High Water Mark: Scripps scientist to receive prestigious award in Monaco

Scripps biological oceanographer Lisa Levin is slated to receive the Prince Albert I Grand Medal for science on Nov. 7 in Monaco.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Lisa Levin is slated to receive the Prince Albert I Grand Medal for Science on Nov. 7 in Monaco. Named after the sovereign principality’s prince from 1889 to 1922 — himself an oceanographer — the award is the highest international distinction presented by the Prince Albert I of Monaco Foundation’s Oceanographic Institute. It will be presented to Levin for her overall body of work.

“I was definitely surprised when I first heard about it,” Levin said in her small Scripps office overrunning with books, research materials and a nearly blind and deaf Black Labrador Retriever she rescued named Inka. “I think this award is important because it recognizes the half of the planet that is very poorly known — especially the biology — but that is quite vulnerable to humans right now.”

Levin’s name is huge in science circles for the discoveries she’s made studying the deep part of the ocean right off the coast. For example, just in January — the last time she went out to sea — Levin discovered that snailfish lay their eggs in giant, single-celled protozoans.

“Having a vertebrate use a single-cell animal as a nursery habitat is pretty cool,” the biological oceanographer told La Jolla Light. “That wasn’t what I went there to discover, but we did find that. There’s a lot of exciting things to discover still — all sorts of ecosystems, habitats and species we haven’t discovered yet. Almost anytime I get to see something new, it’s pretty exciting and it makes me happy. And it’s beautiful.”

In recent years, Levin’s been most visible for her work identifying the drivers and effects of man-made climate change. Earlier this year, she co-authored part of a U.N. intergovernmental panel study that found the ocean is warming, and its ice is melting, much faster than previously thought.

“Climate change is not a happy story right now, obviously,” she said. “But not everything’s messed up yet, I’ll put it that way.”

Oceanographers didn’t study climate change back when Levin attended graduate school. “We learned basic science,” she said, “and a lot of the stuff that I was studying, which I thought was esoteric basic science, turned out to be pretty relevant to climate change.”

Early on in her research — Levin gave a for-instance — she stumbled across areas of extremely low oxygen in the ocean. So she studied how animal communities adapted to them. “The things that can go away, go away when the oxygen is low,” she said. “They might swim shallower, they might swim somewhere else. But the things that can’t move might die.”

Much later, Levin discovered, climate change was causing those low oxygen zones to expand.

When asked which she thought bode worse for the future of life on Earth — the ocean’s vanishing ice or oxygen — Levin replied that the two phenomena, while both driven by man-made climate change, are different and happen in different places in the ocean.

“It depends on who you are and where you are,” she said. “If you’re a polar bear, I guess the ice melting would be worse. The organisms that require ice cover are not going to fare well. But the ice melting is going to open up a lot of the ocean and some animals will be able to live there that didn’t used to be able to. So the Arctic’s going to change.”

But Levin said she believes it’s not too late to turn all the change around.

“We’re very resourceful,” she said. “I think people can, if they want to, solve this problem. I don’t think it’s too late. I think it is very late for some small island developing states where sea-level rise is greatest. But I don’t think it’s too late for most of the planet. We do have a lot of technology and a lot of opportunity to fix this.

“However, it’s going to be too late if people don’t decide to solve this problem now.”