CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers will study the interaction of the massive Columbia River plume with the Pacific Ocean off the Pacific Northwest coast as part of a major grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a center that will be run by three Northwest institutions.
As part of that research, OSU scientists will also investigate how climate change propagates through the ocean to coastal and river ecosystems.
Plans for the new NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction were announced Tuesday (Aug. 29) in Portland. Oregon Health & Science University is the lead institution, with partners OSU and the University of Washington. The $19 million grant will create one of the first two NSF centers to focus on marine research. OSU also is part of the other NSF center, headed by the University of Hawaii, which will study marine microbes.
The new center is important, experts say, because coastal margins are the interface between Northwest rivers and the ocean, and also are places where most people live. As a consequence, coastal margins have become highly stressed by human and natural influences.
“The Pacific Northwest is a great test-bed for climate change studies because of the natural processes like El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as well as human-induced changes, such as dams on the Columbia River,” said Jack Barth, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at OSU and the project’s research and education director.
Bruce Menge, a distinguished professor of zoology at OSU, said the new consortium would be a “valuable complement” to the research focus of PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, which Oregon State heads. Both Menge and Barth are co-principal investigators in both research efforts.
“The new consortium should also benefit from PISCO’s policy and outreach activities, which extend across most of the U.S. West Coast,” Menge said.
OSU’s primary contribution to the new NSF research effort will be to study how the Columbia River plume interacts with the Pacific Ocean, and what its physical, chemical and biological impacts are on the ocean environment.
OSU researchers also will look at how climate change affects interactions among the river, ocean and a key coastal margin habitat – rocky shores. “Coastal margin habitats such as rocky intertidal zones have proven to be valuable model systems for detecting the effects of changes in the environment,” Menge said.
Researchers from both the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the OSU College of Science will study microbial assemblages, phytoplankton blooms and the host of zooplankton species that prey on them in the waters of the coast of Oregon and Washington. These biological communities form the basis of the marine food chain and also are critical components in processes that have led to marine “dead zones” off the Oregon coast, and in sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide.
“It is a complex system and part of our challenge is to overlay the study of that environment with an analysis of the impact of climate change,” Barth said.
The OSU scientists will use moorings, satellites and underwater gliders to observe, monitor and measure the waters off the Northwest coast. They also will create models they hope will offer warnings when the coastal margin’s normal processes go awry.
Their goal is to create predictive models like those for El Niño, Barth said.
“We are to the point where we can predict El Niño events three to five months out,” Barth said, “based on physical measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. Now we’d like to do the same thing for circulation, nutrient fluxes and primary ocean production that dictate the biological response in coastal environments.
“Ideally,” he added, “we could look at the physical processes including winds, currents and temperatures, and predict which plankton species will dominate and whether that will lead to a healthy production of food, or to atypical conditions, including hypoxia and ‘dead zones.’”
Physicists have been able to remotely monitor the physical conditions of the ocean for two decades, Barth said. The NSF grant will test whether the same can be done for biological and ecological research.
In addition to its partnership with OHSU and UW, OSU will work with private industry on the grant, including Intel, which is helping to design the computer-based modeling systems, and Western Environmental Technology Laboratories in Philomath, Ore., which will provide some of the environmental sensors.
The grant also has a strong educational component and OSU will integrate students from its award-winning Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program into the project. The SMILE program, which focuses on developing science and math skills among minority, rural and low-income middle school and high school students, will work with the researchers to analyze data and explore real-life scenarios based on the results.
“One example might be to study what impact extraction of water from rivers has on the ocean ecosystem,” Barth said. “Another could be how ocean and atmosphere processes affect search and rescue efforts – through higher winds, or more powerful storms that create rougher bar conditions.”
Graduate students will assist with the research and have opportunities to take special courses relating to the project.