Interview with Dr. Weisberg, Ocean Circulation and Ecology – Part I

ST. PETERSBURG, FL – “What is ecology?” asked Dr. Robert Weisberg, a Distinguished Professor at USF’s College of Marine Science. “… the study of life in its environment,” came an acceptable answer to this physical oceanographer who places great importance on interdisciplinary science. The key to answering many of the big questions about living organisms is to understand the forces at work in their everyday environment. For both the coastal and deep oceans, this begins with, what is the water doing?

The myriad of life forms and their interactions with each other are strongly influenced by large and small scale physical processes that can be found everywhere on earth. Colorful satellite imagery reveals where primary production, the base of the food chain, thrives in the ocean and where it does not. High productivity zones, whether along coastal margins, the equator or elsewhere, as well as the oceanic equivalent of deserts in the central portion of ocean basins, are all associated with physical processes such as ocean circulation that determine whether or not nutrients are coincident with light.

Ocean circulation physics also determine the interaction between the deep ocean and the continental shelf, which impacts the recruitment of gag grouper larvae, the instigation of red tides, and the spread of pollution through events such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 2017 releases of partially treated sewage by multiple municipalities in the Tampa Bay region.

Gag grouper spawn offshore and settle near shore. Juveniles arrive at their coastal nursery habitats via a near-bottom route (transported within the bottom Ekman layer). This transport is strongly influenced by the Loop Current, a large scale ocean current that flows clockwise through the Gulf of Mexico. Since the Loop Current varies from year to year, the recruitment of gag larvae is not always consistent.

Working alongside Dr. Weisberg, research associate Dr. Yonggang Liu utilized an extensive set of observations to demonstrate the importance of circulation and its implications for fisheries as well as for red tide occurrences. Interannual variations in Harmful Algal Blooms (fisheries ), like successful gag recruitments, result from variations in the Loop Current. Protracted Loop Current interactions near the Dry Tortugas set the entire west Florida continental shelf in a state of upwelling, which brings deeper ocean nutrients onto the shelf. With nutrient replete conditions, other faster growing phytoplankton such as diatoms can outcompete the red tide organism Karenia brevis, thus preventing a red tide.

To study aquatic organisms, it is equally as important to know the water properties as it is to know the organism. The movement of water, its temperature, as well as salinity and nutrients determined through interactions of the ocean, land and atmosphere all help to explain the location of everything from fish to the plankton that they feed on.

Specifically, the ocean circulation determines the position of the thermocline, the region where temperature changes rapidly with depth. Nutrients also change rapidly over a similar depth range as temperature. Most organisms in the ocean require a certain amount of light, warmth, and nutrients. And so, as Dr. Weisberg stated, “The ecology of the earth actually begins with the ocean circulation. This is what unites nutrients with light, fueling primary productivity and, after that, all higher trophic level interactions.”

Stay tuned for Part II of this interview, “A critique of storm preparedness and renewable energy.”

Written By: Sean Beckwith

Last modified on Wednesday, 16 May 2018 13:18

The lesser of two evils: comparing the impact of catastrophic events on coral reefs of the US Virgin Islands


Speakers/Affiliations: Marilyn Brandt, University of Virgin Islands

Seminar Title: The lesser of two evils: comparing the impact of catastrophic events on coral reefs of the US Virgin Islands

When: May 11, 2018 3:30pm EST

Where: MSL Conference Room (134)

Host: Cara Cooper

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Last modified on Tuesday, 08 May 2018 16:05

Spring 2018 OCG Reunion and Clam Bayou Cleanup

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - Reunite with former campers, counselors, and science mentors while helping to beautify and preserve "The Clam" with volunteers from Duke Energy. Make sure you dress comfortably, bring sunscreen and come prepared to have some fun while volunteering for a worthy cause.

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Last modified on Thursday, 26 April 2018 21:18

Montgomery Blair High School Cruises to Victory in 21st Annual National Ocean Sciences Bowl | NOSB

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - The 2018 Spoonbill Regional champion team, students from Eastside High School in  Gainesville Florida placed 10th overall in the National Ocean Sciences Bowl competition. The NOSB Finals took place April 19-22, 2018 in Boulder Colorado at UC Boulder and CIRES.

Our Spoonbill team members  enjoyed two environmental-focused service field trips. Four team members, Emily, Ari, Ike and Liliana helped to plant 250 new trees in the Boulder community. Team member, Alex and RC's Lodge and Greely helped to clear a hiking trail in the Rocky Mountains National Park. It was a great day of fieldtrips...and we even had snow fall at the end of the day's work!
On Saturday our home team from Eastside High competed well and after the Round Robin rounds was vying with five other teams for 3rd place.  At the end a long day of competition Eastside did not  advance to the Sunday playoffs between the top 6 ranked teams.
Congratulations to our regional champions Liliana, Alex, Ike, Emily, Ari and their dedicated coaches, Anne West-Valle and Arnoldo Valle for competing well and representing Florida's Spoonbill Bowl.

If you are interested in competing in the NOSB, be sure to register your high school team for the 2019 Spoonbill competition taking place next February. Email questions to: or

Last modified on Thursday, 26 April 2018 21:02

Professor Emeritus Al Hine strives for Marine Science activism at the community level

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - "Back away from the barrier islands," Dr. Albert Hine urged county commissioners in the past here in the Tampa Bay region. 

Also known as ‘Retreat from the Beach’, scientists have repeatedly stated that extensive permanent structures should not exist on barrier islands because they are, on long time scales, temporary bodies of land that change shape and even disappear or migrate due to fluctuations in sea level, currents, and wave patterns.  Even more pressing, category 5 hurricanes are incredibly destructive and costly to areas where extensive infrastructure exists on the beach. 

Catastrophic events like hurricanes were Al Hine’s focus throughout most of his career when speaking publicly before elected officials and policy makers concerning the beach issue.  Ironically, though, it has been Sea Level Rise (SLR) that has recently captured the attention of most decision makers.  A much more gradual issue than hurricanes, SLR seems to be viewed as a more certain one.  Al Hine and colleagues have written an engaging and very informative book on this issue called Sea Level Rise In Florida: Science, Impacts, And Options.  It is, as the title suggests, recommended reading for every Floridian.

Regardless of which natural deterrent draws the most attention, Al Hine would be glad to see any method successfully prevent people from further building out the beaches.  Taxpayer burdens from storms could be reduced, and he feels that barrier islands should be developed mostly as public recreational spaces with minimal infrastructure beyond that needed to enjoy a day-trip to the beach.  Beachfront living and vacationing continues to be extremely popular and lucrative, so turning high-rise properties into meadows of sea oats and palm trees is decidedly a long-term goal.  Any major storm event to make landfall on the Tampa Bay area, though, will likely begin to change the minds of developers and residents alike.   Drawing on his 40 year career, Al offers this life lesson as admonition, "I’ve moved away from telling people what they should do and instead to explaining the science to inform decision making." 

Al Hine began at the College of Marine Science in 1979 when the Florida legislature allocated 8 new faculty positions for what was then the Department of Marine Science within USF’s College of Natural Sciences.  Outside disciplines are desirable in marine science because they bring ingenuity to the field.  Al joined as a geologist and began teaching classes in geological oceanography, eventually focusing on marine sediments, continental shelf processes, and seafloor features like reefs and other hard bottom structures where life in the ocean congregates.  Al was awarded the national Shepard Medal for sustained excellence in marine geology in 2009.  Dr. Francis P. Shepard is considered the father of modern marine geology.  Recently, Al published a book, Geologic History of Florida: Major Events that Formed the Sunshine State, which explains the geological processes in a way that is applicable to college students and to intriguing minds of all ages. 

Another frequent subject of Al’s research career was related to carbonate rocks and the principles that allow scientists and engineers to discover oil reserves within them.  Thinking often about the subject of oil and gas exploration, Al put pen to paper and recently published a column in the Tampa Bay Times entitled, "In the long term, Florida offshore oil drilling is simply irrelevant."

Present onshore oil wells in Florida are tiny, accounting for just 0.05% of US crude oil production.  Further offshore, as Al writes, there may be something worth exploring but there is simply no guarantee.  The oil reserves in question are an unknown, and the only thing that we know for certain is that it would take an enormous effort to extract that oil, he suggests.  According to Al, the debate over Florida offshore drilling is irrelevant because of the high cost of extraction, the cost of environmental damage that will likely result, and because other viable energy sources will someday replace oil and gas.  In the article, Al also recognizes that the energy companies’ are the ones best poised to lead the transition to renewables, and indeed, they have already begun.

"Explaining science to the public is kind of my mission now," stated Al Hine.  He admits that he still wrestles with how much of the science to explain.  How much is too much before you lose your audience?  And, how much is enough to get the point across without sounding like you’ve just made something up?  The key, he suggests, is to make it interesting and to explain science in such a way that your listener doesn’t hear ideologies. 

Written By: Sean Beckwith

Last modified on Friday, 20 April 2018 13:00

National Academies Gulf Research Program Awards Over $340,000 to Assist Scientific Research Impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - The National Academies' Gulf Research Program is awarding USFCMS Professor Robert Weisberg $47K to repair crucial meteorological & oceanographic monitoring research moorings damaged during Hurricane Irma. USF is one of 11 institutions receiving recovery support.

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Last modified on Friday, 20 April 2018 12:39

USF students gain valuable experience on floating lab

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - It’s been nearly a year since University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft christened the multi-million-dollar research vessel, the WT Hogarth. Since then, students and scientists have climbed aboard this floating lab in St. Petersburg, FL.

Ryan Venturelli receives a 2018 GSA Graduate Student Research Grant

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - Ryan Venturelli, a Ph.D. student working with Dr. Brad Rosenheim, will receive a 2018 Graduate Student Research Grant from the Geological Society of America for her research project entitled, “Deconvolving Holocene Hydrologic Variability Along the Florida Keys Reef Tract.”

This research involves the application of coral clumped isotopes to understand changes in temperature, seawater isotopic composition, and salinity along the Florida Keys Reef Tract throughout the last 11,000 years. This information, along with a recently published radiocarbon record from the same corals, will be used to gain an improved understanding of Holocene hydrologic/oceanographic variability in the Straits of Florida, a region that provides an important link between the tropical and high-latitude Atlantic Ocean.

The role of colloidal iron species in the marine environment


Speakers/Affiliations: Jess Fitzsimmons, Texas A&M University

Seminar TitleThe role of colloidal iron species in the marine environment

When: Apr. 20, 2018 3:30pm EST

Where: MSL Conference Room (134)

Host: Timothy Conway

Jessica Fitzsimmons Abstract Title

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Last modified on Monday, 16 April 2018 23:38

Theresa King wins poster presentation at the USF Graduate Student Symposium

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - A student of geological oceanography at the College of Marine Science, Theresa King, was chosen to represent USF at the 5th Annual Statewide Graduate Student Research Symposium in Tallahassee on April 20, 2018 for her winning poster entitled “Antarctica in Hot Water:  Employing a Suite of Archives and Techniques to Understand the Melting Continent.” 

One of two winners in the category for Natural and Physical Sciences at the USF Graduate Student Symposium, Theresa’s poster and presentation focused on the importance of understanding past interactions of warm waters and Antarctic ice shelves in terms of changes in sea level.  To meet the challenge of presenting among a broad group of contestants to judges of various disciplines, she decided to include a brief background of where she works and why her research is important. Also, as it is difficult for people living in Florida to sense a connection with changing conditions in Antarctica, she discussed some of the impacts of sea-level rise on low-lying communities like the Tampa Bay area.  Making sure to get her point across, Theresa refrained from getting bogged down in specific methods and, instead, explained her results and future work in the context of achieving a better understanding of Antarctic contributions to sea level. 

Theresa “really enjoyed being able to talk with other grad students about their research, and it was really interesting to learn about work outside of [the] marine science ‘bubble.’"  Beyond the bubble, presentations of the attendees ranged from virtually recreating Medieval Spain to the medicinal properties of deep sea corals.

Written By: Sean Beckwith