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RIC Professor Gets Grant To Study Warming in Narragansett Bay

Wednesday, July 31, 2013


RIC Senior Sara Moore documents some of her findings along the shore of Narragansett Bay.

A Rhode Island College biology professor has been awarded a grant to study the effects of pollutants and global warming on the ecosystem of Narragansett Bay. This is the second of two research grants Breea Govenar, an assistant professor of biology, has received in the past year from the Rhode Island Science Technology Advisory Council. The first grant for $93,000 enables Govenar’s team of researchers, along with a team from the University of Rhode Island, to study greenhouse gas emissions from coastal marshes impacted by “nitrogen loading” in the Bay.

Wastewater has increased nitrogen levels in waters in the Bay, which may be causing the marshes to release elevated levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, Govenar said. This impacts the entire ecosystem there, affecting water quality and marine life.

Evaluating circumstances

The most recent grant for $199,000 was awarded to Govenar, in collaboration with researchers from URI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It will enable them to study the effects of ocean acidification on the bay’s ecosystem, in particular the plankton that serve as the base of the ocean’s food chain.

This is a two-part study that includes examining the interaction of different plankton at different levels of acidity that results from the increasing levels of carbon dioxide absorbed into the bay. Govenar’s team will then help to develop a model to investigate how the environmental conditions and biological interactions affect the food web at larger scales.

Changes in the temperatures and pH levels of the water affect the entire ecosystem, including the production of calcium carbonate that mussels, quahogs and other shellfish need to build their skeletons and shells, Govenar explained. So global environmental changes ultimately can impact Rhode Island’s economy by affecting the water quality and the shell fishing industry.

A valuable experience

Govenar, a marine ecologist, joined RIC’s biology department in 2010. “My goal is to provide students with diverse opportunities to take an active role in research of ocean science," she said.

Her team currently includes two students pursuing master’s degrees and four undergraduates. “Although not of all of them are going to pursue ocean science as a career, each of them will take from this experience something they can use in the future,” Govenar said.

Sara Moore, a RIC senior who is on Governar’s research team, said she previously never paid much attention to the coastline, even though she grew up in the Edgewood neighborhood of Cranston, just a few blocks from Narragansett Bay.

“Now when I go to the Bay, I notice a lot more things. I’m looking at things in a different way,” said Moore, 21, a biology major who hopes to study medicine after she graduates.

Janis Hall, 24, of Burrillville, who is pursuing her master’s degree in biology, said she’s excited to be part of the team. “It’s really opened my eyes as to what’s going on in this state–how we’ve been impacting our ecosystems and what we’re doing about it….It impacts all of us.”


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