytoplankton and Sargassum productivity and many other factors that may be influenced by the presence of possible Gulf Stream turbines.
Changes in productivity and nutrient cycling with key producers such as Sargassum and phytoplankton have implications for higher trophic levels of the ocean while shifts in community composition to toxin-producing phytoplankton have the potential to negatively impact human health. By continuing to research how alternative energy resources can influence the dynamics of primary producers, the research will provide information on how alternative energy in the Gulf Stream may impact the inhabitants and ecosystems of these open ocean ecosystems.
“We’re focused on what’s out there and what harnessing energy from the Gulf Stream might affect,” Dr. Dubbs said.