Cornell Atkinson awards $1.6M in seed grants

When a devastating heat wave hit the Pacific Ocean between 2013 and 2016, biologists documented sharp declines in many marine creatures, including the iconic humpback whale: Whale abundance near southeastern Alaska during and after the heat wave dropped by 56% and still hasn’t recovered to 2013 levels.

A team of Cornell researchers and external partners now seeks to understand how humpback whale songs – a critical component of the species’ mating behavior – were affected by the heat wave, and to engage the public on the threats of climate change. Such marine heat waves are expected to worsen in frequency and intensity as the planet warms.

The project is one of 11 that will be supported by the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability’s Academic Venture Fund (AVF). Cornell Atkinson will provide $1.6 million in seed funding to support research teams across nine colleges and 22 departments, many with external partnerships. Awarded annually since 2008, AVF grants encourage interdisciplinary research that promotes environmental sustainability.

The humpback whale study is co-led by Annie Lewandowski, senior lecturer in the Department of Music in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S); and Katy Payne ’59, renowned bioacoustics researcher in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s K. Lisa Yang Center for Conservation Bioacoustics. The pair have been collaborating since 2017.

This project will bring together artists and scientists from two nonprofits – the Hawaii Marine Mammal Consortium and the Sound Science Research Collective – and the federal Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve.

The researchers will document and analyze whether the marine heat wave and subsequent population decline impacted the structure of humpback whale songs in both breeding grounds in Hawaii and foraging grounds in Alaska. The group will then develop diverse popular media and scientific publications on their findings.

“Public engagement is essential to helping slow these ocean-scale changes, which affect human survival as much as they do whales,” Lewandowski said.

“If the team’s work can help the public regain a sense of appreciation for these beautiful, mysterious whale songs and react to the plight of whales in today’s oceans, there is a chance that the whales may save us from the disastrous course we are on,” Payne said.

Descriptions of each of this year’s AVF winners are available on the Cornell Atkinson website.

John Whitman, professor of linguistics (A&S) is an investigator in the project "Promoting Ecological and Linguistic Connections for Gayogo̱hó:nǫʔ People in Their Traditional Homelands."

Douglas Kriner, the Clinton Rossiter Professor in American Institutions in government (A&S) is an investigator in the project "Advancing Integrated Biorefineries for Sustainable Food and Fuel Systems."

Each year, multiple faculty review panels consider and select winning proposals most likely to spur original, interdisciplinary research. Panels prioritize projects with potential to connect research beyond campus, including external funding and partnerships.

“Cornell Atkinson’s mission is to drive research into action to protect people and the planet. To do that, we need to foster relationships across the academy and with government agencies, corporations and nongovernmental organizations,” said David Lodge, the Francis J. DiSalvo Director of Cornell Atkinson. “Each year, the Academic Venture Fund expands and connects a vibrant research community and expands the reach of Cornell’s leadership in sustainability.”

Krisy Gashler is a freelance writer for Cornell Atkinson.

Read the story in the Cornell Chronicle.

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		Two whales swim in a dark blue underwater scene