OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of earth

Oregon State to issue proposal request for project to build research vessels

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University will issue a request for proposals, or RFP on Monday, Aug. 15, for a project to construct up to three advanced regional class research vessels to help replenish the aging United States academic fleet.

OSU will implement a two-stage “best value procurement process” for selecting a single shipyard in the United States to construct the vessels, which allows the university to evaluate proposals on qualitative factors in addition to cost factors. The deadline for submitting the first stage of proposals is Sept. 29 of this year.

In January 2013, the National Science Foundation selected OSU as the lead institution to finalize the design and coordinate the construction of a vessel – and possibly up to two more – a project considered crucial to modernizing the country’s marine science research capabilities.

These “regional class research vessels” are designed for studying coastal waters out to beyond the continental rise as part of the U.S. academic fleet that is available to all ocean scientists conducting federal- and state-funded research and educational programs.

The entire RFP will be available online beginning Aug. 15.

The two-stage process will begin with technical proposals due Sept. 29, which will include but not be limited to descriptions of facilities, construction history, business history, financial capabilities, management practices, engineering and component subcontracting (including naming single-source vendors), and a schedule to construct the vessel, according to Demian Bailey, Oregon State’s former marine superintendent and a co-leader on the project.

The university will identify the shipyards best qualified for the project in the first stage and invite them to participate in the second stage of the RFP. Shipyards selected for this second stage will then submit an in-depth cost proposal due in early February. Final selection of a shipyard is anticipated to take place in April 2017. Delivery of the first ship, which will be operated by Oregon State University, is expected in fall of 2020.

Additional ships would likely be designated for the U.S. East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico, if funded by NSF with congressional appropriations and approval by the president. NSF would competitively select operators for those vessels, possibly in 2018.

Although similar in size, the new ships will differ greatly from R/V Oceanus, built in 1975 and operated by OSU, and its sister ships, R/V Endeavor, operated by the University of Rhode Island, and R/V Wecoma (retired), said Clare Reimers, a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and project co-leader.

“This class of ships will enable researchers to work much more safely and efficiently at sea because of better handling and stability, more capacity for instrumentation and less noise,” Reimers said. “The design also has numerous ‘green’ features, including an optimized hull form, waste heat recovery, LED lighting, and variable speed power generation.”

The design of the ships was done by The Glosten Associates, a naval architecture firm based in Seattle.The research vessels will be 193 feet in length, with a range greater than 5,000 nautical miles. Cruising speed is 11 knots with a maximum speed of 12.5 knots, and there are 16 berths for scientists and 13 for crew members.

More information about the project is available at: http://ceoas.oregonstate.edu/ships/rcrv/

 

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Demian Bailey, 541-737-0460

dbailey@coas.oregonstate.edu

OSU names marine science leader from Southern California to head college

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A marine science leader from southern California, who serves as vice chair of the board of trustees for the national Consortium for Ocean Leadership in Washington, D.C., and president of the board of directors of the Southern California Marine Institute, has been named dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

Roberta Marinelli, executive director of the Wrigley Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Southern California, will begin her new duties at Oregon State on Sept. 30. She succeeds Mark Abbott, who last year accepted a position as president and director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Roy Haggerty has served as interim dean of the college since Abbott’s departure.

As dean of CEOAS, Marinelli will assume leadership for one of the strongest Earth sciences programs in the nation, with nationally recognized teaching and research expertise in oceanography, atmospheric sciences, geology, geography, and coastal studies. The college has approximately 110 teaching and research faculty, who last year brought in $39 million in research grants and contracts.

The college also is an integral part of the university’s new Marine Studies Initiative, which seeks to further expand Oregon State’s role in teaching and research related to the world’s oceans, and help address some of the issues they face, including climate change, sustainable fisheries, ocean acidification, sea level rise and others.

“Roberta Marinelli is an experienced scientist and administrator with valuable leadership experience at major marine science institutions in this country, as well as in Antarctica through the National Science Foundation,” said Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost and executive vice president.

“There was a real sense of excitement about her candidacy for dean from all corners of the university – students, faculty, staff, administration and external stakeholders,” Randhawa added. “She has a real sense of the strength of the people and programs in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and sees opportunities for growth and even more excellence in the future.”

Marinelli has been at the University of Southern California since 2011. Prior to that, she was program director for Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Sciences Division and earlier had been associate program director for NSF’s Antarctic Biology and Medicine program.

She also has been a researcher and faculty member at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science and the Skidaway Institute of Oceanography at the University System of Georgia.

In addition to directing USC’s Wrigley Marine Science Center on Santa Catalina Island, Marinelli oversees the George and Mary Lou Boone Center for Science and Environmental Leadership, where scientists and policy-makers meet to resolve environmental challenges.

Marinelli has a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from Brown University, and a master’s degree and doctorate in marine science from the University of South Carolina.

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Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111

sabah.randhawa@oregonstate.edu

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Marinelli
Roberta Marinelli

OSU selects noted oceanographer to head Marine Studies Initiative

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Jack Barth, an Oregon State University oceanographer known for his teaching, research, and public engagement related to marine low-oxygen zones, and his leadership in the national Ocean Observatories Initiative, has been named executive director of the Marine Studies Initiative at OSU.

The MSI is a comprehensive, university-wide effort by Oregon State to address ocean health and coastal challenges by creating a global education and research program that blends the science of oceanography with business, engineering, education, the arts and humanities, agriculture sciences, forestry and social sciences, according to Oregon State President Edward J. Ray.

“The world’s oceans are facing unprecedented challenges and the need to address this range of issues – and educate the next generations of an ocean-literate citizenry – is a major focus of this initiative,” Ray said. “Jack Barth is uniquely qualified to lead the enterprise, as a respected scientist, an outstanding educator and collaborator.”

Barth has been on the OSU faculty since 1989 and has been associate dean for research in the university’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences for the past four years. He also has been co-lead of the Marine Studies Initiative since its inception in 2014, with Bob Cowen, director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon.

“In appointing Jack Barth -- and with the strong leadership provided by Bob Cowen as director of the Hatfield Marine Sciences Center -- Oregon State is doubling down,” said Ray.  “Jack will lead our overall MSI activities and link those initiatives to research, teaching and public engagement conducted at OSU and globally. Bob will drive Oregon State’s Newport-based efforts along the Oregon coast.”

Ray said Cowen will continue to direct Oregon State’s HMSC facilities, fundraising and coastal community relations, and will share in the development of Newport-based academic and research programs.

“Among the goals of the Marine Studies Initiative is to greatly broaden and better connect various marine studies disciplines across the university,” Barth said.

“We’ll still focus on oceanography, fisheries, marine biology, and other science-related issues, but we see some exciting areas into which we could expand including economics, social and public policies, ocean engineering, business and others.”

By 2025, the Marine Studies Initiative seeks to teach 500 students annually at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and up to 800 more marine studies-related students in Corvallis.

A critical first step in the initiative is a new $50 million, 100,000-square-foot building that could open as early as 2018 in Newport. The Oregon Legislature approved $24.8 million in state bonding for the facility, and the OSU Foundation will raise an additional $40 million in private funding - $25 million to match the state funds and another $15 million to support-related projects.

“The new Newport academic and research facility will be a world-class teaching and research center where OSU will address many of the most pressing problems facing the Oregon coast and the world’s oceans,” said Cowen. “This center will drive discovery; expand learning; and serve as an essential coastal community asset and economic driver.”

Barth is a 1982 graduate of the University of Colorado, where he received a bachelor’s degree in physics. He has a Ph.D. in oceanography in 1987 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

An expert in coastal oceanography, Barth led an $8.4 million interdisciplinary program to study the coastal upwelling marine ecosystem off Oregon. Near-shore studies are critical because much of the world’s population lives near coastal areas, and these marine ecosystems face myriad issues, including sustainable fisheries, ocean acidification, harmful algal blooms, hypoxia, sea-level rise and erosion.

Barth was a member of the National Science Foundation’s Observatory Steering Committee that launched the $386 million Ocean Observatories Initiative. He co-wrote the proposal that resulted in Oregon and Washington being selected as the site for the OOI’s Endurance Array, a sophisticated network of underwater sensors designed to monitor changing ocean conditions.

He also has been a co-principal investigator for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), which has received more than $56 million to conduct nearshore research and educate students.

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

barth@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Jack Barth
Jack Barth

Study finds major earthquake threat from the Riasi fault in the Himalayas

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New geologic mapping in the Himalayan mountains of Kashmir between Pakistan and India suggests that the region is ripe for a major earthquake that could endanger the lives of as many as a million people.

Scientists have known about the Riasi fault in Indian Kashmir, but it wasn’t thought to be as much as a threat as other, more active fault systems. However, following a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in 2005 on the nearby Balakot-Bagh fault in the Pakistan side of Kashmir – which was not considered particularly dangerous because it wasn’t on the plate boundary – researchers began scrutinizing other fault systems in the region. 

What they found is that the Riasi fault has been building up pressure for some time, suggesting that when it does release or “slip,” the resulting earthquake may be large – as much as magnitude 8.0 or greater.

Results of the new study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, have been accepted for publication by the Geological Society of America Bulletin, and published online. 

“What we set out to learn was how much the fault has moved in the last tens of thousands of years, when it moved, and how different segments of the fault move,” said Yann Gavillot, lead author on the study who did much of the work as a doctoral student at Oregon State University. “What we found was that the Riasi fault is one of the main active faults in Kashmir, but there is a lack of earthquakes in the more recent geologic record.

“The fault hasn’t slipped for a long time, which means the potential for a large earthquake is strong. It’s not a question of if it’s going to happen. It’s a matter of when.” 

There is direct evidence of some seismic activity on the fault, where the researchers could see displacement of the Earth where an earthquake lifted one section of the fault five or more meters – possibly about 4,000 years ago. Written records from local monasteries refer to strong ground-shaking over the past several thousand years.

But the researchers don’t have much evidence as to how frequent major earthquakes occur on the fault, or when it may happen again. 

“The Riasi fault isn’t prominent on hazard maps for earthquake activity, but those maps are usually based more on the history of seismic activity rather than the potential for future events,” said Andrew Meigs, a geology professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study. “In actuality, the lack of major earthquakes heightens the likelihood that seismic risk is high.”

The researchers say 50 percent of the seismic “budget” for the fault can be accounted for with the new information. The budget is determined over geologic time by the movement of the tectonic plates. In that region, the India tectonic plate is being subducted beneath the Asia plate at a rate of 14 millimeters a year; the Riasi fault accounts for half of that but has no records of major earthquakes since about 4,000 years ago, indicating a major slip, and earthquake, is due. 

“In the last 4,000 years, there has only been one major event on the Riasi fault, so there is considerable slip deficit,” Meigs said. “When there is a long gap in earthquakes, they have the potential to be bigger unless earthquakes on other faults release the pressure valve. We haven’t seen that. By comparison, there have been about 16 earthquakes in the past 4,000 years in the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Northwest coast of the United States.”

Gavillot said a major earthquake at the Riasi fault could have a major impact on Jammu, the Indian capital of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, which has a population of about 1.5 million people. Another 700,000 people live in towns located right on the fault. 

“There are also several dams on the Chenab River near the fault, and a major railroad that goes through or over dozens of tunnels, overpasses and bridges,” Gavillot said. “The potential for destruction is much greater than the 2005 earthquake.”

The 2005 Kashmir earthquake killed about 80,000 people in Pakistan and India.

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Yann Gavillot, 541-908-1414, ygavillot@gmail.com; Andrew Meigs, 541-737-1214, meigsa@geo.oregonstate.edu

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Photos by Yann Gavillot

Panorama of the Riasi fault system

Panorama of Riasi

Kashmir Himalaya region

3.Bidda terrace

Traditional rural homes at risk in an earthquake:

Rural Home

Comprehensive report of world’s transboundary water basins finds hotspots of risk

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Environmental stresses including climate change and population growth will have an enormous impact on the world’s waterways that cross international borders, a new report concludes, but economic development may have consequences just as far-reaching.

The United Nations Environmental Group has just completed the most comprehensive assessment of the world’s 286 transboundary river basins yet attempted and identified “hotspots” where geopolitical risks are projected to increase in the next 15 to 30 years.

“The proliferation of dams and diversion of water from countries that are upstream from other nations that are dependent on that water is of growing concern,” said Aaron Wolf, an internationally recognized water treaty expert from Oregon State University, who was involved in creating the report. “There simply isn’t enough water to go around.”

These transboundary river basins and other waterways span 151 countries and include more than 40 percent of the world’s population and land area. The analysis, “Transboundary Waters Assessment Programme,” was a collaborative effort between eight international organizations and research institutes and Oregon State University.

Among the areas considered hotspots, the report concludes, are the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin.

The Tigris-Euphrates river basins are the focus of much of the stress in the Middle East, Wolf pointed out. Turkey is building dams upstream, which could reduce water previously used by Iraq and Syria. Political destabilization and the control of some dams by ISIS further complicates the issue.

“It is a blueprint for trouble,” Wolf said, “when a country upstream wants to build a dam and has no agreement with the country or countries downstream.”

Central Asia became a hotspot after the breakup of the Soviet Union, which once controlled the water in the region. In recent years, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan have developed plans to construct dams that would reduce water now being used for irrigation downstream in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Increasing use of water from Central Asian river has resulted in the lowering of the Aral Sea, and increased dangers from toxic waste deposits.

The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna basin has a similar issue, which is repeating itself through the Chinese Himalayas, said Wolf, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“China has massive energy requirements and has been very active in building dams as they try to wean themselves off coal,” Wolf said. “Water is being impacted on many of the rivers in the Himalayas in one form or another and 1.5 billion people downstream rely on it. In some of the delta, as the rivers drop, salt water intrudes and further destabilizes the environment.”

The Nile basin faces similar issues, Wolf noted.

Not all of the troubled areas are because of political issues, the OSU researcher pointed out. The southwestern United States and northern Mexico rely almost solely on the Colorado River and the Rio Grande for water.

“We have great agreements with Mexico,” Wolf said. “But there’s just not a lot of water there. And climate change may make it worse.”

Many of these hotspots have been known about for some time, but the baseline data in the assessment combined with the first comprehensive look at the impact of multiple stressors may allow policy-makers to get ahead of the curve before disaster strikes, Wolf said.

“From a geopolitical standpoint, if you can identify places where things have the potential to blow up before people realize it, you can jump-start the conversation and begin what we call “preventive diplomacy,’” Wolf noted. “Imagine if we could have had such a conversation about the Klamath River basin in Oregon before the drought of 2001.”

One area of potential trouble, Wolf said, is in the Salween basin, where water from China may be dammed before it can get to Myanmar and Thailand. “All three countries have development plans for the region,” he said, “and none of them are compatible.”

The Helmand and Harirud basins, shared by Afghanistan and Iran, also have the potential for flare-up, Wolf said.

“The U.S. wants Afghanistan to develop its economy and become more independent, but Iran downstream also wants that water and has tenuous relations with us. We hope that the information in this report will provide early warning so appropriate actions can be taken to prevent escalating tensions.”

The report is available online at http://twap-rivers.org/

Partners in the assessment include the Center for Environmental Systems Research, Germany; Center for International Earth Science Information Network, Columbia University; City University of New York, Delta Alliance; International Union for the Conservation of Nature; International Geosphere-Biosphere Program; Oregon State University; Stockholm International Water Institute; and the United Nations Environment Program-DHI Partnership.

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Aaron Wolf, 541-737-2722, wolfa@geo.oregonstate.edu

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Fish traps at the site of a proposed dam on the Mekong River at the border between Laos and Cambodia. This photo is available at: https://flic.kr/p/FMkr5H 
















dam
A micro-hydro facillty on the Salween River in Yunnan Province, China, along a stretch of river slated for large dam development.

 

OSU lecture to explore the 'Lost City' and ocean research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A veteran of more than 50 dives to the ocean floor in the submersible Alvin will describe in a lecture at Oregon State University a remarkable new underwater warm spring system she discovered.

Deborah Kelley’s find, dubbed “Lost City,” is the focus of the annual Hydrothermal Vent Discovery Lecture, hosted by OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. This free public talk will begin at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 1, in OSU’s Gilfillan Auditorium.

In 2000, Kelley discovered a new kind of seafloor hot spring vent in the Atlantic Ocean, with huge limestone spires hosting a novel assemblage of organisms.

“This astounding vent system, ‘Lost City,’ possesses a unique chemistry which supports a novel ecosystem,” said OSU oceanographer Robert Collier, one of the organizers of the lectures.

“This discovery vastly expands the regions of the seafloor still to be explored for hydrothermal vents," added OSU oceanographer Martin Fisk, another organizer of the events. 

Kelley is a marine geologist whose dives in the Alvin probe the ocean to a depth of 4,000 meters, or more than 13,000 feet. The hot springs at these vent sites can reach temperatures of more than 680 degrees Fahrenheit. 

She also will give a seminar on Thursday, March 31, at noon in Burt Hall Room 193 on research opportunities using the Cabled Observatory off the Oregon coast – part of the National Science Foundation-funded Ocean Observatories Initiative. OSU is one of the leaders on the project.

The lecture series celebrates the discovery of hydrothermal vents and their ecosystems on mid-ocean ridges in 1977 by a research team that included OSU scientists. Since that initial discovery, more than 300 vent fields have been explored.

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Martin Fisk, 541-737-5208, mfisk@coas.oregonstate.edu

OSU recognizes climate scientist, computer expert with Distinguished Professor awards

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University has named Peter Clark and Margaret Burnett as its 2016 Distinguished Professor recipients, the highest academic honor the university can bestow on a faculty member.

 “Both Peter Clark and Margaret Burnett are visionary scientists whose careers are affecting people all over the world,” said Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost and executive vice president.

“The work of Dr. Clark is cutting-edge science that helps everyone better understand what climate change may mean to them, using the past as a powerful guide to help predict the future. And we live in a world where computers are pervasive, used by everyone from elementary school students to retirees. An expert in visual programming languages, Dr. Burnett has made those instruments more user-friendly, interactive and dependable for all people.”

Burnett, a professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, has been a pioneer in making computers more useful for everyone. As a leader in several gender diversity activities, including advancing STEM education, Burnett was awarded the 2015 undergraduate research mentoring award from the National Center for Women & IT.

She helped develop the entire field of “end user” software engineering, which allows millions more people to successfully produce computer programs that are dependable and of high quality. Burnett has also tackled the problem of a computer world in which software is often designed by men and fails to acknowledge the different ways in which men and women communicate and process information.

This field of “gender-inclusive” computer study is also critical in bringing more women into technology, a goal which Burnett has worked toward for decades. She is an award-winning mentor to graduate, undergraduate and high school students.

Burnett received her doctorate in computer science from the University of Kansas and has been at OSU since 1992.

Clark, a professor in the OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, is an international leader in the study of past climate change to help understand what the future may bring. He has had numerous studies published in the most prestigious academic journals in the world, such as Science, Nature and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Clark also was a lead coordinating author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

With more than $4 million in research funding brought to OSU, Clark has studied glaciers and ice sheets, both those of today and from the distant past, to help determine what may be the long-term impacts of anthropogenic warming, rising greenhouse gases, and sea level rise. He’s also an award-winning teacher, recipient of 11 other major awards, has organized 20 symposia, and his professional work has generated literally thousands of citations.

Clark received his doctorate in geology from the University of Colorado and has been at OSU since 1988.

This honor will be permanent as long as the recipient remains at OSU. Both professors will give public lectures this spring on topics related to their field of study.

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Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-0733

Geologist to present Condon Lecture

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Ellen Morris Bishop, an Oregon geologist, educator, author, and photographer will present the 2015-16 Thomas Condon Lecture on Wednesday, Feb. 24, at Oregon State University.

The lecture is free, open to the public and designed for a non-specialist audience. It is titled "Oregon's Climates through Time - Stories in the Stones."

The presentation will be at 7 p.m. in Austin Auditorium of the LaSells Stewart Center on the OSU campus, and refreshments will be available at 6:30 p.m. The Condon Lecture, named after a pioneer of Oregon geology, helps to interpret significant scientific research for non-scientists.

Bishop earned a doctorate in geology from OSU and has written two books on Pacific Northwest geology: “Living with Thunder” in 2014 and “In Search of Ancient Oregon” in 2003, which won the 2004 Oregon Book Award for non-fiction.

She has done extensive geologic research, published scientific articles, and taught geology and environmental science courses in positions at several universities, community colleges and experiential learning programs.  Bishop was a science columnist for The Oregonian and the science reporter for The Columbian of Vancouver, Washington; has been the director of the Oregon Paleolands Institute in Fossil, Oregon; and served on advisory boards for regional watershed councils and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Bishop will also give a more technical presentation on a related topic in the George Moore Lecture titled “Saving Science in a Demon-Haunted World.” That event will be at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 25, in Gilfillan Auditorium.

The OSU Research Office and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences are sponsoring the presentations.

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John Dilles, 541-737-1245

Science Pub to explore the future of water in the West

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Over the next 50 years, the availability and distribution of water in the West are likely to look very different than they do today – a topic that will be explored by a hydrologist at the Corvallis Science Pub on Monday, Feb. 8.

A changing climate will conspire with hydrology and geology to determine where and when water is available for human use, says Gordon Grant, hydrologist with the U.S. Forest Service and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University.

At the Science Pub, Grant will discuss the uncertain and at times paradoxical future of water in the West. The event is free and open to the public, and will begin at 6 p.m. at the Old World Deli, 341 S.W. 2nd St. in Corvallis.

Grant’s research focuses on watershed and river dynamics, particularly the interactions among geological, hydrological, and climatic processes in sculpting landscapes.

 

Sponsors of Science Pub include Terra magazine at OSU, the Downtown Corvallis Association and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.

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Gordon Grant, 541-750-7328

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McKenzie River

Climate can grind mountains faster than they can be rebuilt, study indicates

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers for the first time have attempted to measure all the material leaving and entering a mountain range over millions of years and discovered that glacial erosion can, under the right circumstances, wear down mountains faster than plate tectonics can build them. 

A study of the St. Elias Mountains on the Alaskan coast by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida, Oregon State University and elsewhere found that erosion accelerated sharply about one million years ago.

The study adds insight into a longstanding debate over the balance of climate and tectonic forces that influence mountain building, which defines how landscapes are shaped by and in turn influence climate. The findings will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The international research team, working under the Integrated Ocean Drilling program, included Oregon State University Professors Alan Mix and Joe Stoner and postdoctoral researcher Maureen Walczak as well as other scientists from the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Norway, India, China, Japan, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The seagoing expedition was the culmination of more than a decade of field work. On a previous expedition, the researchers first mapped a huge submarine sediment fan in the Gulf of Alaska built by sediment eroded from the nearby mountains. Next, they recovered sediment cores to understand the fan environments and recent history. The cores are now archived in the national repository at Oregon State.

Most recently, the researchers collected and dated almost four kilometers of drill cores from the floor of the gulf and the Alaskan continental shelf, revealing millions of years of geologic history.

“It turned out most sediments were younger than we anticipated, implying that erosion was higher than we expected,” said lead author and co-chief scientist Sean Gulick of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics.

Mountain ranges form when tectonic plates thrust into one another over millions of years and scrunch up the Earth’s outer crust. But even as mountains are built by these titanic forces, other agents work to wear them down.

“About a million years ago, short, 40,000-year climate oscillations jumped into a new mode with stronger, 100,000-year long glacial cycles, and erosion of the mountains accelerated under attack from the ice,” Gulick said. “In fact, more rock was eroded than tectonics has replaced.”

Co-chief scientist John Jaeger of the University of Florida added: “People often see mountain ranges as permanent, but they aren’t really. If more rock is pushed in, they grow, and if more rock is eroded away, they shrink.”

Since the mid-Pleistocene, erosion rates have beaten tectonic inputs by 50 to 80 percent, demonstrating that climatic processes that ultimately drive the glaciers can outstrip mountain building over a span of a million years. The findings highlight the pivotal role climate fluctuations play in shaping Earth’s landforms.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how well we could establish ages of the sediment sequences and the composition of the sediment gave clear evidence of when the glaciation started and then expanded, in sync with global climate trends,” said co-author Mix of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Only by drilling the sea floor where the sediment accumulates could we see these details in focus.” 

The study was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

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Alan Mix, 541-737-5212, mix@ceoas.oregonstate.edu