college of earth

OSU scientist receives prestigious Sloan Research Fellowship

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Angelicque “Angel” White, an oceanographer from Oregon State University, has received a 2012 Sloan Research Fellowship from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Fellowships were awarded to 126 top young researchers in the United States and Canada. Awarded annually since 1955, the fellowships are given to early-career scientists and scholars identified as rising stars and the next generation of scientific leaders.

“Today’s Sloan Research Fellows are tomorrow’s Nobel Prize winners, said Paul L. Joskow, president of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Sloan Fellowships historically have been awarded in seven fields, including chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, evolutionary and computational molecular biology, neuroscience, and physics. This year, the foundation expanded to include ocean sciences and awarded eight fellowships in that field, including the one to White.

White is an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences whose work focuses on ocean productivity and phytoplankton physiology. She is a member of the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education (C-MORE), and has been active in a collaborative project to monitor harmful algal blooms off the Oregon coast.

She also has studied the Pacific Ocean “garbage patch,” a huge collection of plastic trapped in a gyre off the West Coast, which she has described as problematic, but exaggerated in scale in many media reports.

Sloan Fellowships provide $50,000 over two years for equipment, technical assistance, professional travel, trainee support and other activities supporting the fellow’s research.

A list of the 2012 recipients is available at: www.sloan.org/fellowships/page/21

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Angel White, 541-737-6397

Scientists discover reason for Mt. Hood’s non-explosive nature

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For a half-million years, Mount Hood has towered over the landscape, but unlike some of its cousins in Oregon’s Cascade Mountains and many other volcanoes around the Pacific “Rim of Fire,” it doesn’t have a history of large, explosive eruptions.

Now a team of scientists has found out why.

In new research just published online in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, lead author Alison Koleszar of Oregon State University and her colleagues describe how mixing of magma deep beneath Mount Hood appears to have prevented it from blowing its top over the millennia. Their research has been funded primarily by the National Science Foundation.

Volcanic eruptions are usually described as “high-explosivity” or “low-explosivity” events, said Koleszar, who is a post-doctoral researcher in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. Many volcanoes have experienced both. High-explosivity events are often referred to as Plinian eruptions, named after Pliny the Younger who described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii in AD 79. During these eruptions, large amounts of magma are ejected into the atmosphere at high velocity – such as Mount St. Helens in 1980 and Mount Pinatubo in 1992.

But studies of the rocks around Mount Hood show that the volcano has never experienced a Plinian eruption despite having similar chemical magma composition and gas contents as other volcanoes that have gone through these violent episodes.

The reason, Koleszar says, is that eruptions at Mount Hood appear to be preceded by episodes of intense mixing between magmas of different temperatures. Hot magma rises from deep below Mount Hood and mixes with the cooler magma that underlies the volcano. Heat from the deeper, hotter magma increases the temperature and lowers the viscosity of the magma that eventually erupts.

Instead of exploding, a la Mount St. Helens, magma at Mount Hood oozes out the top of the volcano and piles up to form a lava dome.

“If you take a straw and blow bubbles into a glass of milk, it will bubble up and allow the pressure to escape,” Koleszar said. “But if you blow bubbles into a thick milkshake you need more pressure and it essentially ‘erupts’ with more force as bits of milkshake get thrown into the air. Add a little heat to the milkshake, though, and it thins out and bubbles gently when you blow into it, more like the glass of milk.

"That what Mount Hood has been doing – heating things up enough to avoid a major explosion.”

What happens instead of an explosive eruption is more of a hiccup, according to Adam Kent, an OSU volcanologist who was Koleszar’s major professor when she earned her doctorate. The researchers analyzed three eruptive events on Mount Hood from the past 30,000 years, the last of which occurred about 220 years ago. These low-explosivity events resulted in the formation of lava domes near Mount Hood’s summit. Crater Rock, on the south side of the mountain, is a remnant of one of these lava domes.

“Instead of an explosion, it would be more like squeezing a tube of toothpaste,” said Kent, who also is an author on the study. “Lava piles up to form a dome; the dome eventually collapses under its own weight and forms a hot landslide that travels down the side of the volcano. In contrast, during a Plinian event such as the kind seen at other volcanoes, ash and rock are blown high into the air and distributed all over.”

Although Mount Hood lacks an explosive history, it doesn’t mean the 11,240-foot peak is completely docile. Collapses of the lava dome at Crater Rock about 1,500 years ago, and again 220 years ago, sent scalding landslides of hot lava blocks down the south side of the volcano, Kent pointed out.

“These types of events have dominated the eruptive activity at Mount Hood for the past 30,000 years,” Kent said. “The other danger is from lahars, which are major mudflows that stream down the side of the mountain at some 50 miles-an-hour, with the consistency of cement. They result when heat from the magma melts snow and mixes it with the volcanic ash and rock.

“Lahars probably accompany most eruptions of the volcano, and can even occur between eruptions after heavy rains or rapid snowmelt,” Kent added. “And they can go quite a ways – all the way to the Columbia River, for instance.”

Koleszar said few other volcanoes around the world act quite like Mt. Hood. It is, she said, a poster child for low-explosivity eruptions.

“Mount Hood is really cool because it is such a model for one extreme of volcano behavior,” Koleszar pointed out. “It may not have the colorful history of Mount Mazama or St. Helens, but it has its own niche among volcanoes – and now we better understand why it behaves the way it does.”

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Alison Koleszar, 541-737-1232

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Mount Hood

OSU researcher part of Mars rover science team

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An Oregon State University researcher, who has spent much of his recent career exploring life in volcanic rocks, has been selected as a participating scientist for the new Mars expedition that may bring scientists closer to discovering life on another planet.

NASA launched the Mars Science Laboratory on Nov. 26 of last year and the mission includes a rover named “Curiosity” that will explore the Martian landscape after landing there this August.

Martin Fisk and 28 other researchers selected as participating scientists will join other science-team members and engineers in guiding Curiosity. The mission will investigate whether an area of Mars has ever been conducive to harboring life, but is not designed for detecting life, NASA officials say.

“One goal is to identify key samples of the rock and soil and identify those areas that might represent habitable environments,” Fisk said, “so that a future mission can select the right rocks to be returned to Earth.”

Fisk is a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State. He was part of a research team that in 1998 discovered evidence of rock-eating microbes living nearly a mile beneath the ocean floor. Trails and tracks in the glassy basalt contained microbial DNA. The rocks have the basic elements for life, he pointed out, include carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen – and needed only water to complete the formula. Groundwater seeping through the ocean floor could easily provide that.

“Under those conditions,” Fisk said at the time, “microbes could live beneath any rocky planet.”

The Mars Science Laboratory science payload will not have the capacity to detect tracks and trails of the type Fisk has studied; however it does have the capacity to detect environments similar to those where tracks and trails formed on Earth.

Five years ago, Fisk examined part of a meteorite that originated from Mars and found the same kinds of tracks and trails left by the subterranean microbes on Earth, but he was unable to locate DNA in the Martian sample. More than 30 such meteorites that have originated from Mars have been identified; they carry a unique chemical signature based on the gases trapped within. Scientists speculate that the rocks were “blasted” off the planet when Mars was struck by asteroids or comets, eventually entering the Earth’s orbit and crashing to the ground.

One such meteorite is called Nakhla, which landed in Egypt in 1911 and provided the source material for Fisk’s study. Scientists dated the igneous rock fragment from Nakhla, which weighs about 20 pounds, at 1.3 billion years in age. They believe it was exposed to water about 600 million years ago; however, if life was present then, evidence for it has not yet been found in the meteorite.

Fisk and his colleagues have also found bacteria in a 4,000-foot hole drilled into volcanic rock on the island of Hawaii near Hilo, fueling further speculation that life may exist below the surface of Mars. And late in 2011, he and his colleagues from OSU and Portland State University reported the discovery of rock-eating microbes in a lava tube near Oregon’s Newberry Crater. What made that discovery interesting was the microbes consumed organic material (sugar) in the laboratory, but when the scientists lowered the temperature and oxygen levels to near Mars-like conditions, the microbes began consuming olivine – a common material found in the Newberry volcanic rocks and on Mars.

Scientists believe Mars historically has had life-sustaining water, and may still have.

“Mars is thought to have gone through three major stages,” Fisk said. “Initially, the planet had water near the surface, and then it evaporated and the surface was covered by sulfate salts, which are still preserved today. Now it appears to be in an oxidative phase, where there is ice as well as a very real possibility that water exists below the surface.”

Fisk will spend a couple of weeks in March and June at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., where he and other participating scientists will familiarize themselves with the operation of the Curiosity rover and its 10 instruments. For three months after the Mars Science Laboratory lands, he and the other members of the science team will provide daily instructions to Curiosity. Then for the duration of the two-year mission, the team will meet online to decide on daily operations and long-term plans.

Ideally, the scientists would like to identify organic matter in the shallow subsurface, Fisk said, but it would be a major step forward to document chemical differences in the rock and be able to visually identify them by color, texture or layering so they can more easily locate future sites for retrieval.

The rover will include a drill and scoop at the end of its robotic arm to gather soil and powdered samples of rock interiors, and instrumentation to analyze the samples inside the rover. It will also include a laser for vaporizing rock and checking its elemental composition from a distance.

“This is a huge project and the scientists and engineers have been developing the instrumentation for 6-8 years,” Fisk said. “There are 10 instruments on the rover and each instrument has a science team of 10 to 20 people, along with the community of (29) scientists invited to participate.

“It should make for a fascinating summer.”

The mission is scheduled to touch down in August and place the rover Curiosity near the foot of a mountain inside Gale Crater on Aug. 6. If all goes according to plan, the rover will then investigate the planet for nearly two years.

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Martin Fisk, 541-737-1458

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Fisk and microbe track Martin Fisk

Oregon preparing for debris from Japanese tsunami

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As the one-year anniversary of the devastating March 11, 2011, Japanese earthquake approaches, and debris from the ensuing tsunami moves closer to the West Coast, a group of Oregon agencies, university scientists, political staff, non-governmental organizations and others is preparing for its arrival.

This week, the group held a conference call to review Oregon’s response to the potential arrival of the debris and to chart a communication strategy to educate West Coast residents about what may happen. Questions directed at state and county leaders, Oregon State University Extension experts, the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center and others are increasing daily.

When will the debris arrive? Where will it land? Is there any danger of radioactivity? What shall we do if we find something?

Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer and expert in ocean currents, said the debris is still months away from arriving on the West Coast, though it is possible that strong winds may push some floating items that rise high above the surface more quickly to the North American shore. Floats from Japanese fishing nets have washed up on the Washington coast in recent weeks, but those haven’t been tied directly to the tsunami.

“Material from Asia washes up on the West Coast routinely,” Barth said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it is tsunami-related. A Russian ship discovered a small Japanese fishing boat in the waters north of Hawaii in October that was definitively tied to the tsunami – and it was about where we thought it should be, given the currents.” NOAA reports no radiation was detected on the fishing boat.

Barth, who is the associate dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, has met with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, and representatives of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and various Oregon agencies and organizations in recent weeks. He said it is difficult to calculate how much debris remains in the ocean, and what exactly will arrive on our shore.

When and how it arrives is a matter of ocean physics, he pointed out.

“Much of the debris generated from the earthquake and tsunami has or will become waterlogged, weighed down with barnacles or other organisms, and sink,” Barth said. “A large fraction of it will be diverted south into the ‘Garbage Patch’ between Hawaii and the West Coast, and may circulate in that gyre.

“What remains should arrive here at the end of 2012, or the beginning of 2013,” he added. “If it arrives in the fall and winter, it will get pushed up north by the currents to Washington, British Columbia and even Alaska. Debris arriving in late spring and summer will hit Oregon and be swept south into California waters.”

What does arrive is unlikely to be dangerous, according to Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at OSU. Higley was one of the most widely cited scientists following the incidents at Japan’s Dai-ichi nuclear plant after the earthquake. She says the lag time between the tsunami and the nuclear incident, coupled with the vastness of the ocean, makes it unlikely that the debris will carry any danger from radiation.

“The major air and water discharges of radioactive material from the Dai-ichi plants occurred a few days after the debris field was created by the tsunami,” Higley pointed out. “So the debris field was spread out at the time the discharges occurred. This would have diluted the radiological impact.

“Secondly, wind, rain and salt spray have been pummeling this material for months,” she said. “The key radionuclides are composed of iodine and cesium – which are chemically a lot like chlorine and sodium. Most of the iodine has gone because of radioactive decay. The radioactive cesium, to a great extent, will be washed off and diluted in the surrounding ocean.

“Therefore, while we may be able to detect trace amounts of radioactive material on this debris, it’s really unlikely that there will be any substantial radiation risk,” Higley said.

Staci Simonich, an OSU professor of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology, has been monitoring the air for emissions from Japan and said that since last April (2011), radiation levels were at “background.”

“Those are naturally occurring levels – at concentrations far below standards for public safety,” she said.

NOAA is monitoring the debris from a national perspective and has a website that can educate the public and keep interested persons updated. It is at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/.  The agency suggests that beachcombers and others who find material they think may be from Japan report it at disasterdebris@noaa.gov – and use common sense.

They write: “As with any outdoors activity, it is important to follow common sense and put safety first. Avoid picking up debris that you are not well-equipped and trained to handle. For example, be careful of sharp objects that could cut yours hands; avoid picking up sealed containers of chemicals – they may crack or break and spill the content on you; likewise, report any full drum on the beach, and avoid handling it yourself. If you are uncomfortable handling any debris item, leave it where it is.”

Jamie Doyle, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist in Coos and Curry counties, said a variety of Oregon agencies and non-governmental organizations are beginning to plan for various response scenarios. As Oregon’s planning progresses, she says, “expect more information for the public.”

“One other concern is what should happen if someone finds any personal effects,” Doyle said. “A lot of people lost their lives, and many people still have family members who are missing. We need to be sensitive to the possibility of finding something that may be of personal significance to someone in Japan.”

Tomoko Dodo, from the Consulate General of Japan’s office in Seattle, has asked that persons finding something that could be considered a personal “keepsake” for a survivor report it to local authorities, or the consulate in Seattle at 206-682-9107.

Patrick Corcoran, an OSU Extension Sea Grant specialist for the North Coast, said the focus thus far has been on research and “building the capacity to respond” to the arrival of the debris. Specific information on Oregon resources and contacts will be forthcoming, he said.

Among the other organizations working on planning Oregon Surfrider Foundation, Stop Oregon Litter and Vandalism (SOLV), Coast Watch, Oregon Emergency Management, Oregon Public Health Division; West Coast Governors’ Alliance; Oregon Parks and Recreation Department;  Oregon Refuse and Recycling Association; Oregon Fishermen’s Cable Committee; Office of U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden; Office of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber; Washed Ashore; Oregon Department of Environmental Quality; Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development; U.S. Coast Guard; and Western Oregon Waste.

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

OSU to retire one research vessel, take over operation of another

NEWPORT, Ore. – For more than 35 years, the Oregon State University research vessel Wecoma has carried scientists out of Newport to sea to learn about fisheries, climate change, undersea earthquakes and volcanoes, tsunamis, marine dead zones and other scientific issues.

The R/V Wecoma made its last official voyage in November, taking a research team off the Northwest coast to map the Cascadia Subduction Zone. And now the venerable vessel is heading into retirement.

In its place, another ship in the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, the 35-year-old Oceanus, will support scientific research in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oceanus was also scheduled to be retired but will arrive in Newport, Ore., in February after making the long trek from the East Coast.

This changing of the ships is somewhat unusual, according to Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU.

Abbott approached the National Science Foundation about a rapid analysis of the two ships to see which one would be more cost-effective to operate over the next several years. A team of technicians returned the verdict – a strong recommendation for the 177-foot Oceanus.

“During the analysis, we also discovered some problems with the Wecoma’s hull, as well as corrosion that would have required costly dry-docking,” Abbott pointed out. “The combination of that discovery and the overall report prompted us to send a letter of interest to the NSF to take over the Oceanus and retire Wecoma.”

“There are a few differences in science capabilities,” Abbott added, “but Oceanus is very capable and will be more cost-effective to operate over the next five to 10 years, at which point we hope to have a new ship.”

OSU has operated large research vessels since 1964, and has had the Wecoma since 1975. The fate of the ship is unclear – after its retirement from the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, OSU and National Science Foundation leaders will review options for disposition.

Oregon State is an active member of UNOLS, a consortium of 60 academic research institutions that operate 16 vessels around the country, according to Demian Bailey, OSU’s marine superintendent. Wecoma and Oceanus are owned by the National Science Foundation and support research projects funded primarily by NSF and the U.S. Navy.

Both ships will be docked at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, adjacent to a new facility built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to maintain its Pacific fleet. That fleet supports monitoring and research needs of NOAA.

OSU also operates the 54-foot Elakha and 85-foot Pacific Storm, which are used primarily for near-shore research.

Oceanus will leave Woods Hole in late January, sail through the Panama Canal and arrive in Newport in late February. It will be ready to support the first OSU research cruise in late March.

A retirement celebration for the Wecoma will be held at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in March.

The Wecoma:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1995;
  • 184.5 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 12 knots
  • Range: 7,200 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 13 crew members and 18 scientists

The Oceanus:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1994;
  • 177 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 11 knots
  • Range: 7,000 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 12 crew members and 14 scientists

History of OSU Research Vessels

  • 1964 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 180-foot Yaquina
  • 1968 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 80-foot Cayuse
  • 1975 – The School of Oceanography commissions the 184-foot Wecoma
  • 2000 – The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences commissions the 54-foot Elakha
  • 2012 – The College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences takes over operation of the 177-foot Oceanus.
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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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R/V Oceanus

Satellite imagery detects thermal “uplift” signal of underground nuclear tests

The study this release is based on is available at OSU Scholars Archive: http://ir.library.oregonstate.edu/xmlui/handle/1957/26406

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis of satellite data from the late 1990s documents for the first time the “uplift” of ground above a site of underground nuclear testing, providing researchers a potential new tool for analyzing the strength of detonation.

The study has just been published in Geophysical Research Letters.

Lead author Paul Vincent, a geophysicist at Oregon State University, cautions that the findings won’t lead to dramatic new ability to detect secret nuclear explosions because of the time lag between the test and the uplift signature, as well as geophysical requirements of the underlying terrain. However, he said, it does “provide another forensic tool for evaluation, especially for the potential explosive yield estimates.”

“In the past, satellites have been used to look at surface subsidence as a signal for nuclear testing,” said Vincent, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “This is the first time uplift of the ground has correlated to a nuclear test site. The conditions have to be just right and this won’t work in every location.

“But it is rather interesting,” he added. “It took four years for the source of the uplift signal – a thermal groundwater plume – to reach the surface.”

The focus of the study was Lop Nor, a nuclear testing site in China where three tests were conducted – May 21, 1992; May 15, 1995; and Aug. 17, 1995. Vincent and his colleagues analyzed interferometric synthetic aperture radar (InSAR) images from 1996-99 and detected a change in the surface beginning four years after the tests.

Though the uplift was less than two inches, it corresponds to known surface locations above past tests within the Lop Nor test site.

From past studies, the researchers knew that heat from underground detonation of nuclear devices propagates slowly toward the surface. At most sites – including the Nevada National Security Site – that heat signal dissipates laterally when it reaches the water table, which is usually deep beneath the surface.

At Lop Nor, however, the water table is only about three meters below the surface, and the heated groundwater plume took four years to reach that high, lifting the ground above the detonation site slightly – but enough to be detected through InSAR images.

Lop Nor also is characterized by a hard granite subsurface, which helps pipe the heated water vertically and prevents the subsidence frequently found at other testing sites.

A past study by Vincent, published in 2003, first shed light on how subsidence can manifest itself in different ways – from the force of the explosion creating a crater, to more subtle effects of “chimneying,” in which the blast opens up a chimney of sorts and draws material downward, creating a dimple at the ground surface.

Before joining the OSU faculty in 2007, Vincent spent several years as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

Vincent said the analysis of nuclear explosions has become a specialized field. Seismology technology can provide an initial estimate of the energy of the explosion, but that data is only good if the seismic waves accurately reflect coupling to the connecting ground in a natural way, he explained. Efforts are sometimes made to “decouple” the explosive device from the ground by creating specializing testing chambers that can give off a false signal, potentially masking the true power of a test.

“Subsidence data combined with seismic data have helped narrow the margin of error in estimating the explosive yield,” Vincent noted, “and now there is the potential to use test-related thermal expansion as another forensic tool.”

Co-authors on the paper with Vincent include Sean Buckley of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dochul Yang, the University of Texas-Austin, and Steve Carle, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

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Paul Vincent, 541-737-9176

Atypical La Niña may still show teeth, but dry weather prevails

CORVALLIS, Ore. – So far this December, Portland has been drier than Tucson, Ariz., Corvallis has been as cold as Buffalo, N.Y., and central Oregon has experienced less precipitation than it did in July.

Despite the presence of a second consecutive La Niña event, this has been anything but a normal end to the year, according to analysts at the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University.

“When all is said and done, Oregon’s precipitation in 2011 may not be all that unusual,” said Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service, “but how we got to where we’re at has been a little bit different. We had the second wettest spring on record in Oregon this year, but things have really dried out this fall and we didn’t have our first 90-degree day until September.

“However, last winter we had a La Niña as well, and a lot of people got concerned because it was drier than normal in January and February,” she added. “But then things really kicked into high gear with spring rain; so it’s a little early to panic.”

The reason for the recent spate of cool, dry weather – atypical for La Niña years – has been a high-pressure system that has plopped down over the Pacific Northwest and diverted all of the storm systems to the north and south, Dello said.

The clear, calm conditions have made most Oregon nights rather cold and there is enough moisture in the air to create foggy conditions – especially in the Willamette Valley from Eugene to Portland. The lack of wind and other weather activity, coupled with the sun being at its lowest point, has kept the fog from dissipating and created an air inversion. When that happens, fog settles into the valley up and down the Interstate-5 corridor and lowers the temperature several degrees.

“On some days in the last few weeks, it was warmer at Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood than it was in Portland or Salem,” Dello said.

Portland has had only .14 inches of rain December, and the storms that have diverted to the north and south have carried our precipitation to other regions. Tucson, Ariz., in contrast, has had more than two inches of rain this month.

Portland is not alone. Bend/Redmond has had only a trace of rain in December, even less than the 0.6 inches the region got in July.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration forecasts that La Niña conditions should persist through the end of winter, but what that means remains to be seen, Dello pointed out.

“La Niña can tilt the weather toward being cooler and wetter, but all La Niña events are not created equally,” she said. “There was a La Niña in 2008 during which Portland got almost 20 inches of snowfall in December, the La Niña of last year was different, and this year has started off unusually dry for any December, regardless of a La Niña event.

“Last year it was drier than normal in January and February before getting really wet in the spring, and that could happen again,” she added, “but no one knows for sure.”

Dello said parts of Oregon may see rain this Christmas weekend and the Willamette Valley could be hit with freezing fog, which creates some of the most dangerous driving conditions each winter. Freezing fog occurs when the water droplets are below freezing, but don’t actually form ice until they come into contact with a solid surface – like roads or windshields.

The Oregon Climate Service has a variety of weather- and climate-related links on its website and offers historical data for Oregon: http://ocs.oregonstate.edu/

The OSU program also has a Twitter account (twitter.com/orclimatesvc) where Dello updates followers with data on record temperatures, extreme conditions, and anniversaries of unusual events, like last fall’s tornado in Aumsville. 

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Kathie Dello, 541-737-8927

Scientists find microbes in lava tube living in conditions like those on Mars

The journal article this release is based on is available at: http://hdl.handle.net/1957/25386

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists from Oregon has collected microbes from ice within a lava tube in the Cascade Mountains and found that they thrive in cold, Mars-like conditions.

The microbes tolerate temperatures near freezing and low levels of oxygen, and they can grow in the absence of organic food. Under these conditions their metabolism is driven by the oxidation of iron from olivine, a common volcanic mineral found in the rocks of the lava tube. These factors make the microbes capable of living in the subsurface of Mars and other planetary bodies, the scientists say.

The findings, supported by a grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), are detailed in the journal Astrobiology.

“This microbe is from one of the most common genera of bacteria on Earth,” said Amy Smith, a doctoral student at Oregon State University and one of the authors of the study. “You can find its cousins in caves, on your skin, at the bottom of the ocean and just about anywhere. What is different, in this case, is its unique qualities that allow it to grow in Mars-like conditions.”

In a laboratory setting at room temperature and with normal oxygen levels, the scientists demonstrated that the microbes can consume organic material (sugar). But when the researchers removed the organic material, reduced the temperature to near-freezing, and lowered the oxygen levels, the microbes began to use the iron within olivine – a common silicate material found in volcanic rocks on Earth and on Mars – as its energy source.

“This reaction involving a common mineral from volcanic rocks just hasn’t been documented before,” said Martin Fisk, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and an author on the study. “In volcanic rocks directly exposed to air and at warmer temperatures, the oxygen in the atmosphere oxidizes the iron before the microbes can use it. But in the lava tube, where the bacteria are covered in ice and thus sheltered from the atmosphere, they out-compete the oxygen for the iron.

“By mimicking those conditions, we got the microbes to repeat that behavior in the laboratory,” Fisk added.

The microbes were collected from a lava tube near Newberry Crater in Oregon’s Cascades Mountains, at an elevation of about 5,000 feet. They were within the ice on rocks some 100 feet inside the lava tube, in a low-oxygen, near-freezing environment. Scientists, including Fisk, have said that the subsurface of Mars could have similar conditions and harbor bacteria.

In fact, Fisk has examined a meteorite originating from Mars that contained tracks – which could indicate consumption by microbes – though no living material was discovered. Similar tracks were found on the rocks from the Newberry Crater lava tube, he said.

“Conditions in the lava tube are not as harsh as on Mars,” Fisk said. “On Mars, temperatures rarely get to the freezing point, oxygen levels are lower and at the surface, liquid water is not present. But water is hypothesized to be present in the warmer subsurface of Mars. Although this study does not exactly duplicate what you would find on Mars, it does show that bacteria can live in similar conditions.

“We know from direct examination, as well as satellite imagery, that olivine is in Martian rocks,” Fisk added. “And now we know that olivine can sustain microbial life.”

The idea for exploring the lava tube came from Radu Popa, an assistant professor at Portland State University and lead author on the paper. Popa used to explore caves in his native Romania and was familiar with the environmental conditions. Because lava tubes are a sheltered environment and exist on both Earth and Mars, Popa proposed the idea of studying microbes from them to see if life may exist – or could have existed – on the Red Planet.

“When temperatures and atmospheric pressure on Mars are higher, as they have been in the past, ecosystems based on this type of bacteria could flourish,” Popa said. “The fingerprints left by such bacteria on mineral surfaces can be used by scientists as tools to analyze whether life ever existed on Mars.”

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Lava tube

lava tube


Microbe samples

Two of the authors collecting samples

OSU’s Abbott receives top Microsoft research award

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University oceanographic leader Mark Abbott has been named the 2011 recipient of the Jim Gray eScience Award, presented by Microsoft Research.

Abbott, who is dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, is the fourth recipient of the award since its 2008 inception. It is presented to a nationally recognized researcher who has made outstanding contributions to data-intensive computing.

He will receive the award today (Dec. 5) in Stockholm, Sweden, at a joint meeting of the 2011 Microsoft Research eScience workshop and the annual Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference.

The award is named for Jim Gray, a Microsoft Research innovator, who disappeared at sea in 2007. A video feature focusing on the Gray Award is available on the Microsoft Research homepage.

"The Jim Gray eScience Award recognizes innovators who use computing to advance scientific discovery," said Tony Hey, corporate vice president, Microsoft Research Connections. "Mark Abbott represents the essence of this award with his outstanding contributions to integrating biological and physical science, data-intensive science and educational leadership."

Under Abbott’s leadership, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has developed an international reputation for its research – especially in the collection, synthesis and distribution of data. The college’s Environmental Computing Center houses one of the most sophisticated marine science computing networks in the country, and OSU researchers are global leaders in data-driven research on climate change, near-shore oceanography, ocean-atmosphere interactions and other fields.

Abbott’s own research has pioneered the use of satellite measurements of ocean productivity, the deployment of an array of biological sensors in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica, and the use of advance computer technology on board ocean gliders and vehicles. All of these projects involved the collection and synthesis of complex data sets through the use of data-intensive information technology.

OSU also is a leader for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the National Science Foundation’s $386 million signature project to monitor the oceans’ response to climate change. The college operates a fleet of undersea gliders that patrol the near-shore Pacific Ocean, logging critical data.

Also being honored in Stockholm is Alex Szalay, a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist, who will receive a Jim Gray eScience award retroactively. Szaley had received a Microsoft Research award in 2007 based on technical computing contributions – the same profile as the Gray Award. He will retroactively be named a 2007 winner of the Gray Award.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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Geosciences joins COAS to form powerful new college at OSU

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The geosciences program at Oregon State University is joining the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences to form a powerful new academic and research college at OSU focusing on the Earth as an integrated system.

The move has been approved by the OSU Faculty Senate, and signed off by OSU President Edward J. Ray. It is effective immediately.

Impetus for the move sprung up from the faculty of both units, according to Mark Abbott, dean of the newly named College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“The faculty have been thinking about and planning this for more than a decade,” Abbott said. “It makes sense to look at terrestrial environments and ecology and the way they interact with oceans and the atmosphere as part of a ‘whole Earth’ approach. The opportunities for collaborative research and education are enormous.”

The move may lead to more undergraduate opportunities in ocean and atmospheric science, as well as more undergraduate research experiences, Abbott said. The former College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences was a graduate program offering master’s degrees and Ph.D.s in ocean, earth and atmospheric science, as well as through the Marine Resource Management program.

OSU’s strengths in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences are global in scope, ranging from coastal ocean dynamics and their impact on ocean ecosystems, to the study of undersea volcanoes and their link to plate tectonics, to how changes in Earth’s continents affected ancient climates. OSU is internationally recognized as a leader in the study of the Earth as an integrated system.

Faculty in the former Department of Geosciences, which had been in the College of Science, also are internationally known, with expertise in high-latitude ice sheets, glaciers, climate change, plate tectonics, volcanoes, earthquakes, snowpack, hydrology and water resources, mineral deposits, cartography and geographic information systems.

“The new college will be like an ‘honors college’ for Earth sciences,” Abbott said.

Existing undergraduate and graduate degree programs will continue and likely expand. A new Bachelor of Science degree in earth sciences was approved as well, and the college will assume responsibility for the university’s Environmental Sciences program, which offers BS and BA degrees.

The new College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has an annual budget of more than $50 million, with much of the research support coming from the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other federal agencies. It has approximately 104 faculty, 220 graduate students and 613 undergraduate students.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195