The Hakai Institute is a set of interlocking programs that blend technology and science to better understand the coastal margin of British Columbia and beyond. We eschew both scientific and geographical artificial boundaries, as our interdisciplinary teams work from icefields to watersheds to the nearshore and coastal oceans. We link with regional and global networks. We integrate the disciplines. We fill the seams of coastal science.
Geoscience & Geohazards
At Hakai, we focus on the fundamentals. Nothing is more fundamental than the Earth’s crust. The crust on the coastal margin of British Columbia is as dynamic as any place on Earth. We pay attention to the driving forces, such as tectonics and isostatic rebound. We study in detail how wind, water, snow, and glacial ice sculpt the resulting landscape and the implications of climate change. Geological change is typically so gradual that we don’t notice it happening. But occasionally it can erupt in catastrophic events—earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis—that cause widespread damage and death. Although our work is mainly driven by our desire to explore, discover, and understand, we also work with coastal communities and agencies to identify potential geohazards, and to join the response when they occur.
At Hakai, we focus on the fundamentals. Apart from the Earth’s crust, nothing is more fundamental than the Earth’s oceans. The coastal margin of British Columbia is under the enormous influence of the vast Pacific Ocean–its currents and upwelling, plus the atmospheric weather it creates. While we lack the capability to venture more than a few kilometers offshore on our own, we work with partners who can. In the ocean we can reach ourselves, we look intensively at its physical and chemical properties—temperature, salinity, oxygen, nutrients—and how those properties vary spatially and with depth, and change seasonally and year-to-year. This physical and chemical regime sets the constraints for all life in the coastal ocean and nearshore.
Biodiversity lies at the intersection of everything we care about and study. We measure biodiversity comprehensively, and monitor how it is changing under the influence of climate and other factors. We are as interested in the tiny things in the ocean—viruses, bacteria, protists, meiofauna—as we are in salmon and whales. We understand that all life in the ocean depends on the integrity of complex food webs that are ultimately based on those tiny things. Our facilities give us access to locales that are ideally suited to the study of biodiversity. In our staff and partners we have the full suite of capabilities, from classical field ecology to technology-driven approaches based on genomics and autonomous instruments.
Ocean Acidification & Its Impacts
Although it is technically just another component of ocean chemistry, we carve out ocean acidification as an independent initiative. Life in the ocean is exquisitely sensitive to carbonate chemistry, particularly for animals that need to maintain shells and other calcium carbonate body parts. A slight change in ion balance can shift conditions to a “corrosive” regime that favors dissolution of shell over deposition. As a consequence, many species and the growers that produce them commercially are teetering on the edge of viability. The coastal ocean is typically stratified, with corrosive water lying tens of meters below the surface. Many local corrosive events are caused by winds and currents that cause this deep water to well up to the surface. In parallel with these short-term local events, the gradual increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is driving a corresponding increase in CO2 dissolved in seawater, which is shifting the baseline toward corrosive conditions. We study all these phenomena in detail using a suite of techniques including fixed and mobile assets, humans and autonomous systems, field and laboratory studies, observation and experimentation. We work with commercial growers to help detect and mitigate the effects of ocean acidification.
At Hakai, we want our research to flow seamlessly across the artificial boundary between land and sea. That transitional zone between the two worlds is called the “nearshore.” The nearshore comprises the strip of coastline that lies between the winter high-tide line and a depth of about 20 meters. Nearshore habitats are typically the most productive and biodiverse parts of the ocean. Because of the complex and convoluted coastline around our research centers, Hakai is blessed with a quantity, quality, and diversity of nearshore habitats that rivals anywhere on the planet: rocky reef, rocky intertidal, and many types of soft sediment; shorelines that are exposed, sheltered, and intermediate. The dynamics that structure nearshore systems everywhere—foundation species, keystone species, disturbance, resilience—are evident in many different permutations. These attributes led to Hakai sites being selected among the founding nodes in the Marine Global Earth Observatory (MarineGEO) network of nearshore sites sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution, which has in turn led to a growing web of collaborations. Perhaps more than any other research area, our work in the nearshore epitomizes the way we achieve science of global consequence by combining the excellence of our own research teams with the power of active collaboration across the Pacific region and farther afield.
Coastal Watersheds: Icefields to Ocean
It’s said that to understand crime and corruption you need to “follow the money.” To understand the ecology of our coastal margin you need to “follow the water.” Following the water is the science of hydrology, which is an important area of research for Hakai. The most important driver of the process is weather. Weather brings precipitation to the coastal margin—rain, seasonal snow, ice accumulation—driven by the global dynamics of the atmosphere and ocean. Most of it falls on the windward slopes of the coastal mountains. Most of that water eventually flows back through the watersheds to the ocean. Runoff follows different seasonal time courses for rain, snow, and glaciers. Think of the process as “timed release” of a key determinant of health for our coastal ecosystems. Life in the watersheds is exquisitely sensitive to the quantity, quality, and timing of that flux of water. For example, the health of salmon swimming upstream to their spawning sites in midsummer is dependent on both water levels and water temperature. In many systems, the midsummer cold freshet from the glaciers is essential for survival. Life in the watersheds and coastal ocean is also strongly influenced by water-borne sediments, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, and other factors. For all these reasons we study all aspects of watershed hydrology, spanning the entire range from "icefields to oceans." We pay particular attention to how climate change is affecting these processes, particularly related to our receding coastal glaciers.
Ancient Coastlines: Biodiversity & Human Settlement
The consensus is that 20,000 years ago humans had not yet reached the Americas beyond enclaves in Alaska. Travel to the south by land or ocean was blocked by impassable barriers of ice. Five thousand years later, humans had reached all corners of both American continents. How did this radiation take place? How did people travel? Where did they settle on the coast? How did they live? What was the post-glacial landscape like at the time? These fascinating questions are being answered in part via research on the BC coast, which appears to have been the gateway to the Americas as the ice receded enough to allow coastal navigation. Much of the ancient coastline was inundated by subsequent sea level rise, so any evidence of settlement there has been lost. But other regions of our coast were uplifted as the weight of glacial ice was removed, and so kept pace with the rising ocean. We have identified these areas of preserved ancient coastline, and are now studying them in detail. We are of course fascinated by any evidence of human settlement. But we are equally interested in learning about the evolution of biodiversity in the post-glacial landscape, evidence of which is preserved in sediments and other niches. We need to know where to look and how to analyze evidence using a mixture of classical and modern techniques including "ancient DNA."
Hakai believes increasing the Findability, Accessibility, Interoperability, and Reuse (FAIR) of data is an essential component of effective scientific collaboration and discovery. Hakai is a strong and active advocate for global standards and solutions such as the Global Ocean Observing System (GOOS) and the Ocean Biodiversity Information System (OBIS) as effective ways to apply FAIR data principles. Within Canada, Hakai is part of a national team building the GOOS-compliant Canadian Integrated Ocean Observing System (CIOOS), sharing responsibility for the CIOOS-Pacific node with Ocean Networks Canada. This work includes helping others standardize and mobilize historical and traditional scientific data and integrate it with biological, genomic, and other emerging data types. Often this process of integration will consist of harmonizing existing strong standards rather than choosing between them. It typically involves “federating” standards and repositories, providing an integrated view of the data without forcing a great deal of wasteful re-engineering, or changing fundamental practices within disciplines.