• Kristina Barclay

Scientist Spotlight: Fiona Beaty, Ph.D. Candidate, UBC

Fiona Beaty is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Zoology Department of the University of British Columbia studying marine ecology and conservation in the Salish Sea. She is also a National Geographic Explorer and UBC Public Scholar. Fiona shares with us her background and research interests in ocean acidification, as well as her interdisciplinary work to understand how coastal ecosystems and human communities are responding to global change.


A woman wearing a red jacket and life vest smiles at the camera while holding a clipboard. She is standing in the rocky intertidal. Another person is crouched on the ground with their back to the camera as they lay down a transect line in the intertidal.
Fiona in the intertidal during a PISCO biodiversity survey on Calvert Island, BC. Photo credit: Alyssa Gehman

What is your background?


I am a marine ecologist and conservationist. My passion is learning how marine life in the Salish Sea is responding to climate change and connecting this knowledge with policy and adaptation strategies to protect both life in and human connections to the ocean.


I am a true interdisciplinarian at heart - it is very hard for me to pick just one topic to learn about! Accordingly, my research interests range from a curiosity about the mechanistic physiological and evolutionary responses of marine invertebrates to ocean warming and acidification, to a fascination with how coastal communities value and want to protect the ocean, to an obsession with using maps as a way to engage decision-makers and communities in marine spatial planning and conservation. In pursuing these research interests, I have developed skills within both the natural and social sciences, such as leading manipulative field and laboratory experiments, quantitative meta-analyses, and community-based research (e.g. interviews, survey, participatory mapping). Most recently, I am grateful to be learning about ways that I, as a settler, can co-create knowledge in partnership with the Indigenous community on whose lands and waters I reside and study – the Squamish Nation.


My work history includes over five years of working with multiple non-profits that lead marine restoration and conservation work within the Salish Sea. Through this experience I have learned effective ways to connect research to marine policy and conservation outcomes and strengthened my collaborative leadership skills.


A woman sitting in a chair in a lab smiles at the camera. There is a clear container with sea water and snails in front of her and there is a scale held on buckets in front of her (with a basket hanging below it in seawater for measuring snail weight under water).
Fiona in the lab measuring snail body weight underwater. Photo credit: Alyssa Gehman

What is your interest or background in OA?


I first learned about ocean acidification prior to starting graduate school; however, it was not until I began studying it in detail that its ramifications for the health and well-being of marine life truly hit home. I remember realizing one day that ocean acidification to a calcifying marine invertebrate is analogous to the air around us becoming so polluted that our skin starts to dissolve. This horrifying realization changes the way that I breath and move around every time that I think about it.


The analogy between the chemical alteration of air and water due to growing carbon dioxide emissions feels particularly relevant each summer when the city where I live experiences air quality warnings due to wildfires. Last year the effects of wildfire smoke compounded the existing health effects we experienced due to the coronavirus pandemic. Both wildfire smoke and the virus target our respiration systems, which means that being afflicted by one could potentially exacerbate the severity of the other – a very daunting prospect indeed.

This experience was the perfect elucidation of how multiple stressors can interact with one another to alter the overall sublethal and lethal impacts to individual health. If we dive back into the ocean, we realize that many marine organisms are experiencing numerous simultaneous changes to their abiotic environment, including rising seawater acidity, rising temperatures, decreasing oxygen levels, altered salinity patterns, increased pollution, and altered light and noise levels. I wrote a piece on this analogy between wildfire smoke, COVID-19, and ocean acidification for The Narwhal this past summer (read it here). How these pressures, particularly ocean acidification and warming, interact with one another to affect marine invertebrates is the core focus of my research.


Can you tell us about your past or current contributions to OA research?


My ocean acidification research falls under two distinct research questions. First, I am interested in testing how evolutionary processes, such as local adaptation and plasticity, impact marine invertebrate responses to ocean warming and acidification. This research can shed light on the adaptive potential of organisms who live in areas of rapid environmental change, such as the Strait of Georgia in British Columbia. To this end, I have used laboratory and field experiments to test the response of two populations of an intertidal snail, Nucella lamellosa, to these climate-linked stressors. The results indicate that the snails who live in the Strait of Georgia, an inland sea with rapidly warming water that fluctuates drastically in acidity, have likely already exceeded their adaptive optima. This means that future environmental changes may push these populations beyond their physiological limits, compromising their fitness and local persistence. I presented this research during the Western Society of Naturalists conferences in 2018 and 2019, abstracts available here and here.


My second research inquiry is compiling what we know about the overall and interactive sublethal and lethal effects of ocean warming and acidification on marine ectotherms. Specifically, I am interested in how these effects vary across taxonomic groups, such as crustaceans, fish, and corals. To answer this question, I am leading a meta-analysis of factorial laboratory experiments that test the response of marine ectotherms to these two climate-linked pressures. This research is currently in progress. I presented a poster at the Western Society of Naturalists conference in 2020, available here.


Three snails (Nucella lamellosa) lay on a surface. The operculm and foot are visible in the left and right snails, and the aperture is facing away from the camera in the middle one. All three snails have a line of red nail polish indicating their size at the beginning of the experiments, with substantial new growth (almost a full 360 degrees) occuring in all three.
To measure shell growth during lab and field experiments, Fiona paints snail shells with nail polish, also known as "snail polish". Look how much these Nucella lamellosa grew during the two-month mesocosm experiment! Photo credit: Fiona Beaty

What do you see as the most pressing OA issue for Canadians?


Canadians need to understand that ocean acidification is an eco-equity issue: carbon dioxide emissions that dissolve into the water disproportionately affect the survival and well-being of specific marine organisms, such as shell-growing plankton and marine invertebrates. Juvenile invertebrates are particularly vulnerable to corrosive seawater, which can lead to reduced survival of culturally and economically important marine animals, such as mussels, oysters, and abalone. In turn, these lethal impacts disproportionately affect coastal communities whose food security and livelihoods depend upon a healthy ocean. For example, many Indigenous and remote communities rely on marine invertebrates for their diet, culture, and income. In addition, shellfish aquaculture facilities, which are often small family-run businesses, are facing immense challenges in maintaining and growing shellfish stocks due to ocean acidification. Overall, Canadians need to immediately mitigate carbon emissions and support adaptation strategies that protect the health and abundance of marine life, and the well-being of coastal communities.


A shot of the front edge of a mussel bed (with individual mussels and gooseneck barnacles visible) with a beach and water visible in the background. It is a sunny, clear day.
Marine invertebrates, such as mussels and barnacles, along British Columbia's coastline are vulnerable to ocean acidification. Photo credit: Fiona Beaty.

What is the one take-home about OA that you wish all Canadians knew?


I wish that more Canadians knew that coastal ecosystems play a huge role in the fight against ocean acidification and climate change. In addition to providing critical habitat, seaweeds and seagrasses can create local ocean acidification sanctuaries for vulnerable marine invertebrates. They do this automatically when they photosynthesize: absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen substantially reduces seawater acidity within kelp forests and eelgrass meadows. While this buffering effect is localized and can diminish overnight when the plants switch to respiration, the daily relief it provides to marine invertebrates is critical to building ecological resilience to ocean acidification.


In addition, coastal ecosystems, such as seagrasses, salt marshes, and mangroves, can store carbon in their tissues and sediments, thus contributing massively to global carbon sequestration. In fact, these coastal plants can capture and store more carbon per unit area than terrestrial forests! This is called blue carbon. Overall, marine plants play a critical role in maintaining the health and resilience of marine life in the face of ocean acidification and climate change, and need to be protected by Canada and all coastal nations.


A photo of several mesocosm tanks containing smaller tanks with snails inside.
These mesocosm tanks expose snails from across British Columbia's coastline to various seawater acidity and temperature levels, simulating future ocean conditions. Photo credit: Fiona Beaty

What excites you most about the current or future of OA research in Canada?


I am grateful that public awareness about ocean acidification is growing. Several years ago, I feel that many people had never heard of nor understood what ocean acidification was. Now, thanks to the work of science-communication and research champions throughout the world, many more people understand that ocean acidification is directly linked with carbon emissions and is a substantial threat to marine life that requires urgent attention by policymakers.


I am also excited that experimental studies about ocean acidification are becoming more rigorous. A decade ago, many ocean acidification experiments manipulated seawater by dumping acid into the water and tested unrealistic acidity levels that far exceed global projections (e.g. seawater below pH 7.0). Now, nearly all lab experiments manipulate seawater by bubbling carbon dioxide into the water (an exact simulation of ocean acidification). In addition, more data is available on local ocean acidification projections, which enables researchers to directly test how organisms will respond to ocean acidity levels that their specific region will experience within the next century.


Both of these factors improve our understanding of the shifts and transformations that ocean acidification will cause to marine ecosystems throughout the world, which strengthens our ability to prioritize adaptation strategies and resources to the species and communities who are most vulnerable to climate change.



To learn more about Fiona and her research, visit her website (fionabeaty.ca) and follow her updates via Twitter (@fionabeaty).


You can also read her piece for The Narwhal here:

Smoke and acid: where wildfires meet the ocean.