Tar Heel of the Week

His mission: Heal the oceans before it's too late

Staff WriterJuly 11, 2010 

  • Title: Associate professor of marine ecology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

    Age: 44

    Education: Northeastern University, B.S. in biology, 1990; California State University, Northridge, M.S. in biology, 1995; Brown University, Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology, 2000; Cornell University, post doctoral research in disease ecology, 2000

    Family: Wife, Amy Melendy Bruno; daughters Zoe Vela Bruno, 9; Lena Sage Bruno, 6; and Mazarine Jasmine Bruno, 5

    Greatest professional accomplishment: "Having the opportunity to mentor and work with fantastic Carolina undergraduate and graduate students. Their success is my greatest professional accomplishment."

    Hobbies: Kite surfing, biking, traveling

    Recent books: "Saving Grace" and "The Devil's Dream", both by Lee Smith

    Favorite artists on the iPod: Massive Attack, Bob Mould and Seven Mary Three

There was a time when traveling to far-flung tropical outposts to study stunning undersea landscapes was the best part of John Bruno's work.

Increasingly, however, he's documenting death, forcing the marine ecologist to become a sort of forensic analyst of what has gone wrong.

Bruno, an associate professor at UNC-Chapel Hill, is now at the center of international debate about the health of the oceans, co-writing a sweeping account of the problems in last month's issue of the journal Science. He's a regular blogger on the Huffington Post Web page and helps maintain two blogs devoted to answering criticism of science and scientists over global warming data.

His conclusion - that global climate change is putting the world's largest ecosystem in peril - has sparked news reports and added to a growing level of alarm about oceans.

"The health of an ecosystem is in complete synergy with the economy," says Bruno, who has been in Australia since December doing research with his mentor and co-author, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. "There are hundreds of millions of dollars lost" when ecosystems fail.

As a result, he says, it's in everyone's interest to be good environmental stewards. Yet failure is all around, and global warming aside, Bruno points to the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and vastly depleted fisheries as examples of botched oversight.

Bruno, 44, who grew up in South Florida and spent his youth fishing, swimming and exploring the beaches and coastal swamps, says he's shocked at how quickly declines of marine life around the world have occurred.

Just consider sharks. Growing up, he said, he always saw sharks off the reef. Now the predators are rare, signaling a collapse at the top of the food chain that is cascading to other species.

"It's remarkable how much has been removed just in my lifetime," he said.

A lifetime mission

Even as a kid, Bruno said, he understood the need to foster balance in the undersea worlds he explored near his home and off his grandparents' houseboat in Miami. He remembers penning posters urging fishers in the area to limit their tuna catches.

"I've always been doing this," he said.

His wife, Dr. Amy Melendy Bruno, a veterinarian in Cary, says the two met in a marine lab in Oregon where both were students taking field classes, and the two shared an instant bond over their love of science.

"We spent hours in the invertebrate lab studying the really fascinating creatures that live there," she recalls. "John has always been very passionate about marine ecology - but it has definitely morphed from a very naïve and wide-eyed approach of studying processes ... to a more applied and broad approach of the field."

"He now has a vision," Melendy Bruno says. "The vision is based on a deep understanding, as much as anyone can understand, of how ocean species live together."

Initially a student of coastal salt marshes, Bruno is focusing now on coral reefs. His colleagues at UNC-CH say he has maintained his youthful enthusiasm for the science, even as his findings suggest a grim prognosis.

Stephen J. Walsh, a geography professor and director of UNC-CH's Center for Galapagos Studies, says Bruno "exhibited the excitement and delight of a young child when he interacted with the unique and endemic flora and fauna of the Galapagos Islands."

Walsh says Bruno, who is on the advisory board of the Galapagos Research Center, has a deep understanding of ecosystems and raises questions that are important to science and society.

Irreversible change

In his most recent report in last month's Science, Bruno and his mentor, Hoegh-Guldberg, director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia, relied on dozens of studies examining how global warming is affecting oceans, and he concluded that changes are irreversible and potentially devastating.

Among the most troubling findings are declines in corals, grass meadows, mangroves and salt marshes, where sea life spawns and teems. Bruno says he has studied the devastation in coral reefs in the Caribbean and elsewhere, and the vastness of the degradation is shocking.

Hope for mangroves

After studying and reporting the decline of ocean life, however, Bruno is now working to build it up.

This year, while on leave in Australia, he struck on the idea of putting together a nonprofit organization to begin rebuilding mangrove forests in east Asia.

Called The Blue Carbon Project ( thebluecarbon project.com ), the organization aims to promote the planting of mangrove seedlings along fragile coastlines, where the trees soak up carbon dioxide, provide stability against erosion, and establish a footing for other plants to flourish.

The project, which is still developing, will be funded by governments seeking to offset their carbon dioxide emissions with carbon reduction measures.

Bruno says the idea came to him as he wrote about the scientific benefits of mangrove forests on coastlines. He figured he'd take his own advice and try to implement it.

"I was thinking, 'what am I going to do with the rest of my work life'?" Bruno says. "Has anything I've done mattered?"

The big picture

Hoegh-Guldberg says Bruno's approach offers a good solution for countries participating in climate treaties that require them to diminish the impact of the carbon they produce.

"One of the big opportunities also lies in the ocean," Hoegh-Guldberg says, noting that marine environments absorb carbon dioxide and keep it from the atmosphere where it contributes to a greenhouse warming effect. "Almost 50 percent of global fixation of carbon dioxide occurs within ocean ecosystems such as mangroves, sea grass and phytoplankton populations.

"If we can understand these huge carbon sinks, then they, too, can be tied into the global carbon trade. This represents a very important step."

Hoegh-Guldberg says that without interventions such as Bruno's mangrove project, the problems of global climate change, pollution and population growth could trigger catastrophe.

"We have already taken the global ocean to conditions that haven't been seen for millions of years," he says. "This is why we should be worried, and why we must adopt a sensible carbon trading regime to get this problem under control."

Love of adventure

Bruno and his family - he and his wife have three young daughters, who are veteran explorers of far-off locales - will leave Australia in upcoming weeks and head to Bali and Java to set up the nonprofit organization before returning to Carolina in the fall.

And there might be some kite boarding tucked into the schedule.

"John is a huge kite boarder and surfer," his wife says, adding that he has infused his love of adventure in his girls.

Through his work, travel and research, Melendy Bruno says, Bruno has tried to model a life lesson: "To not be afraid to leap out and take chances."

sarah.avery@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4882

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