User Profile: Cara Wilson

Who uses NASA Earth science data? Cara Wilson, to better understand the possible connection between harmful algal blooms and southern right whale mortality.

Cara Wilson, Research Scientist, Environmental Research Division of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration

Photograph of Cara Wilson, Research Scientist

Research interests: Understanding the biological and physical processes responsible for anomalous phytoplankton blooms, particularly summer blooms in the North Pacific. Wilson looks at several parameters, including sea surface height (SSH), sea surface temperature (SST), salinity, and ocean color. Ocean color is the only satellite parameter that measures a component of the biological system, and increased biological activity (such as blooms of organic material) can be assessed through these ocean color images.

Earlier in her career, Wilson participated in a number of cruises on scientific research vessels. These included examinations of silicon cycling in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre; water sampling to locate hydrothermal sites in Antarctica; and surveys using the ALVIN submersible to locate hydrothermal vent sites on the Lucky Strike seamount in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Current research focus: Along with her work on anomalous phytoplankton blooms, Wilson uses ocean color data to look at chlorophyll concentrations around Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. This location is an important calving ground for southern right whales. Since 2005, there has been an increase in right whale mortality in this area, with more than 90% of the deaths being calves less than three months old.

In another project, Wilson is working with Tracy Villareal of the University of Texas at Austin to compare satellite-detected ocean data with observations collected by Wave Gliders that crossed the Pacific Ocean. Wave Gliders are wave-propelled autonomous vehicles consisting of a float (which sits on the surface) and an underwater sub (which is connected to the float by a long tether). Four Wave Gliders were released in San Francisco in 2011; two had technical problems, but two arrived in Australia more than a year later.

Data products used:

  • Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) and Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) chlorophyll concentrations derived from ocean color data. These data are available through the Ocean Biology Distributed Active Archive Center (OB.DAAC).
  • Salinity data from the Aquarius satellite (a joint NASA/Argentinean Space Agency mission), which are available through the Physical Oceanography DAAC (PO.DAAC).
  • SSH and SST data, both of which are available through NASA’s PO.DAAC.

Research findings: Wilson’s research has led her to develop a hypothesis that internal waves generated off the Hawaiian Islands are breaking at the latitude where anomalous algal booms occur. This process may be supplying additional nutrients to the surface layer, which contributes to the anomalous blooms. In her Peninsula Valdes study, Wilson and her team found a statistical relationship between monthly densities of a specific species if phytoplankton (a diatom called Pseudo-nitzschia spp.) and the deaths of southern right whale calves.

In her comparison of satellite and Wave Glider data, Wilson and Villareal found good correlation between the satellite and Wave Glider SST and salinity data. A comparison of satellite sea surface salinity from Aquarius data and glider-measured salinity revealed thin areas of low salinity in the southwestern Pacific Ocean.

Read about the research:

Villareal, T.A. & C. Wilson (2014). A comparison of the Pac-X trans-Pacific Wave Glider data and satellite data (MODIS, Aquarius, TRMM and VIIRS). PLoS ONE, 9(4): e96968. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092280

Wilson, C., et. al. (2015). Southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) calf mortality at Península Valdés, Argentina: Are harmful algal blooms to blame? Marine Mammal Science, 32(2): 423-451. doi:10.1111/mms.12263

Wilson, C., et. al. (2013). Chlorophyll bloom development and the subtropical front in the North Pacific. Journal of Geophysical Research Oceans, 118(3): 1473-1488. doi:10.1002/jgrc.20143

Wilson, C. (2011). Chlorophyll anomalies along the critical latitude at 30°N in the NE Pacific. Geophysical Research Letters, 38(15). doi:10.1029/2011gl048210


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