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School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences

Scientists, like those who work out of the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences’ Marine Sciences Center, are constantly asking questions, as the desire grows to find links between correlation and causation. File photo

Researchers often desire more data to help make the distinction between correlation — it rained the last three Tuesdays — and causation — dumping nitrogen into the lake caused the growth of algae that robbed the lake of oxygen.

Scientists don’t like to get ahead of their information, preferring to take the painstaking steps of going that extra mile to control for as many mitigating or confounding variables as they can.

Researchers are often “reluctant to say with certainty that they are correct,” Larry Swanson, the interim dean of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University said.

This hesitation to indicate a certain conclusion can raise challenges for politicians, who would like to rely on scientific proof in developing plans for their constituents.

“Policy people want to create a law or regulation that is definitive and will have the desired outcome,” Swanson added.

File photo.

Since he began working in and around Long Island waters in 1960, he started his work collecting data at wetlands around New Haven, and has since studied hypoxia — the process through which oxygen levels are depleted in waterways.

Swanson urges a more extensive collection of data around Long Island.

“I believe we need to monitor the physical environment for changes not just for time series data, such as temperature, but in order to understand how ecological processes are being altered as a consequence of warming,” Swanson said.

Henry Bokuniewicz, a distinguished service professor of oceanography at Stony Brook, said there was a coastline monitoring program in place in 1995 after nor’easters and hurricanes in 1992, but that the effort petered out.

“This should be re-established if [New York State is] serious about coastal impact of shoreline changes,” he said.

Bokuniewicz also suggests measuring and recording waves that are close to shore, and water levels at the ocean coast and interior bays.

Stony Brook had an initiative for additional hires in a cluster for coastal engineering and management, but never completed the hires for budgetary reasons, Bokuniewicz said. “We could do much better with a new generation of scientists dedicated to the Long Island shore,” he said.

Scientists acknowledge that the study of climate change rarely involves establishing the kind of linear connection between action and reaction that turning up the thermostat in a house would provide.

Scientists distinguish between the weather — is it raining today, tomorrow or next week — and the climate — how does March in New York compare to March in North Carolina?

File photo

The climate, generally, remains consistent with a long-term outlook, even if Long Island might experience an unseasonably hot July, an unusually cool September and a heavier-than-normal snowfall in December.

With climate change, scientists collect as much data as they can to determine how the climate is shifting. That presents significant challenges: how do researchers pick data to feed into their models and the patterns to explore?

The broader trend in March could be that spring starts earlier, extending the growing season and creating opportunities for insects, plants or animals to affect the habitat. That could be slightly different this year, amid a cold snap that lasts more than a few days, or in the wake of an unexpected blizzard days before spring.

Indeed, until, and even after there is a scientific consensus, researchers debate long into the night about their interpretations, conclusions and simulation models.

More often than not, scientists crave more information to help them interpret evolving conditions.

“While we know in general why hypoxia will be bad, we can’t really predict it,” Swanson said. “When will it start? How long will it last? This is because we do not understand all the processes — things like the role of bacteria, phytoplankton and the blooming processes and water circulation.”

Science, as it turns out, is often more about collecting more information to ask better questions and developing more precise theories.

As researchers often point out, they can be wrong for the right reasons and right for the wrong ones, all of which, they hope, helps them understand more about the inevitable next set of questions. And, as scientists have offered, it’s a never-ending discussion, as the best answers lead to more questions.

Daniel Madigan with a yellowfin tuna. Photo by Maile Madigan

When Daniel Madigan is out working, he sometimes has no access to a computer, an iPhone or email and that’s just fine by him. Instead of searching for parking spaces, waiting for traffic lights and standing in line at a grocery store, he rocks back and forth on the ocean, seeking answers to questions deep below the surface.

An NSF postdoctoral fellow at the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, Madigan said the typical month he has spent over the last four years on the Pacific Ocean has given him a “sense that this is where I want to be. You see something you’ve never seen before, every time.”

He’s watched a killer whale feeding on tuna and has witnessed a school of yellowtail jack beating with their tails on a blue shark. Fin whales, killer whales and blue whales have dotted the landscape on his research trips.

Recently, Madigan completed work on a study of tuna. Knowing that the bluefin tuna has a metabolism that enables it to remain warmer in colder waters than the albacore and yellowfin tuna, Madigan explored whether the bluefin’s greater range gave it a more varied diet.

It turns out that the bluefin is more selective than its more temperature-limited tuna cousins. “We expected a broader habitat use would lead to more access to more food,” Madigan said. “That would be a straightforward benefit to the expansion they get” from being warm-bodied.

In a way, this finding also “makes sense,” he said, because fish that can “access more space can also pick the best thing to specialize in.” The bluefin can not only dive deeper but it can also travel further north to colder waters.

Bluefin tuna face considerable competition for sardines, a primary food source. Humans also consume this fish, and it is a staple of aquaculture-raised fish. Competition for sardines leads to questions about ecosystem-based management.

“When people form policies, they want to know things like, ‘If we limit the sardines in the ocean, how many metric tons of bluefin tuna will that save us?” Madigan asked. “If you can’t give those answers, it becomes more difficult to make concrete estimates.”

At this point, Madigan and other scientists are still in the recognition rather than the implementation stage, which means researchers are developing a greater awareness of the dynamic between the preferred foods for bluefin and measures such as the fish’s fertility and growth rates.

To be sure, Madigan said the population of these warmer-bodied tuna were unlikely to go into deep decline amid a drop in the number of sardines because the bluefin can feed on whatever is abundant to survive.

Still, understanding the life history of these fish with different habitat ranges can enable scientists and policy makers to recognize the complexity of interactions in the marine ecosystem, as well as any possible effect of fisheries policies.

Sardines, anchovy and herring are considered forage fish, which are used in aquaculture and are also popular with sharks, seabirds and marine mammals.

To track the fish in the study, Madigan and his colleagues collected all three types of tuna, put tags on them, sent them back in the ocean and retrieved and downloaded the information from the tags.

Heidi Dewar, a fisheries research biologist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in California who has worked with Madigan for six years, described her colleague as an “innovator.” She praised Madigan’s work with chemical tracers to understand large-scale migrations. Madigan has used the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan, to quantify the migration of bluefin tuna from west to east. His work can have a “long-term application,” she added.

Dewar agreed that working on and in the ocean provides opportunities to make new discoveries. “There is nothing like getting up close and personal with sharks, giant bluefin tuna, manta rays or opah,” Dewar described. “Unlocking the mysteries of their various adaptations either using electronic tags or by examining their physiology and morphology makes me feel like an early explorer mapping new territory.”

Madigan, who grew up in Garden City, lives in Port Jefferson with his wife Maile, who is a school administrator for a charter school in Riverhead.

Madigan said the broader goal for his research is that “these animals will still be here in 100, 200 years” and will be in “even greater numbers and surviving to even greater sizes.”

Geese hang out on the banks of Lake Ronkonkoma. Their waste pollutes the lake. Photo by Phil Corso

Long Island’s largest freshwater lake is not what it used to be, but North Shore lawmakers and educators are teaming up to bring it back.

Darcy Lonsdale and her students attending the Stony Brook University School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences arrived at the docks of the 243-acre Lake Ronkonkoma on Tuesday morning, equipped with various aquatic testing supplies to study marine life in the waters. Bill Pfeiffer, part of the Nesconset Fire Department’s water rescue team, helped guide the students as residents and government officials flanked the docks in talks of a Lake Ronkonkoma that once was.

Pfeiffer has been diving in and exploring around Lake Ronkonkoma for years, mapping out the bottom of the lake and chronicling the different kinds of debris on its floor, which he said includes anything from parts of old amusement park rides to pieces of docks.

Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso
Darcy Lonsdale speaks to students at Lake Ronkonkoma before they take samples. Photo by Phil Corso

“This lake needs a healthy amount of attention,” he said. “It has been appearing clearer, but [Superstorm] Sandy turned it into a brown mud hole again.”

The lake is home to various species, including largemouth bass and chain pickerel.

Members of the Lake Ronkonkoma Advisory Task Force hosted Pfeiffer and the students with hopes of gaining a deeper understanding of the waters and encouraging the four jurisdictions overseeing it — Brookhaven, Islip and Smithtown towns and Suffolk County — to form one united board to advocate for the lake.

Newly elected county Legislator Leslie Kennedy (R-Nesconset) said the goal was to compile data that will help secure grant money, channel stormwater runoff away from the lake and garner legislative support for the lake.

“Years ago, this was a resort. There were tons of beachfronts. There were cabins and cabanas,” she said. “This is something we all could be proud of. It could be a site where people recreate.”

Looking ahead, Kennedy said she hoped a united front could attract more foot traffic and fishing to the lake. She stood along the waters on Tuesday morning and said she was anxious to see the kinds of results the Stony Brook students help to find.

“I am dying to know what the pH levels are at the bottom of the lake,” she said.

Lawmakers and Lake Ronkonkoma advocates said one of the biggest hurdles in the way of cleaner waters rested in the population of geese gaggling around the area. As more geese make their way in and around the lake, the nitrogen in their waste pollutes the water. Volunteers with the Lake Ronkonkoma civic had to sweep the length of the dock Tuesday morning, as Pfeiffer prepared for the students, in order to rid it of geese excrement.

“To help the lake, relocating or terminating some of the geese might not be a bad idea,” Brookhaven Supervisor Ed Romaine (R) said.

The students could be funneling data to the different municipalities overseeing the lake by the end of the summer.

“You want a report that will spell out how to improve the clarity of this water,” Romaine said. “The students are welcome back anytime.”