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Hofmann Leads International Program Monitoring Change in Oceans

Old Dominion University oceanographer Eileen Hofmann will be torn between two workplaces during the next few years, one on the ODU campus and the other in Brest, France.

When she took the helm of the Integrated Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecosphere Research (IMBER) initiative in January, Hofmann inherited a project office and full-time staff in Brest, as well as responsibility for some of this era's most important research into climate and other global-change issues.

"This is an important international appointment," said Richard Zimmerman, chair of ODU's Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. "The IMBER committee has significant input to international policy regarding climate change."

Right now IMBER is a coalition of researchers in 24 countries, and the reach of the organization is expected to grow in the near future. The existence of IMBER, which was organized five years ago, can be attributed to the conclusion of scientists worldwide that global changes underway today compose much too big an issue to be studied piecemeal.

IMBER is one of the global change projects endorsed by the Stockholm-based International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), an offshoot of the International Council for Science (ICSU). A second IMBER sponsor is the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research, which is also an ICSU body.

Along with Hofmann's new position as chair of the IMBER science steering committee, she also serves on the science steering committee of the IGBP, which is coordinating and facilitating global-change research targeting the atmosphere, land and sea. The IMBER project provides the ocean link in the suite of IGBP projects that are focused on understanding and predicting responses to accelerating global change.

Currently, the IGBP is producing a series of global-change integration and exploration reports on topics such as environmental change and sustainable development; the relationship between a high-carbon-dioxide world and nutrient loads in the seas; and the role of land cover and land use in modulating climate.

Under the IGBP umbrella, Hofmann will be guiding IMBER toward a new goal. She calls it a "new direction in the science" that brings together two thrusts in marine science. One studies how global change affects the abundance, diversity and productivity of marine populations ranging from zooplankton to whales. The other studies the sensitivity to global change of marine biogeochemical cycles - the carbon cycle is an example.

"These are different research communities," Hofmann explained. "Now with the emphasis on climate change these communities realize they need each other. We will look at ways to pull together biogeochemical cycling and its feedback into the food web."

A specific example of work IMBER will be doing in the near future is research involving ocean acidification. This is being done in collaboration with another IGBP project, SOLAS, which is focused on understanding the linkages between the atmosphere and ocean. The increasing concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, especially during the last few decades, has brought a parallel increase in ocean acidification, since carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater to become carbonic acid. The change in ocean acidification has important implications for biological productivity and food webs.

To Hofmann, this shows the inter-relatedness of global-change problems and solutions, and supports the notion that coordinating organizations such as the IGBP and IMBER are necessary to tackle the multipronged research effort required by today's circumstances.

So how much will she travel during her three-year term as chair of the IMBER science steering committee? "Quite a bit. I can tell you this, right now I should be at a science meeting in Paris," she said during an interview in early February. "But it came up too soon after I took the job. I asked two European members of the IMBER science steering committee to represent IMBER."

As for her communications with the IMBER office in Brest, she said currently she is making do with videoconferencing and Skype. "But, of course, I'll have to be there occasionally in person. And worldwide, I have a commitment to be involved in IMBER programs in other countries."

IMBER recently established a regional project office in China. "There is a lot of interest in IMBER in Japan and China and I'll probably have to go to one of those countries during my term," she added.

Since the early 1990s, Hofmann had been chair of the Southern Ocean program of another IGBP initiative called GLOBEC, which studied global-change issues related to the marine food web. But IGBP requires that all of its initiatives have a finite term of existence, and the GLOBEC sunset provision requires it to dissolve in March of this year.

"Because of the background I have with GLOBEC, they figured that I could handle the IMBER job," Hofmann said. She was first contacted in the spring of 2009 and a thorough vetting process went on for six months before she was notified of the appointment.

Hofmann has been recognized with research grants and research appointments for her work on coupled physical-biological models, and she has built a special focus on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. Her research interests cover a variety of topics, which range from mathematical modeling of marine ecosystems to descriptive physical oceanography.

At ODU's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography (CCPO) she is currently involved in several projects with global-change emphasis. One is a $1 million National Science Foundation project that for the three years beginning Oct. 1, 2009, is taking an exhaustive look at one scenario posed by global warming. The study will involve not only oceanographers and biologists, but also experts in social behavior, politics and economics. They are looking into what global warming might do to surf clams on the upper East Coast of the United States, and how this could change the lives of the people who have one interest or another in our ability to bring a stable stock of these bivalves to market.

Hofmann, who joined ODU in 1989 and was promoted to professor of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences in 1995, was the 1996 recipient of ODU's Annual Research Award.

Her hope, she said, is that her IMBER service will "involve other people at CCPO and bring in new research and directions for research for our department."

This article was posted on: February 19, 2010

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