environment and natural resources


CORVALLIS - The Environmental Science Graduate Program at Oregon State University is adding a new option in which students can concentrate their studies - natural resources.

Coursework focused in this field of study will integrate biology, ecology and management with sociology, economics, policy, ethics and communications, officials say, and should be ideally suited to multidisciplinary research and problem resolution.

"The broad study of natural resources concerns the relationship between natural and managed population systems, human systems and the environment they share," said Andrew Blaustein, director of the program. "This new area of concentration should fit well with OSU's strategic plans for the future."

Those goals include understanding the dynamics and sustainability of the Earth and its resources, optimizing the health and well-being of the public, managing natural resources in a fashion that protects quality of life, and sustaining natural resource based industries.

Existing master's and doctoral degrees can both be awarded in the new area of concentration, Blaustein said. More information on the programs can be obtained on the web at http://oregonstate.edu/dept/envsci.

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Andrew Blaustein, 541-737-5356

First coordinator hired for Oregon State University Master Naturalist Program

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Jason O'Brien must adapt to an entirely new ecosystem this month after leaving Iowa State University to become the first coordinator of the new Master Naturalist Program at Oregon State University.

But O'Brien looks forward to the challenges he faces in learning about Oregon's natural resources in what he calls a dream job. "When it comes to people, Iowa and Oregon have a lot of similarities," he said, "primarily because the land is the basis of how we make a living."

Prior to his arrival in Oregon, O'Brien was interim ISU Extension wildlife specialist and director of the Iowa NatureMapping Program.

O'Brien will "put wheels under the program" that has been under development for more than a year and a half, according to Jim Johnson, program leader of the OSU Forestry and Natural Resources Extension program. O'Brien will start training the first volunteers next spring.

The Master Naturalist program is similar to the popular OSU Master Gardener program in that individuals receive training from university experts and volunteer their services to the community.

Volunteers will help with education at schools and interpretation at nature centers, Johnson said. Stewardship projects might involve planting trees or removing invasive plants, and volunteers can do "citizen science" with research projects such as water-quality monitoring.

"The Master Naturalist program is a great fit in Oregon," Johnson said, "and funding is secured for three years. People like to have an organized way to help the environment, and this is a good way to do it," he said. Funding agencies are the Oregon Department of Forestry and four OSU Extension Service programs: Forestry and Natural Resources, Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, 4-H Youth Development and Sea Grant.

Other organizations that have expressed interest in becoming advisers and partners include the Oregon Coast Aquarium, the Siskiyou Field Institute in Cave Junction and the Oregon Zoo in Portland.

In addition, OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport received funding from the National Science Foundation to start work on the coastal regional program.

The statewide program is expected to have training for everyone, as well as by eco-regions such as the coast, Klamath-Siskiyou and eastern Oregon regions.

The OSU Master Gardener program began in 1976 and trains more than 800 people a year. The first 24 volunteers in the newly formed Climate Masters program trained last winter. Other OSU programs are the Master Woodland Manager, Master Food Preservers, Master Recyclers and Master Watershed Stewards.


Jim Johnson, 541-737-8954


CORVALLIS - Typical fall weather may arrive early this year, with cooler temperatures, potentially wet conditions and a better-than-average chance for a severe wind, rain or even snow storm through December.

But the turn of the calendar to 2005 should usher in above-average temperatures, though don't put away the umbrellas too early. It may still be wet.

Oregon State University atmospheric scientist George Taylor, who serves as the state climatologist, says Oregon's fall and winter weather is influenced by a variety of factors, from sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific Ocean to climate cycles that researchers are just beginning to understand.

"One of the useful tools we use is to analyze analog years, in which El Nino and La Nina conditions are similar to the current year, as are other factors like surface temperatures, wind conditions and solar cycles," Taylor said. "And one thing that stands out about this coming fall and winter is that the highest analog years were characterized by some extreme weather events.

"If that holds true, we could see a major wind storm, a snow storm, high rainfall events, or maybe even a tornado," he added. "They're rare in Oregon, but they do occur."

Conditions were similar in 1971-72, Taylor said, when a flood struck northwestern Oregon in January of 1972, leading to two deaths and numerous injuries. In the spring of that year, a tornado began near Portland and crossed the Columbia River into Washington.

In 1987, another analog year, there weren't any "extreme" events, Taylor said. But a windstorm in December with 50- to 60-mile-an-hour winds caused three deaths, and an unusually late snowstorm in March of 1988 bogged down the state in a slushy mess.

"The year 1994-95 was a truly wild one for weather," Taylor said. "After a peaceful early fall, storms began in late October and continued on and off all winter. Two major storms hit within five days of each other, dousing western Oregon and causing huge snowfall in the Cascades. Winds hit 70-miles-an-hour in Tillamook and gusts up to 100-miles-an-hour were recorded at 7,000 feet on Mt. Hood.

"Then in December, a major snowstorm affected western Oregon, all the way down to the valley floors," he added.

OSU's Taylor offered the following forecast for fall and winter in Oregon:

  • The Oregon Coast: October through December will have slightly below-normal temperatures and slightly above-normal precipitation. Temperatures and precipitation should be slightly above normal January through March.


  • The Willamette Valley: Near-normal temperatures and slightly above-normal precipitation October through December; and slightly above-normal temperatures and precipitation January through March.


  • Southwest Interior: Slightly below-normal temperatures and precipitation October through December; above-normal temperatures and slightly above-normal precipitation January through March.


  • Northeast Oregon: Slightly above-normal temperatures and precipitation October through December; above-normal temperatures and slightly above-normal precipitation January through March.


  • Southeast Oregon: Near-normal temperatures and precipitation October through December; above-normal temperatures and near-normal precipitation January through March.

The complete forecast is available at the Oregon Climate Service website, through OSU. It can be accessed at: http://www.ocs.oregonstate.edu/index.html.

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George Taylor, 541-737-5705

Kitzhaber to reflect on salmon, science in Jan. 6 OSU lecture

CORVALLIS - Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber will reflect on salmon, science and the recent evolution of Oregon's salmon policy when he delivers the John V. Byrne Lecture at Oregon State University on Thursday, Jan. 6.

Kitzhaber's lecture, "From Science to Public Action: The Oregon Approach to Natural Resource Management," will begin at 4 p.m. in Austin Auditorium of OSU's LaSells Stewart Center. The talk, sponsored by Oregon Sea Grant and the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, is free and open to the public.

This year's lecture is also part of "Celebrate 2000," a series of talks sponsored by OSU, the Corvallis Gazette-Times and Albany Democrat-Herald newspapers, and Linn-Benton Community College.

Although it had been developing over nearly a century, the salmon crisis escalated in Oregon not long after Kitzhaber started his first term as governor in 1995. As increasing runs of wild salmon became candidates for federal Endangered Species Act listing, the state was forced to face the prospect of federal intervention.

The result, forged under Kitzhaber's leadership, was the Oregon Plan for Salmon and Watersheds. The plan, the only one of its kind in force nationwide, takes a science-based, land owner-focused, watershed-wide approach to restoring at-risk native salmon runs, initially along the coast but now throughout the state.

In his 1998 State of the State speech, Kitzhaber explained the philosophy behind the Oregon Plan: "... We can accomplish more for our environment - and for our sense of community - by helping people do the right thing than by simply punishing them for their past practices; ... we will accomplish more for a watershed when a community has made it a priority than when the state has made it a mandate."

Despite a court ruling and a subsequent National Marine Fisheries Service decision which stripped the Oregon Plan of some of its formal authority, Kitzhaber this year issued an executive order reaffirming the state's intent to use the plan to guide state and local restoration efforts.

A key to the federal government's acceptance of the Oregon Plan as a restoration strategy is its reliance on science to help shape decisions about habitat and fish management. Under the Oregon Plan, biologists, forest ecologists, oceanographers and other scientists are considered an integral part of the restoration team, along with resource managers, agency staff and land owners.

The plan calls for an independent, multidisciplinary science team to periodically review the state's efforts to ensure that "the best scientific information available" backs up Oregon's restoration efforts. The first such review was issued this past September.

Kitzhaber is the third lecturer in the Byrne series, named after John Byrne, OSU president from 1984-95. A marine geologist, Byrne was the first head of OSU's Oceanography Department (1972) and subsequently served as dean of research, acting dean of the Graduate School, and vice president for research and graduate studies.

Oregon Sea Grant and COAS established the lecture series to increase public awareness and discussion of scientific and public policy issues concerning the ocean and atmosphere and related subjects. Doors open for the lecture at 3:15 p.m. LaSells Stewart Center is located at 26th Street and Western Boulevard, across from Reser Stadium.

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Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, 541-737-3504


CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new report concludes that wood is one of the most environmentally sensitive building materials for home construction - it uses less overall energy than other products, causes fewer air and water impacts and does a better job of the carbon "sequestration" that can help address global warming.

The research showed that wood framing used 17 percent less energy than steel construction for a typical house built in Minnesota, and 16 percent less energy than a house using concrete construction in Atlanta. And in these two examples, the use of wood had 26-31 percent less global warming potential.

This $1 million study was prepared by the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials, a non-profit corporation of 15 research universities. It was published in the Journal of Forest Products and is the first major update on this topic since a 1976 report by the National Academy of Science.

The type of information and data provided in this report may be increasingly useful as consumers and government agencies try to identify construction techniques and materials for homes and other structures that minimize environmental impacts, said James Wilson, a professor of wood science and engineering at Oregon State University, and vice president of this research consortium.

"There's a significant consumer movement and even some voluntary standards that are interested in 'green,' or environmentally conscious construction methods," Wilson said. "We need to have a good understanding of the overall effects that different types of construction have in such areas as energy consumption, global warming, air and water impacts, or solid waste disposal."

California and some other states are already moving towards "environmentally preferable purchase" standards that identify the best materials to use for energy conservation, environmental protection and other issues, Wilson said. And it's quite possible that some states or localities may legally require such approaches in the future for construction of public buildings, he said.

After some experimentation with new building approaches such as concrete or steel in recent decades, Wilson said, it appears that for environmental purposes we may return to one of the most ancient, tried-and-true materials of them all - wood.

"We've seen a general substitution for wood in many aspects of home construction for years, using less of it for siding, windows, roofing, other purposes," Wilson said.

"Price and availability of wood were some of the factors involved, along with building codes," he said. "And about five years ago the steel industry began a big push for more use of steel in home construction, which didn't accomplish as much as that industry hoped for, but did have some impact."

The new study that was done looks at the total "life-cycle assessment" of different construction products and techniques, considering such issues as how materials are grown, mined, processed, produced, used and ultimately disposed of, to give a better picture of their overall impact on the environment. It considers effects on energy use, air and water emissions, global warming and other topics.

Although many people are not aware of their overall makeup, houses require a broad range of natural resources, such as limestone, clay, iron ore, sand, gypsum, wood fiber, resins, coal and more. The process of building them uses energy in the form of electricity, diesel fuel, gasoline, wood, coal, or nuclear power. The cumulative impact of using all these natural resources and energy can be significant in ways that are not always apparent - everything from the electricity used in running a steel mill to the mining of raw materials or the diesel fuel that powers a truck hauling logs.

Compiled in a database, this type of information can help consumers, builders, architects, policy makers or government regulators make more informed choices, Wilson said. This particular project examined the implications of a wood frame housing design versus a steel frame design for the cold Minneapolis region, and a wood frame versus concrete design for the hot, humid Atlanta area.

In the Minneapolis example, steel framing, compared to wood, used 17 percent more energy; caused 26 percent more global warming potential; caused a 14 percent higher level of air emissions of concern; more than 300 percent, or triple the level of water emissions of concern; and had about the same solid waste disposal impact.

In the Atlanta example, concrete construction, compared to wood, used 16 percent more energy; caused 31 percent more global warming potential; caused a 23 percent higher level of air emissions of concern; had the same impact on water emissions of concern; and created 51 percent more solid waste. Wood had a particular value in addressing the global warming issue, the data indicate. The growth of wood in renewable forests works to "sequester" and remove carbon from the atmosphere, and fewer carbon emissions are created in the processing needed to produce wood products than their steel and concrete counterparts.

The report also suggested ways to redesign houses to lower fossil fuel use, reduce the use of excessive amounts of materials, recycle demolition wastes and other improvements. In continued research, Wilson said, scientists hope to expand their studies of wood and other types of construction materials as they relate to even more environmental issues. It will consider more housing examples, different regions of forest resources and manufacturing, use of resins and other structural products that play a role in house construction.

The data base created in this study will be freely available to anyone, researchers say. More detail on the study can be found on the Web at www.corrim.org.

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James Wilson, 541-737-4227


CORVALLIS - Gail Andrews, a water quality educator with Oregon State University Extension, will teach two classes called "Rural Living Basics: Well Water and Septic Systems" on Sept. 28 and 29 at the Corvallis-Benton County Public Library, Sixth Street and Monroe Avenue.

Located in the library's main conference room, the classes are free and open to the public. However, pre-registration is required. To register, call Elena at (541) 737-2041 or send e-mail to maus@engr.orst.edu.

The classes are meant to help rural residents learn how to care for their private water systems to protect their family's health, their homestead investment and their community's groundwater, Andrews said.

Class times are Tuesday, Sept. 28, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. and Wednesday, Sept. 29, from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. Doors will open half an hour before the class for individual questions and browsing publications.

Both classes are the same, but are meant to accommodate people's busy schedules, Andrews said.

Participants who bring about a cup of well water in any clean container will receive a free screening of the water for nitrate.

The Southern Willamette Valley Groundwater Management Area is sponsoring the event.

For more information, contact Andrews at (541) 737-6294 or visit the Web site at http://groundwater.oregonstate.edu/willamette/.


Gail Andrews, 541-737-6294


CORVALLIS - Ross Stein, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, will present the 2004 Condon Lecture at Oregon State University on the mechanisms that trigger earthquakes.

The lecture will be at LaSells Stewart Center on the OSU campus on Wednesday, Oct. 6, beginning at 8 p.m. It is free and open to the public.

The presentation is titled "Earthquake Conversations," referring both to an accessible discussion of earthquake mechanisms and to the fact that earthquakes seem to "speak" with each other across time and space.

Stein has been a leader in research on the earthquake danger of "blind" faults that curve over horizontally in their upper reaches, so as to never reach the surface. He has advised international reinsurance companies on the earthquake risks facing Istanbul and Tokyo, and been honored by awards from the USGS, American Geophysical Union, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Stanford University.

Stein's presentation at OSU will include animations of earthquakes in action. He also will demonstrate earthquake triggering using a tabletop model.

The Condon Lecture Series at OSU was established to honor Thomas Condon, a pioneer in Oregon geology. Its purpose is to help interpret the results of significant scientific research for non-specialists.

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George Moore, 541-737-1244

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Ross Stein

Ross Stein

Forest fire prevention efforts will lessen carbon sequestration

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Widely sought efforts to reduce fuels that increase catastrophic fire in Pacific Northwest forests will be counterproductive to another important societal goal of sequestering carbon to help offset global warming, forestry researchers at Oregon State University conclude in a new report.

Even if the biofuels were used in an optimal manner to produce electricity or make cellulosic ethanol, there would still be a net loss of carbon sequestration in forests of the Coast Range and the west side of the Cascade Mountains for at least 100 years – and probably much longer, the study showed.

“Fuel reduction treatments should be forgone if forest ecosystems are to provide maximal amelioration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the next 100 years,” the study authors wrote in their conclusion. “If fuel reduction treatments are effective in reducing fire severities in the western hemlock, Douglas-fir forests of the west Cascades and the western hemlock , Sitka spruce forests of the Coast Range, it will come at the cost of long-term carbon storage, even if harvested material are used as biofuels.”

The study raises serious questions about how to maximize carbon sequestration in these fast-growing forests and at the same time maximize protection against catastrophic fire.

“It had been thought for some time that if you used biofuel treatments to produce energy, you could offset the carbon emissions from this process,” said Mark Harmon, holder of the Richardson Chair in the OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society. “That seems to make common sense and sounds great in theory, but when you actually go through the data it doesn’t work.”

Using biofuels to produce energy does not completely offset the need for other fossil fuels use and completely negate their input to the global carbon budget, the researchers found. At the absolute maximum, you might recover 90 percent of the energy, the study said.

“That figure, however, assumes an optimal production of energy from biofuels that is probably not possible,” Harmon said. “By the time you include transportation, fuel for thinning and other energy expenditures, you are probably looking at a return of more like 60-65 percent. And if you try to produce cellulosic ethanol, the offset is more like 35 percent.”

“If you take old, existing forests from these regions and turn them into almost anything else, you will have a net loss in carbon sequestration,” Harmon said.

That could be significant. Another recent OSU studied concluded that if forests of Oregon and northern California were managed exclusively for carbon sequestration, they could double the amount of sequestration in many areas and triple it in some.

The new study found that, in a Coast Range stand, if you removed solid woody biofuels for reduction of catastrophic fire risks and used those for fuel, it would take 169 years before such usage reached a break-even point in carbon sequestration. The study showed if the same material were used in even less efficient production of cellulosic ethanol, it would take 339 years.

The researchers did not consider in this analysis how global warming in coming years might affect the increase of catastrophic fire, Harmon said. However, “fire severity in many forests may be more a function of severe weather events rather than fuel accumulation,” the report authors wrote, and fuel reduction efforts may be of only limited effectiveness, even in a hotter future.

“Part of what seems increasingly apparent is that we should consider using west side forests for their best role, which is carbon sequestration, and focus what fuel reduction efforts we make to protect people, towns and infrastructure,” Harmon said. “It’s almost impossible anyway to mechanically treat the immense areas that are involved and it’s hugely expensive. As a policy question we have to face issues of what approaches will pay off best and what values are most important.”

The report was just published in Ecological Applications, a professional journal. The lead author was Stephen Mitchell, who conducted the work as part of his doctoral thesis while at OSU, and is now at Duke University. Among the findings:

  • Fuel reduction treatments that have been proposed to reduce wildfire severity also reduce the carbon stored in forests;
  • On west side Cascade Range and Coast Range forests, which are wetter, the catastrophic fire return interval is already very long, and the additional levels of fuel accumulation have not been that unusual;
  • A wide range of fire reduction approaches, such as salvage logging, understory removal, prescribed fire and other techniques, can effectively reduce fire severity if used properly;
  • Such fuel removal almost always reduces carbon storage more than the additional carbon the stand is able to store when made more resistant to wildfire, in part because most of the carbon stored in forest biomass remains unconsumed even by high-severity wildfires;
  • Considerable uncertainty exists in modeling of future fires, and some fuel reduction techniques, especially overstory thinning treatments, could potentially lead to an increase in fire severity.

The study authors concluded that fuel reduction may still make more sense in east-side Cascade Range and other similar forests, but that the west-side Cascades and Coast Range have little sensitivity to forest fuel reduction treatments – and might be best utilized for their high carbon sequestration capacities.

“Ultimately, the real problem here is global climate change,” Harmon said. “Insect epidemics are increasing, trees are dying. There are no quick fixes to these issues.”

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Mark Harmon, 541-737-8455

Fall freeze cause of spring's western juniper damage and dieback

PRINEVILLE - A wide scattering of western junipers in central and eastern Oregon are showing increasing signs of freeze damage and dieback this spring. And that could be bad news during the next wildfire season, say Oregon State University scientists who are monitor the problem.

Reports of red, dying junipers are coming in from Harney, Grant, Wheeler, Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson Counties, according to Tim Deboodt, staff chair of the Crook County office of the OSU Extension Service.

"The calls started trickling in about six weeks ago and now it has turned into a tidal wave of calls," Deboodt said. "The first sightings were on south-facing slopes. We are now seeing a red tint on all slopes, not just those that are south facing."

The juniper freeze damage is showing up as reddish brown, crumbling foliage. Some young trees have turned completely red, while some of the older trees suffer from dead foliage in crowns. The foliage death seems to start at the top of the junipers and works its way down, the scientists say.

"As you grab the needles, they crumble in your hands," Deboodt said.

Deboodt and other OSU researchers hypothesize that the juniper damage and dieback are from freeze damage from a severe cold snap last fall.

"On the 29th of October, a cold air mass moved in from Canada," said Deboodt. "For the next four days, overnight lows were around zero. OSU climatologist George Taylor reported that Seneca recorded minus 11 degrees on Oct. 31. And I've heard that Fort Rock and Christmas Valley got to minus 20 degrees."

Deboodt collected foliage, branches, stems and roots from damaged and dying junipers to be analyzed for disease or pest problems at OSU's Plant Clinic in Corvallis. There was no evidence of any diseases or pests, according to OSU plant pathologist Melodie Putnam.

"I did not see any evidence of any foliage, branch, stem, or root disease," said Putnam. "This is definitely not a disease problem."

Last fall's freeze damage wasn't apparent until spring because the junipers are fairly inactive until the weather warms up, explained Steve Fitzgerald, forester with the Deschutes County office of the OSU Extension Service.

"It takes several months for the foliage to dry out and show the extent of the damage," said Fitzgerald.

The verdict is still out on how widespread the damage and dieback will become.

"As spring changes to summer we'll have a better idea of the damage that was done," said Katie Kause, urban forester with the Oregon Department of Forestry in Prineville.

Foresters and range experts worry that the widespread juniper die-off may contribute to fire hazards this coming summer and fall.

"Unless there are high winds and high temperatures, I think that healthy juniper stands are relatively fireproof," Deboodt said. "But when large, continuous blocks of trees die, what is the risk of wildfire? When they are holding dry needles that can burn like gasoline, what are we looking at?"

To avoid increased fire hazard, Kause and OSU Extension forester Stephen Fitzgerald recommend that property owners with dead junipers remove them and take them to a landfill.

If there is only partial dieback, then junipers should be pruned.

"Some of the junipers have not died, but have branches that were affected adversely from the freeze and have died back," said Kause. "In this case landowners will want to consider only removing the dead branches by making selective pruning cuts, rather than removing the entire tree."

For more information about juniper dieback or depositing landscape material at the local landfill, call your local county office of the OSU Extension Service or your local landfill.


Tim Deboodt, 541-447-6228

Math discovery may aid natural resource management

CORVALLIS, Ore. - With the aid of a chance discovery by a graduate student, scientists from Oregon State University have identified, dusted off and found a new use for an old math theory from the early 1800s that could revolutionize the management of lands, protection of species and study of ecology.

The discovery promises for the first time to address the enormous complexities of the natural world with the powerful tools of advanced mathematics - which, until now, have been of limited use in the study of many natural resource issues. Existing mathematical approaches have often been relegated to the sidelines, in favor of time-consuming and costly experiments or trial-and-error management.

The findings are being published in the journal American Naturalist and are co-authored by Jeffrey Dambacher, Hans Luh, Hiram Li and Philippe Rossignol.

"This research should have major implications for the management of natural resources around the world," said Philippe Rossignol, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. "We're going to be able to apply mathematics to predict what might happen with a great deal more certainty than ever before. It could significantly improve the ability of ecologists, land managers and other scientists to address many issues, anything from the clarity of Crater Lake to fisheries management or emerging diseases."

OSU researchers are already using the new approaches and formulas described in this research to tackle problems from invasive species in Yaquina Bay to the ecological impact of bullfrogs and the stability of an Oregon sea urchin fishery. But the concepts are so useful and so broad, the scientists say, that these projects are barely scratching the surface of this technology's potential.

This new insight in ecological science began when OSU researchers were struggling to resolve a mathematical paradox first suggested in 1973 by a famous ecologist named Robert May, who produced a mathematical theory that made perfect sense but seemed at odds with the way the world really worked.

"One of the basic concepts of ecology for generations had been that the complexity of the natural world is a big part of what makes it persistent, that the many interrelationships, interactions and food webs among different species evolved into stable systems that worked well together," said Hiram Li, an OSU professor of fisheries and wildlife.

"But Robert May came along with a mathematical theory that suggested that increased complexity in a natural system should actually make it less stable," Li said. "The math seemed to work perfectly, but our observations of the real world ran contrary to this."

For 30 years researchers have debated this paradox between the way the world appeared to work - a "tangled web" of thriving organisms, as Charles Darwin described it - with May's mathematical description of the way it should work. Since the mathematical theory had not been reconciled with real-world observations, many field ecologists dismissed its importance. Applied mathematics are being used to manage fishing, hunting and control of pests, Li said, in situations that only relate to one or two species - but they have not been applied to ecosystems or communities.


"What we came to realize, however, is that May's mathematical analysis was not really wrong, it just didn't go far enough, as even May conceded," Rossignol said.

"So what we've tried to do is shine some light into this black box, by identifying more degrees of stability and using more variables, allowing the math to consider complexity and eventually arrive at different conclusions."

The researchers were struggling with their approach when Jeffrey Dambacher, then an OSU graduate student, had a chance conversation about what was needed with some faculty in OSU's Department of Mathematics. They mentioned a largely forgotten theorem of matrix algebra developed in the early 1800s by the French mathematician Augustin Cauchy. The theory, so far as they knew, had never yet found any useful application. But it appeared to be ideal for the problem at hand.

"It became immediately clear that this mathematical approach would take us in the direction we needed," Rossignol said. "It gives us a way to describe complex natural populations in more realistic terms, consider indirect interactions and really provide a much more accurate view of how natural systems will work. We'll be far more accurate with our predictions and can use this approach in the new field of adaptive management, improving our natural resource management approaches as we go."

The OSU scientists have fine-tuned this approach in continued research and outlined it in their new publication for other scientists to use in a comparatively simple, well-defined system.

"We're now bridging the world of biology and mathematics in a way that will let people approach complex problems using descriptive, qualitative information," Li said. "It complements data-hungry mathematical models by identifying key interactions to focus on when gathering quantitative data from a complex system. This reduces the need for complex, expensive and time-consuming experiments.

"With this approach, I can now do a computation in minutes that used to take forever. I'd literally write equations by hand on 20 feet of rolled-out butcher paper and hope I didn't make a mistake along the way."

The technique is also reliable, Li said. Using only text descriptions, these qualitative models have duplicated the predictions of studies done with classical ecological experiments.

In one recent usage, an OSU graduate student used this system to study the stability of an Oregon sea urchin fishery and answer questions about the long-term value of reserves. This would have been almost impossible with real-world experiments, but after the computer ran through 12 million mathematical combinations of possible outcomes, the scientists had the answers they had sought.

This research was supported by grants from the U.S. Geological Survey and the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.


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Philippe Rossignol, 541-737-5509