RIC Team Studying Effects of Global Warming, Pollution on Narragansett Bay

RIC senior Sara Moore documents conditions along Narragansett Bay

RIC senior Sara Moore documents conditions along Narragansett Bay


Rhode Island College senior Sara Moore grew up in the Edgewood neighborhood of Cranston, just a few blocks from Narragansett Bay. But she didn’t pay much attention to the coastline until recently, when she became involved in research projects studying the effects of pollutants and global warming on marine life there.

“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 plans to study medicine after graduating from RIC.

Moore is one of six RIC students working with Breea Govenar, an assistant professor of biology, who recently was awarded the second of two research grants through the Rhode Island Science Technology Advisory Council.

The first grant for $93,000 grant enables Govenar’s research team and another 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 there, which may be causing the marshes to release elevated levels of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide, Govenar said. This impacts the entire ecosystem of the bay, affecting water quality and marine life.

The most recent grant for $199,000 was awarded to Govenar along with researchers from URI and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It will enable them to work through April 2015 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.

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.

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.”