environment and natural resources

Horning lecture focuses on history of computer climate models

CORVALLIS - A scientist and author from Tacoma, Wash., will explore the ambitious and mysterious world of computer climate modeling in a lecture on Thursday, Feb. 10, at Oregon State University.

Mott T. Greene, a professor at the University of Puget Sound, will give a talk called "Doing Science When the Noise Is the Signal: The Strange Case of Computer Climate Modeling." The free public lecture begins at 4 p.m. in OSU's Memorial Union Room 206.

It is part of the 2004-05 Horning Lecture Series at OSU, "Scientific Revolutions Old and New."

Greene says computer climate modeling is one of the most ambitious - and unusual - undertakings in modern science. These computer models are virtual objects in a virtual world, yet scientists conduct "experiments" and make "discoveries" through their models.

Most models, he adds, are so large and complex that no single individual can understand how they work, succeed, or fail.

In his talk, Greene will explore the scientific and social forces that have influenced the evolution of computer climate models during the last 50 years - and look at possible future developments.

Greene, who is the John B. Magee Professor of Science and Values at the University of Puget Sound, was recognized in 1996 as the Carnegie Foundation College Professor of the Year in the state of Washington. He is the author of three books, including a forthcoming biography of Alfred Wegener that will be published this fall by The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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History Department, 541-737-3421

Symposium to discuss Measure 37

CORVALLIS - The Department of Geosciences at Oregon State University will host a roundtable symposium this Thursday to discuss the consequences of Measure 37, the initiative passed last year to compensate landowners when certain land use restrictions reduce their property value, or waive enforcement of current zoning laws.

The symposium will be Feb. 3, from 4-5:30 p.m. in Withycombe Hall Room 109 on the OSU campus. It is free and open to the public.

Measure 37 is the greatest departure from land use practices since Oregon's land use planning policies were adopted more than 30 years ago, many analysts say. The OSU symposium will address new challenges Oregon will face in the aftermath of passage of this measure.

Four panelists will participate, including former state Sen. Hector Macpherson, who authored the law that eventually governed Oregon's land use practices; former Sen. Cliff Trow, who witnessed challenges to this law through the 1980s and 1990s; Dick Benner, former head of Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development; and Ron Eber, an expert on agricultural land protection and exclusive farm use zoning.

Bill Lunch, a professor of political science at OSU, will moderate the discussions.

The symposium is part of the winter term 2005 lecture series in the Department of Geosciences, titled "Land as Society's Mirror: Human Dimensions of Landscape Change." More information on the lecture series can be found on the Web at http://www.geo.oregonstate.edu/events/seminar_series.htm.

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Ron Doel, 541-737-1243

Severe Fire Season Predicted for Western U.S.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The newest forecasts of summer drought and fire by researchers at Oregon State University and the U.S.D.A. Forest Service suggest the West is in for a fairly severe fire season, brought on by widespread drought conditions and huge fuel buildups in western forests and rangelands.

By contrast, most of the nation east of the Rocky Mountains should have few or no fire concerns in coming months, the study indicates, even though there may be some continued drought in various places and some fires are already under way in Florida and Georgia.

“Fire is a combination not just of immediate drought stress but also of recent weather years and fuel loads,” said Ronald Neilson, a professor of botany at OSU, ecologist with the Forest Service and one of the nation’s leading experts on the interaction between climate and vegetation.

“There are pockets of drought all over the country, but the coming fire season looks like it could be focused in the West and a very nasty one, worse than normal,” Neilson said. “There could be some fairly large fires.”

Among the areas of greatest fire risk, the latest analysis shows, are much of northern California; southern Arizona and New Mexico; and the Great Basin, especially some hot spots in eastern Idaho and southwestern Wyoming. In the Pacific Northwest, portions of southern Oregon, northeastern Oregon and eastern Washington are projected to have some significant fires. Most of the Cascade Range and Coast Range face lesser risk this year.

Drought predictions are more diverse, showing drought of varying severity in western Oregon and Washington, most of California and the Southwest, Florida, Wyoming, the Northern Plains, and northern Wisconsin and Minnesota. Wetter than normal conditions are expected in the Ohio Valley, Maine, western New York and one area that’s traditionally very dry – the Llano Estacado of West Texas and New Mexico.

Various computer models and programs were used to produce these projections, and there was a pretty strong agreement among different models, the scientists said. This suggests that the level of confidence in the predictions should be reasonably high.

According to Neilson, a moderate El Nino condition – referring to circulation patterns in the tropical Pacific Ocean that affect weather all over the world – seems to be shifting towards a weak La Nina event. Ordinarily, that would produce conditions a little dryer in the Southwest and wetter in the Northwest – but so far, Neilson said, some of the drought conditions in parts of Oregon, Washington and Northern California appear to be very persistent.

Beyond current weather, fire concerns in the West are largely a reflection of recent history, Neilson said.

“We’ve heard a lot of discussion and talk about thinning of western forests to reduce drought stress and improve forest health, but in actual practice that hasn’t occurred on a broad scale,” he said. “Combined with fire suppression or exclusion and a fairly moderate climate in the past 50 years, that has led to extreme fuel buildups and excess biomass in many western forests. There’s a lot of material out there ready to burn.”

The Great Basin also faces concerns, researchers say, based on an invasive species – cheatgrass. This type of grass has often displaced native bunchgrass that tends to stay alive and green longer during the summer, lessening fire risk. Cheatgrass is an annual that dies off during the summer, leading to bigger rangeland fires that also tend to take out sagebrush and the ecosystem associated with it.

Story By: 

Ron Neilson,

Multimedia Downloads

Fire Risk Map Drought Severity Map
Researchers from Oregon State University and the USDA Forest Service have developed fire predictions (Fig. 1) for the coming summer fire season, based on drought conditions (Fig. 2) and other data. They suggest the West will face a fairly severe forest and rangeland fire season in 2007, while the East will have pockets of drought but almost no major fires.

Scientists, managers outline black-tailed deer decline

CORVALLIS - Black-tailed deer, once numerous throughout the woods of western Oregon, are suffering a population decline, scientists reported at a conference this week at Oregon State University.

The event attracted about 300 wildlife and forest scientists, managers, family forest owners and hunters to explore relationships between deer and elk populations and forest practices in western Oregon.

Habitat change seems to be a main factor in the population decline, although there may be others, such as an invasive louse that spreads rapidly through deer herds.

The sag in population shows up in declining estimates of the deer population and in the lower numbers of deer harvested by hunters in recent years, said presenter DeWaine Jackson of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. The elk population has increased in recent years, but there are warning indicators that their numbers may also decline in the future.

According to presenter John Cook, a wildlife biologist with the National Council for Air and Stream Improvement, animals that don't get enough of the right kind of food in the summer and fall may not put on enough fat to carry them through the winter in good health. Undernourished females tend to have fewer young. And because the underweight mothers don't have as much milk as the healthy ones, their young also tend to be underweight, making them less likely to survive and thrive.

"We're finding that nutrition from late spring through early autumn is more important than we thought," Cook said.

While disease also has played a role in declining deer populations, the health of big game seems to be closely related to forest management, said Cook. A forest in its early successional period, the first 10 or 15 years, provides the best forage for big game. Both deer and elk prefer the deciduous shrubs and soft-stemmed plants that come in after a forest fire or clearcut. Once the forest canopy begins to close, these plants lose out to less palatable and less nutritious evergreen shrubs and ferns.

"If we want large, productive populations of deer and elk," said Cook, "scientific evidence suggests that there must be a reasonable amount of early-successional vegetation."

Good quality big-game habitat has declined significantly in recent decades, said Hal Salwasser, dean of the OSU College of Forestry. The abundance of early-successional forests that existed during the 1960s and 1970s is either maturing forest now, or it's being managed as plantation forestland, with aggressive weed control to promote fast growth of the trees.

"Federal policy has created mostly late-successional forests on federal lands for the sake of conserving old-growth wildlife," said Salwasser, a wildlife biologist. "However, forests support different species of wildlife during their different successional stages."

The species that prefer older forest are different from the ones that prefer younger forest - not only big game but other mammals and birds, Salwasser said.

"If we want the full range of forest-dwelling wildlife across our landscape, then, as a society, we need to maintain forests at their full range of successional stages," he said.

There is evidence that deer forage may be improved through strategic weed control in forest plantations, according to presenter Liz Cole, a forest ecologist with OSU's Department of Forest Science. In some of the experiments Cole described, the plants that came in after spraying may be better big-game forage than those that were growing on unsprayed sites.

In addition, an exotic louse recently introduced into the Pacific Northwest may be contributing to a decline in the general health of the deer population, said presenter Bruce Coblentz, an OSU wildlife biologist. The louse, first reported in Washington in 1995, is thought to be responsible for the hair loss observed among black-tailed deer in the past few years. Itching from the louse makes the deer bite and chew at the affected patches until their hair falls out.

Conference sponsors were the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Oregon State University, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Forest Industries Council, and Oregon Department of Forestry.

Salwasser praised the recent initiative by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission to create a comprehensive wildlife management plan with the involvement of scientists, forest and wildlife managers, hunter and other conservation interests, and the public.


Hal Salwasser, 541-737-1585

Well, Septic System Class and Water Testing Offered

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Two free community classes to help people take the mystery out of maintaining and managing their private wells and septic systems will be held in May, sponsored by the OSU Extension Well Water Program.

“If you have a household drinking water well and septic system, chances are that they didn’t come with an owner’s manual,” said Gail Andrews, director of the program and instructor of this class. “And for most rural residents, the opportunity and motivation to learn about these water systems usually comes when something goes wrong. But we can help people protect their homestead investment, their family’s health, and the groundwater resource that supplies drinking water.”

The class, called “Rural Living Basics: Well Water and Septic Tanks,” will be offered twice at the Corvallis Public Library – on either Tuesday, May 22 from 6:30-8:30 p.m., or Wednesday, May 23, from 9-11 a.m.

The class is free, but pre-registration is requested to ensure that adequate materials are available. To register for the class or for more information, contact the Benton County OSU Extension Service at 541-766-3556 or chrissy.lucas@oregonstate.edu

Class participants may also have their water screened for nitrates by bringing about a half a cup of untreated well water in a clean, water-tight container. Nitrate has been associated with a type of blue-baby syndrome, and there are emerging concerns about additional health problems associated with nitrate in drinking water. The areas at greatest risk in the southern Willamette Valley are those with well-drained soils on the valley floor.

Coliform bacteria is the other test recommended for all drinking water wells. This must be done by a laboratory, but under a special arrangement, coliform bacteria testing by Pacific Analytical Labs will be offered to class participants at a reduced cost of $20.

To take advantage of this offer, participants must pick up a special bottle at one of the drop points, return it on the designated day, and test results will be distributed at the class. Sample bottles with instructions are available at: Benton County and Linn County OSU Extension Service offices; LBCC Lebanon Center registration desk; Oregon Department of Forestry in Philomath, and Dari Marts in Monroe and Harrisburg. There are a limited number of bottles.

More information on these topics can be obtained on the web at http://wellwater.oregonstate.edu

Story By: 

Gail Andrews,

OSU faculty to hold global climate change symposium

CORVALLIS - Four faculty members from Oregon State University's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences will present a public symposium called "Explaining Global Climate Change" that runs from 7-9 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 25.

The symposium, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Church at 2945 NW Circle Blvd. in Corvallis.

In their presentation, three OSU oceanographers and one atmospheric scientist will discuss scientific evidence suggesting recent, progressive warming of the oceans and atmosphere. They also will look at how global warming has affected the Arctic regions, how "greenhouse" gases work, cycles of glaciation and related levels of carbon dioxide, and the future of Earth's climate.

Presenting will be James Coakley, a professor of atmospheric sciences; Kelly Falkner, a marine chemist who has conducted several research projects in the Arctic Ocean; Charlie Miller, a professor emeritus and marine ecologist who studies plankton and other biological life; and Alan Mix, a geological oceanographer who looks at climate change over thousands of years.


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Charlie Miller, 541-737-4524

Shift in deer, elk populations prompts conference

CORVALLIS - A professional conference on Wednesday, Jan. 19, at Oregon State University will explore a significant change that has taken place in deer and elk populations in western Oregon - and the implications this has for forest and wildlife management decisions.

The key issue, organizers say, is that elk populations in this region of Oregon have exploded in recent years at the same time that blacktail deer numbers have crashed, in part due to an epidemic of hair loss syndrome. Experts attending the conference will examine how this dramatic shift in large wildlife numbers might be related to changing forest management practices and also how it might have an impact on future forest operations.

The event is titled "Relationships Between Forestry, Deer and Elk in Western Oregon."

"These are important issues from both a wildlife and forest management perspective," said Rick Fletcher, a professor of forestry Extension at OSU. "We're bringing in leading experts from all over the region to help biologists and forestry professionals understand what is going on, what is causing these changes and what may be some of the options for dealing with them."

Some people point to recent changes in forest management practices on both public and private lands that may be having an impact on these population trends in deer and elk, said Fletcher. As timber harvesting has declined on U.S. Forest Service and other public lands in western Oregon over the past 20 years, deer and elk have moved onto adjacent private lands that are being intensively managed for younger forests.

"Elk in western Oregon tend to travel more in large herds than deer do, and they can step on small trees, they even pull newly planted trees out of the ground," Fletcher said. "In general elk are far more destructive than deer when it comes to forestry plantings. This has led to major concerns by private landowners about the destruction of young forests on lands they are trying to manage."

Meanwhile, an invasive form of deer lice that first appeared several years ago in the Puget Sound area has moved into Oregon, causing catastrophic mortality of up to 50 percent in deer populations. Called deer hair loss syndrome, the exotic lice cause deer to literally pull their hair out, get hypothermia and often die. They are also being displaced from some lands by elk herds.

"Right now, hair loss syndrome is mostly just a problem for the blacktail deer on the west side, but recent studies have shown it can also affect mule deer that are more common in eastern Oregon, so we're very concerned about what may happen to those herds in the future," Fletcher said. "This is a pretty serious issue and a huge change in the historical makeup of our large wildlife."

The conference will explore such topics as:

  • Scientific knowledge about deer and elk in western Oregon;
  • "Forest landscape trends over time, including age class, vegetation and ownership trends;
  • "Interactions between deer and elk and forest management;
  • "Forage species by time of year and age of stand, under different management objectives;
  • "Browse damage and wildlife control measures;
  • "Options for partnerships and management actions.

The event is sponsored by OSU, the Oregon Forest Resources Institute, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Forest Industries Council and Oregon Department of Forestry. It will be at the CH2M-Hill Alumni Center on the OSU campus, beginning at 8 a.m. The conference is designed for professionals but the public may attend, and there is a $30 registration fee. Call 541-737-2329 for more information.

A lunch presentation on "Forests, Deer and Elk: Where Are We Headed?" will be presented by Marla Rae, chair of the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission. Many other presentations will be made by university researchers, agency management experts and representatives of private industry, and a panel discussion with questions from the audience will be held in the afternoon.

"We have a forest products industry that's trying to survive economically and provide for the needs of public wildlife on their lands," Fletcher said. "At the same time, we have some wildlife with serious disease issues that need to be considered.

"The goal of this meeting is not to find fault," he said. "There are likely no quick and easy solutions to this situation. But we can and definitely need to find some answers, and a future that works for all involved."

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Rick Fletcher, 541-766-3554

“Surface Faults” Raise Ante for Pacific Northwest Earthquake Risks

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Much of Puget Sound and some other parts of the Pacific Northwest are vulnerable to “surface faulting” from earthquakes, researchers say, based on studies done with LiDAR – an aerial mapping technology that reveals what landforms would look like if buildings and vegetation were stripped away.

Surface ruptures, aside from the ground shaking associated with earthquakes, are the actual lines where an underlying fault breaks through the Earth’s surface. Surface faulting can send part of a building surging up or sideways, literally ripping a structure in two and causing massive destruction or loss of life.

Until the development of this powerful new technology by the U.S. Geological Survey, it had not been possible to locate surface ruptures precisely and learn how frequently they take place. The evidence of past surface faults is often hidden by dense vegetation or urbanization. But the ability to locate surface ruptures accurately and take steps to mitigate damage should prompt a new public awareness and building codes to deal with the issue, say researchers from Oregon State University.

“Most earthquake codes in Washington and Oregon consider and prepare for the damage that earthquakes can cause from ground motion or soil liquefaction,” said Robert Yeats, a professor emeritus of geosciences at OSU, and one of the nation’s leading experts on earthquakes. “In many areas, that’s adequate. But the discovery of a large earthquake about a thousand years ago on the Seattle fault, which extends beneath downtown Seattle, changed all that.”

“Now, our recent LiDAR studies have made it clear that surface faulting has been common in many parts of Puget Sound and other places in the Pacific Northwest,” he said. “This includes the Seattle Fault system, Tacoma Fault and Southern Whidbey Island Fault between Seattle and Everett. We have no codes that take this into account, no real awareness of the potential problems. We are building structures, including a wastewater treatment plant north of Seattle, which literally straddle these fault lines and could be completely destroyed or heavily damaged by ground ruptures during a future earthquake.”

Yeats will outline these problems this weekend in a presentation at a regional meeting of the Geological Society of America at Western Washington University in Bellingham.

Yeats says that he sees this as the third major step in the public and policy approach to earthquakes in the Pacific Northwest - a region once thought to be largely devoid of major earthquake potential. The first step, begun in the 1980s and led by the U.S. Geological Survey, was the realization that the entire area is vulnerable to massive Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquakes along a line from northern California to British Columbia.

“The second step we took during the 1990s was to restructure our building codes to recognize the potential for earthquake shaking, and start to build in ways that could save lives,” Yeats said. “Now, we need to take the final step, which is to realize that we can often identify the actual surface faults and better protect ourselves from ground movements directly on the fault line.”

Not all earthquakes manifest themselves with faults that cause ruptures in the Earth’s surface, Yeats said.

But some do. And when the surface is affected, the amount of ground shaking near it is even stronger, not to mention that the ground may move in two different directions beneath a building. On a thrust fault the movement might be up and down – one part of a building would get lifted while the other collapsed. On a strike-slip fault, the movement would be more sideways, literally tearing the building apart. In either case, the destruction is often catastrophic.

Awareness of this concern developed in California as far back as 1971 during the San Fernando Valley earthquake, leading that state to pass the Alquist-Priolo Act. It requires special geological studies prior to placement of certain structures on earthquake surface faults that have moved within the last 11,000 years. Oregon and Washington have no such laws or regulations.

A key in this evolving story, Yeats said, has been the growing use of LiDAR, or Light Detection and Ranging laser systems. This sophisticated airborne sensing technique can view the land from above and use technology to see the bare ground while “removing” the overlying vegetation or buildings. With it, surface faults can often be clearly seen on a map, and then ground trenching used to verify the fault and its dates of movement – similar to investigations at an archaeological site.

This technology was used, among other places, to discover the previously unknown Toe Jam Hill Fault on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound. Trenching by the U.S. Geological Survey revealed it had several episodes of surface rupture between 3,500 and 1,000 years ago. Significant earthquakes on this, or seven other Seattle-area surface faults that have been identified, could cause tens of billions of dollars in damages, Yeats said, and large loss of life.

“At this point, we still argue a little bit over the details, but this is not new science,” Yeats said. “It’s proven technology, and we can use it anywhere we want to outline risks from surface faults and do something about it, either by avoidance or earthquake engineering.”

However, Yeats said, progress on this issue is very slow, due to a lack of public awareness, government inaction and the need for new building policies.

“It may seem like common sense that you would not want to build a public school or hospital or other large building on top of an active fault that could split it in two,” Yeats said. “Unfortunately, history suggests that money will trump common sense every time.”

In places where such risks are taken far more seriously, Yeats said, building codes have been adapted and changes are already under way. Several school buildings at San Bernardino College in California are now being torn down and replaced, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, because it’s become clear that they straddle the San Jacinto Fault.

“Seattle and other parts of Puget Sound clearly have some of the most pressing concerns, because the U.S. Geological Survey has identified more surface faults that are active,” Yeats said. “But there are issues in Oregon, too. There are active surface faults in Klamath Falls that are very visible, anyone could see them. Crescent Valley High School in Corvallis straddles a fault line that may or may not be active.”

Of particular interest, he said, is the Portland Hills Fault which runs through downtown Portland. It’s not known for sure whether or not the fault is active or has caused surface disruption. Depending on the exact location of the fault, many downtown structures and the new multi-million-dollar tram may be near or actually straddle it, Yeats said.

According to Yeats, avoiding construction on a surface fault line is the easiest and most obvious solution.

But modern building and engineering techniques being developed by Jonathan Bray at the University of California, Berkeley may create other options. It may be possible, Yeats said, to design structures with special techniques that would reduce loss of life, if not completely protect a building.

Story By: 

Robert Yeats,

Multimedia Downloads

Puget Sound map
Dotted lines on this map of Puget Sound reveal many other surface faults – places in which the ground may actually rupture during an earthquake and cause catastrophic destruction to any building that straddles the fault.

Toe Jam Hill Fault
Researchers at Oregon State University say that “surface faults” pose an earthquake risk in the Pacific Northwest that is poorly understood or planned for. The Toe Jam Hill Fault on Bainbridge Island was unknown until recently, when special LiDAR images revealed it as the dark horizontal line running through the middle of this image.

OSU Researchers to Visit Site of 2004, 2005 Indonesian Quakes on Groundbreaking Project

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers from Oregon State University and an Indonesian science center are collaborating on a pioneering project to analyze the history of great earthquakes and tsunamis on the Sunda subduction zone, along the western margin of Sumatra and Java – site of one of the most devastating tsunamis in modern history.

Led by OSU marine geologist Chris Goldfinger, the expedition will travel this May to the site of a 2004 Indonesian earthquake and its resulting tsunamis, which devastated nearby Banda Aceh and other coastal cities in the Indian Ocean. They also will visit the site of a second major earthquake that struck west of nearby Nias Island in 2005.

The 43-day research project is funded by the National Science Foundation. It is based on an agreement and collaborative research plan recently developed by Goldfinger and Yusuf S. Djadjadihardja, an official with the Agency for Assessment of Application of Technology in Indonesia.

The project “continues the important cooperation between Indonesia and the United States on potential tsunami and earthquake related natural disasters” that was embodied in a previous hazards research agreement, said John Heffern, United States Embassy Charge d’Affaires.

This will be the first research ship from the United States allowed in Indonesian waters in nearly 30 years, said Goldfinger, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. The researchers will take a series of piston core samples from aboard the R/V Roger Revelle, operated by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The 32-member scientific team will include at least eight scientists from Indonesia, who will collaborate closely on the analysis of the findings from the cruise.

“The region has had many, many earthquakes in its past, yet we know very little about its seismic history because of its remoteness and access issues,” said Goldfinger, one of the world’s leading experts on subduction zone earthquakes. “Historical records indicate that there were major earthquakes in Padang in 1797 and 1833 in addition to the two more recent quakes, but the evidence beyond that is a little spotty.”

The researchers will leave Phuket, Thailand, on May 7 and cruise to an area in the Indian Ocean west of Banda Aceh, which is on the northern tip of Sumatra, the largest island in Indonesia. From there, they will begin taking a series of core samples – about five to six meters in length – from the seafloor, which is about 4,000 to 6,000 meters below the surface.

They will collect roughly 50 core samples from the ocean along the west coast of Sumatra. From those cores, they will be looking for coarse sediments called “turbidites” that provide evidence of past earthquakes.

When a major offshore earthquake occurs, Goldfinger says, the disturbance causes mud and sand to begin streaming down the continental margins and into the undersea canyons. Sediments run out onto the abyssal plain. The coarser turbidites stand out distinctly from the fine particulate matter that accumulates on a regular basis between major tectonic events.

By dating the fine particles through carbon-14 analysis and other methods, they can estimate with a great deal of accuracy when major earthquakes have occurred.

Goldfinger has used the technique to recreate the seismic history of the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the coast of the Pacific Northwest, where he has documented 34 major earthquakes during the past 10,000 years. At least 19 of those quakes, he says, ruptured along the entire length of the subduction zone – requiring an event of magnitude 8.5 or larger.

Going back further than 10,000 years has been difficult in the Cascadia Subduction Zone because the sea level used to be lower and West Coast rivers emptied directly into offshore canyons, Goldfinger pointed out. Because of that, it was difficult to distinguish between storms debris and earthquake turbidites.

“We hope to create the same kind of history for the Indian Ocean region, which is surprisingly similar to the Cascadia Subduction Zone in structure,” Goldfinger said. “If anything, the Indian Ocean is even better suited for this analysis because there is a huge basin between the rivers and the deep ocean that keeps the terrestrial sediments close to land.”

The researchers will further hone in on the dates of the deposits by studying the fossil record and variations in magnetic north that are recorded in the sediments.

On Dec. 26, 2004, a massive undersea earthquake centered west of Sumatra shook the entire region, generating a series of tsunamis that swamped low-lying coastal areas. Nearly 230,000 persons were killed or are still missing – one of the most devastating natural disasters in history. The earthquake’s magnitude was estimated between 9.1 and 9.3.

In March of 2005, a magnitude 8.7 quake struck an area just to the south, killing an estimated 1,300 people – most on the Indonesian island of Nias. Scientists are unsure whether the second quake was an aftershock or took place because the entire fault has been weakened.

“That’s why it is so important to gather the seismic history of the region,” Goldfinger said.

Eight researchers from OSU – including faculty, technicians and graduate students – will join colleagues from Indonesia as well as researchers from Germany and Japan on the study.

Story By: 

Chris Goldfinger,

Scientists Link Volcanic Eruption with Historic Major Global Warming Period

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A team of scientists announced today confirmation of a link between massive volcanic eruptions along the east coast of Greenland and in the western British Isles about 55 million years ago and a period of global warming that raised sea surface temperatures by five degrees (Celsius) in the tropics and more than six degrees in the Arctic.

The findings were reported in this week’s edition of Science.

The study is important, experts say, because it documents the Earth’s response to the release of large amounts of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and methane – into the atmosphere, and definitively links a major volcanic event with a period of global warming.

“There has been evidence in the marine record of this period of global warming, and evidence in the geologic record of the eruptions at roughly the same time, but until now there has been no direct link between the two,” said Robert A. Duncan, a professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University and one of the authors of the study.

Other authors are Michael Storey, from Roskilde University in Denmark, and Carl C. Swisher, from Rutgers University.

The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, or PETM, was a period of intense warming that lasted roughly 220,000 years. In addition to the warming of sea surface waters, this event – characterized by scientists as a “planetary emergency” – also greatly increased the acidification of the world’s oceans and led to the extinction of numerous deep-sea species.

Warming periods in Earth’s history are of interest as analogs to today’s climate change, Duncan said.

The international science team was able to link the PETM with the breakup of Greenland from northern Europe through analyzing the ash layers deposited toward the end of the peak of the volcanic eruptions. Using chemical fingerprints and identical ages, they were able to positively match ash layers in east Greenland with those in marine sediments in the Atlantic Ocean.

“We think the first volcanic eruptions began about 61 million years ago and then it took another 5 million years for the mantle to weaken, the continent to thin and the molten material to rise to the surface,” Duncan said. “It was like lifting a lid. The plate came apart and gave birth to the North Atlantic Ocean.”

The link from the volcanism to the warming period came through correlations with the marine fossil record. Dramatic changes in the carbon-isotopic composition of the ocean, corroded plankton shells, and the extinction of some bottom-dwelling organisms characterize the PETM. This interval occurred about 300,000 years before the ash layer, at the peak of volcanic activity in east Greenland.

The scientists speculate that massive release of greenhouse gases – carbon dioxide and methane – from the “out-gassing” of the lava flows and heating of organic-rich sediments in basins along the east Greenland margin were responsible for the global warming and changes in ocean chemistry.

The breakthrough came from being able to find a marker – the ash eruption – that was distributed all over the North Atlantic, and showed up in the marine record as well, Duncan said.

The volcanic activity that took place in Greenland 55 to 61 million years ago brought up some 10 million cubic kilometers of magma from below the Earth’s surface. These lava flows can be plainly seen today in Greenland, western Scotland and the Faeroe Islands, where they cooled, leaving a layered sequence of lava flows as deep as six kilometers in some places. Duncan said the eruptions are similar in scale with the well-known Deccan Flood Basalts in India.

“They are also about 40 times as big as the Columbia River basalts in Oregon and Washington,” he said.

The Columbia River basalts likely had few global impacts, but the Deccan Flood Basalts, the Siberian Traps, and the Parana Flood Basalts in South America all coincide with periods of global warming or changes in the ocean chemistry, Duncan pointed out. No conclusive links have been established, however, he added.

“Similarly large submarine volcanic events correlate with major marine anoxic events – periods of no oxygen in the deep-ocean water – which we think are triggered by high surface productivity of plankton that have responded to nutrients released into the ocean by hydrothermal activity,” Duncan said.

Story By: 

Bob Duncan,