World Surf League PURE - Center for Climate and Life

Oceans and climate are changing more quickly than our ability to keep pace. WSL PURE accelerates the urgent science needed to understand how these changes will alter the things people care about most—access to food, water, shelter, and energy.

In April 2016, the World Surf League launched its philanthropic initiative WSL PURE (Progressive Understanding and Respect for the Environment), dedicated to supporting ocean health through research, education and advocacy. Working in conjunction with Columbia University’s Center for Climate and Life, WSL PURE supports fundamental research on ocean acidification, ocean circulation and climate, ocean health and ecosystems, and global sea level rise and coral reef systems. The goals of WSL PURE are to advance our understanding of the oceans, to develop educational curricula on ocean science and sustainability, and to use these to build global advocacy for the oceans.


WSL PURE empowers Center for Climate and Life researchers to pursue fundamental questions about the impacts of climate change on ocean health and ecosystems. WSL PURE enables our scientists to take the first step toward following their creative instincts and to pursue groundbreaking research—a model that has the potential to accelerate scientific advances and our understanding of ocean health.

The following five WSL PURE-funded research projects are currently underway.

Oceans and Climate
Richard Seager and Ryan Abernathy will discover how the ocean drives weather and climate extremes. We know that previously unnoticed patterns of ocean surface temperature anomalies, particularly in the tropics, may simultaneously drive both weather and climate extremes around the globe. These extreme events include the California drought, exceptional cold and snow in northeastern North America, and intense flooding in northwestern Europe and Asia.

The causes of these ocean temperature anomalies, which are distinct from those associated with El Niño and La Niña events, are unknown. Seager and Abernathy use a wealth of ocean data and simulations to determine what triggers these ocean heat anomalies and how they cause changes to ocean currents, vertical mixing, and air-sea heat fluxes. They want to know how these so effectively drive the extreme-generating atmospheric circulation anomalies. They are also investigating whether the origins of these anomalies are natural, anthropogenic, or a mixture of both, in order to find out how the probability of such extremes is changing.

Carbon Uptake and Ocean Acidification
DivingModern ecosystem observations and laboratory experiments with living organisms send a clear signal that marine life, and in particular calcifying organisms such as corals and shellfish, are threatened by global warming and ocean acidification. Quantifying the extent of warming and acidification associated with past climate shifts in Earth’s history—and studying the response of marine organisms to these stressors—will improve our predictions of the consequences of future ecosystem changes.

This project, led by Bärbel Hönisch and Peter deMenocal, involves the examination of the fossil remains of calcifying plankton in ocean sediments to help decipher the shellmakers’ sensitivity to environmental changes. Using ocean sediments from the tropics to the poles, this study focuses on the end of the last ice age, when carbon dioxide escaped from the deep ocean, acidified surface sea water and warmed our planet.

Ocean Life and Health
Hugh Ducklow and Sonya Dyhrman examine how factors like nutrient pollution, ocean warming, and acidification affect marine ecosystems and ocean health. Their goal is to learn more about future impacts on marine life by tracking microbes, which form the base of the marine food web and are a critical unseen majority in the ocean ecosystem. These complex life systems produce and consume greenhouse gases, store carbon, support marine fisheries and play a key role in sustaining the planet. Marine life is increasingly exposed to multiple stressors, such as warming, ocean acidification, de-oxygenation, invasive species, changes in resources and nutrients, and the spread of pathogens or toxin-producing species.

Ducklow and Dyhrman employ the latest advances in observational tools, computational biology (e.g. genomics), chemistry, and oceanography to get a better understanding of fundamental ocean ecosystem processes, and how they respond to stresses. Their research takes place in controlled laboratory conditions and at key field sites around the world.

Sea Level Rise and Reef Wave Systems
Maureen Raymo and Alessio Rovere examine the past, present, and future of coral reefs and atoll islands in a world of rising seas. Our planet’s coastlines, particularly those in tropical areas, face significant challenges related to global warming and sea level rise. Higher sea levels have the potential to alter the way coral reefs redistribute incoming energy from waves, with potentially dramatic consequences for coastal populations. Natural coastal ecosystems will also experience a shift of mechanical energy from the seaward part of the reef to the inner lagoon. While many studies focus on mid-latitude beach settings, few have examined wave processes in coral reef environments and how they are related to mean sea level.

Raymo and Rovere analyze the hydrodynamic processes affecting coral reef systems, focusing on low- to super-energy wave settings over a range of past sea levels. If we understand the interaction between coral reef structure and wave fields we will have a better understanding of the likely response of such systems to the rise in sea levels that is predicted during coming decades.

Bleach Patrol
SeaLife DC1400

Bruce Shaw and Brad Linsley have created a surfer-scientist collaboration that monitors the extent and cause of global coral bleaching and examines how coral reefs respond to environmental change. Coral bleaching is called the “canary in the coal mine” for climate change. More than 90% of the heat trapped from carbon emissions goes toward warming the oceans. Coral ecosystems respond quickly and sensitively to ocean temperature changes from natural and man-made causes. A rise in temperature of a few degrees for an extended period of time can determine whether a coral reef is healthy, sick or dying. Responses can happen over days and weeks; longer-term ecosystem shifts happen over months and years.

Bleach Patrol tackles the bleaching problem through citizen science engagement and will help us understand how corals get sick. Bleach Patrol collects on-the-ground global observations and offers research initiatives that improve remote sensing capabilities. Through analysis of coral samples, the project will also extend records of past bleaching events. Shaw and Linsley’s collaboration with the World Surf League includes a partner social networking app, goFlow, which allows surfer-scientists to collect and record observations of coral bleaching.

Visit the WSL PURE website to learn more. Stay connected with the Center for Climate and Life by signing up for our quarterly newsletter and following us on Twitter.