Understanding the relationships between marine organisms and climate change

Anyone that has seen the iconic photo of the Earth taken from space knows that there is far more blue than green; in fact, roughly 70% of Earth is covered by water, with the oceans composing an overwhelming majority. Roughly 80% of this water is deep water, totaling about one half of the entire earth. Dr. Lisa Levin's research is providing windows into nature's ability to adapt to multiple stressors associated with climate change (hypoxia, ocean acidification, warming). She is studying the relationships between marine organisms and environmental change to better understand how populations will cope to oceanic changes in deep water. Much of the deep ocean remains largely unknown, and with the supply of metals and rare earth elements running dangerously low on land, many believe the deep ocean is the next frontier for mineral resource acquisition. Still, with little information about this environment, we run the risk of exploiting it before we truly discover it. Dr. Levin is exploring new settings and searching for ways of maintaining the integrity and functions of the deep half of the planet through research and stewardship activities.

As a marine ecologist, Dr. Levin, Section Head of Biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, both housed at the University of California, San Diego, examines the relationship between the environment and animal communities on the seafloor at depths ranging from intertidal to deep sea. She works largely at the population community and ecosystem level to identify the ways marine communities respond to changes in the oceanic environment. She is studying levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the ocean, and emissions of methane from deep sea thermal vents and methane seeps on the seafloor to understand how marine organisms respond to chemical changes. There is concrete scientific evidence that the ocean is warming and undergoing chemical changes, such as hypoxia (declining oxygen levels) and ocean acidification (declining pH). Dr. Levin is now concerned with discovering how changes in the oceanic environment are related, from levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to processes that occur on the seafloor.

For current research project, Dr. Levin studies:

  1. Ecosystem and organismal adaptation to naturally occurring hypoxia (low oxygen) in the deep ocean and consequences of future oxygen loss associated with climate change.

    a. The outer shelf ecosystem off the coast of Southern California has lost 20-30% of its oxygen concentration within the last 25 years, yet they don’t fully understand the cause or consequences. In oxygen minimum zones, there is also high carbon dioxide (CO2) and so they provide superb natural laboratories for the study of ecological and evolutionary response (in fish and invertebrates from sea urchins to cephalopods) to changing oceanic conditions. Dr. Levin is leading oceanographic cruises, studying natural gradients of oxygen and CO2 along continental margins. The conditions in these regions are rapidly changing, allowing her and her students to compare data from both past and present and observe changes in animal distributions and properties. Dr. Levin is also manipulating oxygen and CO2 levels in water within her lab, observing the resulting changes in organisms. She is experimenting with using geochemical markers to show what conditions an organism has been exposed to. This involves working to identify trace elements, like uranium and boron, in animal structures (bones and shells) sampled from the ocean to evaluate their past exposure to low oxygen and/or high CO2.

  2. Ecology of chemosynthetic ecosystems - particularly methane seeps - including their ecosystem functions and services.

    a. Massive carbonate rocks formed around methane seeps cover our continental margins, the zone of ocean floor that separates the thin oceanic crust from the thick continental shelf. They are naturally occurring, and we are just now learning that those ecosystems play a key role in capturing carbon from the methane released from the sea floor. Dr. Levin is asking why they are there, what their function is in the entire ocean ecosystem, and how they are affecting the ocean and are in turn affected by changing ocean conditions. Methane seeps typically occur in deep water where human activity (drilling for oil or gas and trolling for fish) is greatest. A warming ocean is causing more methane to be released while we are racing to discover the effects.

  3. In response to growing industrialization of the deep sea, Dr. Levin has developed and leads a multidisciplinary program, the Deep-Ocean Stewardship Initiative, which attempts to study and provide guidance on environmental management of the deep ocean.

    a. This project is a conservation initiative working to bring together experts from different disciplines (biologists, economists, policy and lawmakers, and representatives of industry) to guide and discuss regulations governing the management of human activities as it relates to ocean health. Discussions of this initiative include impact assessment, establishing marine protected areas in the deep sea, valuations of ecosystem services, and the best practices for mining, drilling, and energy extraction. The deep sea is the next frontier for resource extraction, and it is being claimed and leased at an exponential rate, without public awareness. This initiative is generating conversation about what is going on, questioning what it means to have a significant deep sea impact.

  4. Natural treatment systems (biofilters) as a low energy solution to stormwater cleanup and infiltration.

    a. Water is one of the scarcest commodities in Southern California, yet they send most of it, unused or used once, out to the ocean, while we could use natural ecological processes to capture and infiltrate that water. When it rains, clean water runs through storm drains into the ocean, where it is “wasted.” Dr. Levin’s work focuses on the role of soil invertebrates in these systems for cleaning water and sending it back to the groundwater system, with research focused in Australia and Southern California where water is in short supply. These are biofilters, man-made systems that use plants, sediment, or soil, and animals to treat stormwater runoff. They utilize natural processes and are beginning to be implemented on street corners and in parking lots in busy industrialized areas, yet little is known about how they actually work, with very little known about the roles of animals. Current systems use whichever plants the designers think will survive; Dr. Levin is interested in finding the most effective combinations of plants and animals in this climate for cleaning water and removing contaminants.


When Dr. Levin was 16 years old, she was given the opportunity to participate in an NSF-funded program designed to expose high school students to math, oceanography, and marine biology at Humboldt State College. The program allowed high schoolers to apply for different experiences in different places around the country, and Dr. Levin decided to explore her existent interests in the ocean. This experience confirmed to her that the ocean is an infinite well of discovery and that she could spend an entire career uncovering the mysteries of the ocean.

In addition to Dr. Levin's enjoyment of the NSF program, mentors she encountered throughout her schooling were instrumental in guiding her career towards one in academia. She learned from a wonderful biology teacher in high school, who sparked her general interest in the field, and from marine mentors in college, who inspired her to explore oceanic questions and pursue a doctorate degree. Dr. Levin's first year of graduate school coincided with the discovery of deep-sea hydrothermal vents. Despite an initial interest in and dissertation on shallow water, Dr. Levin found her interests shifting toward the deep sea, initially as an interesting area for research and now as a crucial area for conservation.

Upon receiving her Ph.D., it was a natural move to pursue a career as a researcher and professor. After a short stint at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution she joined the faculty of North Carolina State University for nine years, then moved  mid-career to UCSD where she has been for 23 years. Now, as director of her own lab, she is translating science into policy, and is educating her students to prepare them not just for positions in oceanography and academia, but also positions in government and industry.

Dr. Levin spends her spare time reading fictional novels and watching movies, particularly dramas. She spends as much time as she can with her family; her husband is also a professor at Scripps, she has a son and daughter who work at YouTube and NIH, respectively, and a black lab named Inka, named after India Ink. An added benefit of the nature of her research is that Dr. Levin is able to visit a number of countries, and she has enjoyed the international travel opportunities allotted to her.


American Geophysical Union Fellow, 2013

Sverdrup Lecture, Am. Geophys. Union (Bowie Medal Lecture Series), 2012

Anton Brun Memorial Lecture, Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, Paris, 2011

Pogo Visiting Professorship (Namibia, Angola, S. Africa), 2010

Riley Presenter, Dalhousie University, 2007