Newswise — UC Irvine associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology studies how warmer ocean water is affecting marine ecosystems, particularly the alarming reality that climate change often favors invasive species over native ones.

Cascade Sorte has spent her career unraveling the mysteries of Earth’s changing oceans. From her childhood dreams of exploring their depths to her groundbreaking studies on climate change and invasive species, the renowned UC Irvine marine scientist has had a singular focus. She now operates a state-of-the-art research laboratory that uses data from coastal ecosystems both local and worldwide to better understand how warmer water is affecting sea life.

“I decided I wanted to be a marine biologist in fourth grade,” recalls Sorte, associate professor of ecology & evolutionary biology at UC Irvine. “I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, loved the ocean, visited it regularly, and thought being a marine biologist meant studying whales and dolphins.”

After college, she got a job studying marine biology at Oregon State University. “I was fortunate to work with people doing studies up and down the coast in Oregon and California,” Sorte says. “We were seeing global changes happening right before our eyes.”

Her research began to delve specifically into the complex interactions between rising ocean temperatures and sea life and how warmer water was influencing marine ecosystems. This led to Sorte’s exploration of the phenomenon of various invasive species and their potential to thrive in changing environmental conditions.

“I was most interested in climate change and coastal species, which is really amenable to research,” she explains. “As a Ph.D. student, I had started working on ecosystems that had a lot of invasive species … and started thinking about how climate change could be benefiting and increasing the impacts of invasive species.”

Sorte’s studies have revealed the alarming reality that climate change often favors invasive species over native ones, disrupting fragile ecosystems along coastlines. Her research in Bodega Bay, Northern California, shed light on the proliferation of invasive species in “fouling communities” – groupings of organisms found on artificial surfaces like the sides of docks, marinas, harbors and boats – which alters the composition of marine habitats and costs boat owners more in maintenance.

Since joining the UC Irvine faculty in 2014, Sorte has focused on rocky coastlines and intertidal zones, where she conducted one of the first climate change simulations in a marine ecosystem. In her current project, funded by the National Science Foundation, Sorte is investigating the movement of native species in response to climate change. Collaborating with scientists across California and Mexico, she aims to understand how native species adapt to shifting environmental conditions. This is important to study because the movement of native species can have impacts that are just as strong as those of invasive species.

Sorte’s interdisciplinary approach extends beyond academia, as she actively engages with policymakers and stakeholders to translate her research into actionable solutions for marine conservation. “I got into science being really curious about the natural system, and now I’m excited about the human system and how that interacts with the environmental system,” Sorte remarks.

As she and her fellow researchers continue to explore the complexities of coastal ecosystems, Sorte seeks to share the results of that work with resource managers who are in positions to help mitigate the potentially harmful effects of new invasive species – such as predators and fast-growing competitors – in fragile marine ecosystems.

“Once we understand these impacts, there is space to interact with managers about what to do in regard to management,” she says. “On the one hand, if these range shifters have a negative impact on residents, like mussel beds, there might be cases where they’d want to manage or remove range shifters and treat them as invasive and not allow them to take over a site. But there is also the other side of the equation, like preserving species that might go extinct. Should we consider them invaders or help them by facilitating their movement?”

To Sorte, such questions, while beyond the scope of straightforward research, are a natural extension of her fieldwork. “I work with a lot of groups, not just in marine systems but in terrestrial systems too,” she says. “I keep trying to contribute to the knowledge base but also synthesize it.” Adds Sorte: “Some people do research in their area or on a global level. I try to be a person that bridges that gap.”