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Marine Ecology and Artistic Thinking: UCI Professor Matthew Bracken Teams up with Orange County Museum of Art

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As a part of its Pacific Standard Time collaboration, the Getty Center has given out grants to institutions all across Southern California, including an $100,000 grant to the Orange County Museum of Art (OCMA). UCI ecology professor Matthew Bracken is a major collaborator in this OCMA project titled “Sea Change: Toward New Environmentalisms in the Pacific Ocean,” or tentatively known as “Sea Change: New Currents of Sustainability: Art and Action in the Pacific Ocean.”

“The real idea is that in this engagement we can potentially affect real change in terms of current threats to the environment,” Bracken said. 

Bridging artistic and scientific perspectives is a big part of the Sea Change exhibit; the display will contain art that delves into how climate change is altering marine environments. Bracken is a part of the team of scientists leading this collaboration with artists, engineers and activists.  

“[These] different ways of understanding and knowing can complement each other … Especially now when we are in an unprecedented phase of biodiversity change,” Bracken said. “I think we need to call on all the tools at our disposal, and all of the viewpoints at our disposal.” 

The Getty has given out 55 grants, totaling over $5 million. The Pacific Standard Time projects will occur in two phases: a research phase and an implementation phase. Bracken anticipates that his research for this project will lead to publications and a symposium set to occur in the coming academic year.

Bracken’s marine biodiversity lab researches “the causes and consequences of changes in marine biodiversity” and combines in-lab testing and fieldwork to look at variables affecting biodiversity such as temperature, oxygen, foundational species and nutrient availability.  

“There’s a field component where we do manipulations and go out in the tidepools like the ones by Corona Del Mar State Beach … we take a lot of samples of the water to analyze nutrients and chemical composition, and things like that because that allows us to dig into these questions of productivity and nutrients,” Bracken said. 

Such manipulations include conducting warming experiments on California tidepools, where researchers put heaters in the water to examine their effect on tide pool organisms and systems. The Bracken Lab has also been part of experiments in Alaska that use carbon dioxide generators to see the potential effects of climate drivers.

Bracken’s work is heavily impacted by climate change because rising temperatures and an increase in carbon dioxide shift the fragile equilibriums at play in our marine ecosystems. Ocean acidification, or the rise in pH of oceans due to carbon dioxide absorption; harmful algal blooms, which is out of control algae growth; and rising sea levels are just some of the impacts of climate change on today’s oceans.

 “An increasing amount of my work is trying to understand … how do climate stressors — climate drivers — affect biodiversity, the types of species found in a place, the composition, the number, and in turn how [that affects] the functioning of a [marine] system,” Bracken said.

Climate change poses a large threat to humanity and worldwide biodiversity. Research on prehistoric temperature changes shows that rising temperatures can alter biodiversity for millions of years to come. Even now, biodiversity loss in warmer climates is starting, with species richness, or the number of different species in a given environment, around the equator beginning to wane. 

“It’s become clear that climate is the biggest and most profound change that’s occurring right now, and is something that we need to act quickly on,” Bracken said. “There’s this emerging reality that the greatest driver of biodiversity change, on the land and in the sea is probably climate change.” 

UCI has implemented some climate-friendly reforms, like the fully electric Anteater Express, 20 Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified buildings, and a commitment to cut down 19,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually. Bracken, however, believes that “UCI has the potential to be a real model for change” in the face of the climate crisis. 

“If I were to change anything about how UCI is approaching this issue, it would be for the university to convey the urgency of this situation and act on it, in terms of how and where we do things like get our power and serve as a model for the community on how to effectively electrify and seek renewable power sources,” Bracken said. “We’ve made a lot of progress … but I feel like it’s not happening quickly enough.” 

Sierra Howard is a STEM Contributing Writer for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at