OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

War on lionfish shows first promise of success

 

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1f9fqbg

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – It may take a legion of scuba divers armed with nets and spears, but a new study confirms for the first time that controlling lionfish populations in the western Atlantic Ocean can pave the way for a recovery of native fish.

Even if it’s one speared fish at a time, it finally appears that there’s a way to fight back.

Scientists at Oregon State University, Simon Fraser University and other institutions have shown in both computer models and 18 months of field tests on reefs that reducing lionfish numbers by specified amounts – at the sites they studied, between 75-95 percent – will allow a rapid recovery of native fish biomass in the treatment area, and to some extent may aid larger ecosystem recovery as well.

It’s some of the first good news in a struggle that has at times appeared almost hopeless, as this voracious, invasive species has wiped out 95 percent of native fish in some Atlantic locations.

“This is excellent news,” said Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and lead author on the report just published in Ecological Applications. “It shows that by creating safe havens, small pockets of reef where lionfish numbers are kept low, we can help native species recover.

“And we don’t have to catch every lionfish to do it.”

That’s good, researchers say, because the rapid spread of lionfish in the Atlantic makes eradication virtually impossible. They’ve also been found thriving in deep water locations which are difficult to access.

The latest research used ecological modeling to determine what percentage of lionfish would have to be removed at a given location to allow for native fish recovery. At 24 coral reefs near Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, researchers then removed the necessary amount of lionfish to reach this threshold, and monitored recovery of the ecosystem.

On reefs where lionfish were kept below threshold densities, native prey fish increased by 50-70 percent. It’s one of the first studies of its type to demonstrate that reduction of an invasive species below an environmentally damaging threshold, rather than outright eradication, can have comparable benefits.

Some of the fish that recovered, such as Nassau grouper and yellowtail snapper, are critically important to local economies. And larger adults can then spread throughout the reef system – although the amount of system recovery that would take place outside of treated areas is a subject that needs additional research, they said.

Where no intervention was made, native species continued to decline and disappear.

The lionfish invasion in the Atlantic, believed to have begun in the 1980s, now covers an area larger than the entirety of the United States. With venomous spines, no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, and aggressive behavior, the lionfish have been shown to eat almost anything smaller than they are – fish, shrimp, crabs and octopus. Lionfish can also withstand starvation for protracted periods – many of their prey species will disappear before they do.

Governments, industry and conservation groups across this region are already trying to cull lionfish from their waters, and encourage their use as a food fish. Some removal efforts have concentrated on popular dive sites.

The scientists said in their report that the model used in this research should work equally well in various types of marine habitat, including mangroves, temperate hard-bottom systems, estuaries and seagrass beds.

A major issue to be considered, however, is where to allocate future removal efforts. Marine reserves, which often allow “no take” of any marine life in an effort to recover fish populations, may need to be the focus of lionfish removal. The traditional, hands-off concept in such areas may succeed only in wiping out native species while allowing the invasive species to grow unchecked.

Keeping lionfish numbers low in areas that are hot spots for juvenile fish, like mangroves and shallow reefs, is also crucial, the report said.

This research was done in collaboration with scientists at Simon Fraser University, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and the Cape Eleuthera Institute. It has been supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Boston Foundation and a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship.

“Many invasions such as lionfish are occurring at a speed and magnitude that outstrips the resources available to contain and eliminate them,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “Our study is the first to demonstrate that for such invasions, complete extirpation is not necessary to minimize negative ecological changes within priority habitats.”

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Stephanie Green, 541-908-3839

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Hunting lionfish

Hunting lionfish


Lionfish

Lionfish


Reef research

Stephanie Green

 

Video of researcher netting lionfish in the Bahamas:

High resolution downloadable video: http://bit.ly/1jnJ1mD

YouTube: http://bit.ly/LUj6VX

Amber fossil reveals ancient reproduction in flowering plants

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A 100-million-year old piece of amber has been discovered which reveals the oldest evidence of sexual reproduction in a flowering plant – a cluster of 18 tiny flowers from the Cretaceous Period – with one of them in the process of making some new seeds for the next generation.

The perfectly-preserved scene, in a plant now extinct, is part of a portrait created in the mid-Cretaceous when flowering plants were changing the face of the Earth forever, adding beauty, biodiversity and food. It appears identical to the reproduction process that “angiosperms,” or flowering plants still use today.

Researchers from Oregon State University and Germany published their findings on the fossils in the Journal of the Botanical Institute of Texas.

The flowers themselves are in remarkable condition, as are many such plants and insects preserved for all time in amber. The flowing tree sap covered the specimens and then began the long process of turning into a fossilized, semi-precious gem. The flower cluster is one of the most complete ever found in amber and appeared at a time when many of the flowering plants were still quite small.

Even more remarkable is the microscopic image of pollen tubes growing out of two grains of pollen and penetrating the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the female reproductive system. This sets the stage for fertilization of the egg and would begin the process of seed formation – had the reproductive act been completed.

“In Cretaceous flowers we’ve never before seen a fossil that shows the pollen tube actually entering the stigma,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the OSU College of Science. “This is the beauty of amber fossils. They are preserved so rapidly after entering the resin that structures such as pollen grains and tubes can be detected with a microscope.”

The pollen of these flowers appeared to be sticky, Poinar said, suggesting it was carried by a pollinating insect, and adding further insights into the biodiversity and biology of life in this distant era. At that time much of the plant life was composed of conifers, ferns, mosses, and cycads.  During the Cretaceous, new lineages of mammals and birds were beginning to appear, along with the flowering plants. But dinosaurs still dominated the Earth.

“The evolution of flowering plants caused an enormous change in the biodiversity of life on Earth, especially in the tropics and subtropics,” Poinar said.

“New associations between these small flowering plants and various types of insects and other animal life resulted in the successful distribution and evolution of these plants through most of the world today,” he said. “It’s interesting that the mechanisms for reproduction that are still with us today had already been established some 100 million years ago.”

The fossils were discovered from amber mines in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. The newly-described genus and species of flower was named Micropetasos burmensis.

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George Poinar, 541-752-0917

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Ancient flowers

Ancient flower


Pollen tubes

Pollen tubes

Urban areas tough on fish – but Portland leads way on mitigation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The restoration of salmon and steelhead habitat in the Pacific Northwest has focused largely on rural areas dominated by agricultural and forested lands, but researchers increasingly are looking at the impact of urban areas on the well-being of these fish.

Metropolitan areas – and even small towns – can have a major impact on the waterways carrying fish, researchers say, but many progressive cities are taking steps to mitigate these effects. The issues, policies and impacts of urban areas on salmon, steelhead and trout are the focus of a new book, “Wild Salmonids in the Urbanizing Pacific Northwest,” published by Springer.

The influx of contaminants and toxic chemicals are two of the most obvious impacts, researchers say, but urban areas can heat rivers, alter stream flows and have a number of impacts, according to Carl Schreck, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at Oregon State University and a contributing author on the book.

“One of the biggest issues with cities and towns is that they have huge areas of compacted surfaces,” Schreck pointed out. “Instead of gradually being absorbed into the water table where the ground can act as a sponge and a filter, precipitation is funneled directly into drains and then quickly finds its way into river systems.

“But urban areas can do something about it,” Schreck added, “and Portland is very avant-garde. They’ve put in permeable substrate in many areas, they’ve used pavers instead of pavement, and the city boasts a number of rain gardens, roof eco-gardens and bioswales. When it comes to looking for positive ways to improve water conditions, Portland is one of the greenest cities in the world.”

The origin of the “Wild Salmonids” book began in 1997, when the Oregon Legislature established the Independent Multidisciplinary Science Team (IMST) to address natural resource issues. In 2010, the group – co-chaired by Schreck – created a report for Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and the legislature that provided an in-depth look at the issues and policies affecting salmonid success in Oregon and the influence of urban areas. That report was so well-accepted by Oregon communities, the researchers wrote a book aimed at the public.

The new book, “Wild Salmonids in the Urbanizing Pacific Northwest,” is available from Springer at: http://bit.ly/J5Dn8x. Dozens of scientists contributed to the book, which was edited by Kathleen Maas-Hebner and Robert Hughes of OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and Alan Yeakley of Portland State University, who was senior editor.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is add the social dimension to the science,” said Kathleen Maas-Hebner, a senior research scientist and one of the editors of the book. “The science is important, but the policies and the restoration efforts of communities are a huge part of improving conditions for fish.”

Many Northwest residents are unaware of some of the everyday ways in which human activities can affect water quality and conditions, and thus fish survivability. Products from lawn fertilizers to shampoos eventually make their way into rivers and can trigger algal blooms. Even septic tanks can leach into the groundwater and contribute the byproducts of our lives.

“Fish can get caffeine, perfume and sunblock from our groundwater,” Schreck said. “The water that flows from our cities has traces of birth control pills, radiation from medical practice, medical waste, deodorants and disinfectants. We could go on all day. Suffice it to say these things are not usually good for fish.”

The most effective strategy to combat the problem may be to reduce the use of contaminants through education and awareness, and ban problematic ingredients, Maas-Hebner said.

“Phosphates, for example, are no longer used in laundry detergents,” she said. “Fertilizer and pesticide users can reduce the amounts that get into rivers simply by following application instructions; many homeowners over-apply them.”

Another hazard of urban areas is blocking fish passage through small, natural waterways. Many streams that once meandered are channeled into pipe-like waterways, and some culverts funnel water in ways that prevent fish from passing through, Schreck said.

“If the water velocity becomes too high, some fish simply can’t or won’t go through the culvert,” said Schreck, who in 2007 received the Presidential Meritorious Rank Award from the White House for his fish research.  “Some cities, including Salem, Ore., are beginning to use new and improved culverts to aid fish passage.”

Other tactics can also help. Smaller communities, including Florence, Ore., offer incentives to developers for maintaining natural vegetation along waterways, the researchers say.

Despite the mitigation efforts of many Northwest cities and towns, urban hazards are increasing for fish. One of the biggest problems, according to researchers, is that no one knows what effects the increasing number of chemicals humans create may have on fish.

“There are literally thousands of new chemical compounds being produced every year and while we may know the singular effects of a few of them, many are unknown,” Schreck said. “The mixture of these different compounds can result in a ‘chemical cocktail’ of contaminants that may have impacts beyond those that singular compounds may offer. We just don’t know.

“The research is well behind the production of these new chemicals,” Schreck added, “and that is a concern.”

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Carl Schreck, 541-737-1961; carl.schreck@oregonstate.edu; Kathy Maas-Hebner, 541-737-6105; kathleen.maas-hebner@oregonstate.edu

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DeltapondsEugene Delta Ponds, Eugene

riparianCorvallis Corvallis wetland

 

urban pollution sources

Older, wealthier Oregonians most likely to take water conservation seriously

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A survey about water use and attitudes toward conservation among Oregonians has found that older, more affluent residents are most likely to take steps to conserve water.

Contrary to some past research, the Oregon State University analysis did not find significantly more conservation behavior among younger residents, those with more education, or those who live in urban, as opposed to rural settings.

The findings, published in The Social Science Journal, outline some of the challenges policy makers may face in motivating more people to conserve water, as the state increasingly will struggle to keep up with demand in the future.

“This research showed that most Oregonians clearly understand we are going to face water shortages in the future, although most of them say they haven’t yet been affected by this,” said Erika Wolters, an instructor of political science in the OSU College of Liberal Arts, which supported this study.

“We expected to find young people more involved in water conservation, but actually found the opposite,” Wolters said. “Gender also didn’t appear to play much of a role. Water conservation was most closely associated with age and income, possibly the ability to afford water-saving devices and interest in reducing costs.

“Those with higher income may also have more time and resources to commit to the environmental causes they believe in,” she added.

The report suggested that if higher income is predictive of water conservation behavior, then efforts to motivate such behavior may need to consider discussion of rebates, incentives or other programs that would appeal to lower-income residents.

The study also concluded, however, that some water-saving practices are fairly common by many people of all ages, incomes and situations – things like washing full loads of laundry, repairing leaky faucets, watering plants less often.

Both climate change and population growth in Oregon and the West are expected to place much greater demands upon limited water supplies in the future, the report noted. And although Oregon has a reputation for being an environmentally progressive state – it was named number two in “America’s Greenest States” in one 2007 survey – it’s not as certain whether environmental attitudes will always translate directly into behavior.

This study of 808 Oregonians tried to determine what sociodemographic factors were most closely linked to water conservation behavior. It did find that most residents understand there’s a problem, and a majority of them take at least some personal steps to save water. But unlike some other research, the analysis did not find that young, female and urban residents were the ones most likely to conserve water. Only higher income was predictive of that behavior.

The research ultimately concluded that neither attitudes nor sociodemographics could completely predict environmental behavior, and that old, established habits and issues of self-identity may play a large role.

 

 

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Erika Wolters, 541-737-1421

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US Drought Monitor
Drought map


McKenzie River

Future water declines

Large study shows pollution impact on coral reefs – and offers solution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the largest and longest experiments ever done to test the impact of nutrient loading on coral reefs today confirmed what scientists have long suspected – that this type of pollution from sewage, agricultural practices or other sources can lead to coral disease and bleaching.

A three-year, controlled exposure of corals to elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus at a study site in the Florida Keys, done from 2009-12, showed that the prevalence of disease doubled and the amount of coral bleaching, an early sign of stress, more than tripled.

However, the study also found that once the injection of pollutants was stopped, the corals were able to recover in a surprisingly short time.

“We were shocked to see the rapid increase in disease and bleaching from a level of pollution that’s fairly common in areas affected by sewage discharge, or fertilizers from agricultural or urban use,” said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

“But what was even more surprising is that corals were able to make a strong recovery within 10 months after the nutrient enrichment was stopped,” Vega-Thurber said. “The problems disappeared. This provides real evidence that not only can nutrient overload cause coral problems, but programs to reduce or eliminate this pollution should help restore coral health. This is actually very good news.”

The findings were published today in Global Change Biology, and offer a glimmer of hope for addressing at least some of the problems that have crippled coral reefs around the world. In the Caribbean Sea, more than 80 percent of the corals have disappeared in recent decades. These reefs, which host thousands of species of fish and other marine life, are a major component of biodiversity in the tropics.

Researchers have observed for years the decline in coral reef health where sewage outflows or use of fertilizers, in either urban or agricultural areas, have caused an increase in the loading of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. But until now almost no large, long-term experiments have actually been done to pin down the impact of nutrient overloads and separate them from other possible causes of coral reef decline.

This research examined the effect of nutrient pollution on more than 1,200 corals in study plots near Key Largo, Fla., for signs of coral disease and bleaching, and removed other factors such as water depth, salinity or temperature that have complicated some previous surveys. Following regular injections of nutrients at the study sites, levels of coral disease and bleaching surged.

One disease that was particularly common was “dark spot syndrome,” found on about 50 percent of diseased individual corals. But researchers also noted that within one year after nutrient injections were stopped at the study site, the level of dark spot syndrome had receded to the same level as control study plots in which no nutrients had been injected.

The exact mechanism by which nutrient overload can affect corals is still unproven, researchers say, although there are theories. The nutrients may add pathogens, may provide the nutrients needed for existing pathogens to grow, may be directly toxic to corals and make them more vulnerable to pathogens – or some combination of these factors.

“A combination of increased stress and a higher level of pathogens is probably the mechanism that affects coral health,” Vega-Thurber said. “What’s exciting about this research is the clear experimental evidence that stopping the pollution can lead to coral recovery. A lot of people have been hoping for some news like this.

“Some of the corals left in the world are actually among the species that are most hardy,” she said. “The others are already dead. We’re desperately trying to save what’s left, and cleaning up the water may be one mechanism that has the most promise.”

Nutrient overloads can increase disease prevalence or severity on many organisms, including plants, amphibians and fish. They’ve also long been suspected in coral reef problems, along with other factors such as temperature stress, reduced fish abundance, increasing human population, and other concerns.

However, unlike factors such as global warming or human population growth, nutrient loading is something that might be more easily addressed on at least a local basis, Vega-Thurber said. Improved sewage treatment or best-management practices to minimize fertilizer runoff from agricultural or urban use might offer practical approaches to mitigate some coral reef declines, she said.

Collaborators on this research included Florida International University and the University of Florida. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation and Florida International University.

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Rebecca Vega-Thurber, 541-737-1851

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Coral research

Diver doing research


Bleached coral

Diseased coral


Nutrient dispenser

Nutrient dispenser


A video interview with
Dr. Vega-Thurber is also
available online:
http://bit.ly/IdPqAt

Viruses associated with coral epidemic of “white plague”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – They call it the “white plague,” and like its black counterpart from the Middle Ages, it conjures up visions of catastrophic death, with a cause that was at first uncertain even as it led to widespread destruction – on marine corals in the Caribbean Sea.

Now one of the possible causes of this growing disease epidemic has been identified – a group of viruses that are known as small, circular, single-strand DNA (or SCSD) viruses. Researchers in the College of Science at Oregon State University say these SCSD viruses are associated with a dramatic increase in the white plague that has erupted in recent decades.

Prior to this, it had been believed that the white plague was caused primarily by bacterial pathogens. Researchers are anxious to learn more about this disease and possible ways to prevent it, because its impact on coral reef health has exploded.

“Twenty years ago you had to look pretty hard to find any occurrences of this disease, and now it’s everywhere,” said Nitzan Soffer, a doctoral student in the Department of Microbiology at OSU and lead author on a new study just published in the International Society for Microbial Ecology. “It moves fast and can wipe out a small coral colony in a few days.

“In recent years the white plague has killed 70-80 percent of some coral reefs,” Soffer said. “There are 20 or more unknown pathogens that affect corals and in the past we’ve too-often overlooked the role of viruses, which sometimes can spread very fast.”

This is one of the first studies to show viral association with a severe disease epidemic, scientists said. It was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Marine wildlife diseases are increasing in prevalence, the researchers pointed out. Reports of non-bleaching coral disease have increased more than 50 times since 1965, and are contributing to declines in coral abundance and cover.

White plague is one of the worst. It causes rapid tissue loss, affects many species of coral, and can cause partial or total colony mortality. Some, but not all types are associated with bacteria. Now it appears that viruses also play a role. Corals with white plague disease have higher viral diversity than their healthy counterparts, the study concluded.

Increasing temperatures that stress corals and make them more vulnerable may be part of the equation, because the disease often appears to be at its worst by the end of summer. Overfishing that allows more algae to grow on corals may help spread pathogens, researchers said, as can pollution caused by sewage outflows in some marine habitats.

Viral infection, by itself, does not necessarily cause major problems, the researchers noted. Many healthy corals are infected with herpes-like viruses that are persistent but not fatal, as in many other vertebrate hosts, including humans.

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Coral disease

Coral with white plague


Marine research

Taking samples

Overgrazing turning parts of Mongolian Steppe into desert

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Overgrazing by millions of sheep and goats is the primary cause of degraded land in the Mongolian Steppe, one of the largest remaining grassland ecosystems in the world, Oregon State University researchers say in a new report.

Using a new satellite-based vegetation monitoring system, researchers found that about 12 percent of the biomass has disappeared in this country that’s more than twice the size of Texas, and 70 percent of the grassland ecosystem is now considered degraded. The findings were published in Global Change Biology.

Overgrazing accounts for about 80 percent of the vegetation loss in recent years, researchers concluded, and reduced precipitation as a result of climatic change accounted for most of the rest. These combined forces have led to desertification as once-productive grasslands are overtaken by the Gobi Desert, expanding rapidly from the south.

Since 1990 livestock numbers have almost doubled to 45 million animals, caused in part by the socioeconomic changes linked to the breakup of the former Soviet Union, the report said. High unemployment led many people back to domestic herding.

The problem poses serious threats to this ecosystem, researchers say, including soil and water loss, but it may contribute to global climate change as well. Grasslands, depending on their status, can act as either a significant sink or source for atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“This is a pretty serious issue,” said Thomas Hilker, an assistant professor in the OSU College of Forestry. “Regionally, this is a huge area in which the land is being degraded and the food supply for local people is being reduced.

“Globally, however, all ecosystems have a distinct function in world climate,” he said. “Vegetation cools the landscape and plays an important role for the water and carbon balance, including greenhouse gases.”

Even though it was clear that major problems were occurring in Mongolia in the past 20 years, researchers were uncertain whether the underlying cause was overgrazing, climate change or something else. This report indicates that overgrazing is the predominant concern.

Mongolia is a semi-arid region with harsh, dry winters and warm, wet summers. About 79 percent of the country is covered by grasslands, and a huge surge in the number of grazing animals occurred during just the past decade - especially sheep and goats that cause more damage than cattle. Related research has found that heavy grazing results in much less vegetation cover and root biomass, and an increase in animal hoof impacts.

Collaborators on this research included Richard H. Waring, a distinguished professor emeritus of forest ecology from OSU; scientists from NASA and the University of Maryland; and Enkhjargal Natsagdorj, a former OSU doctoral student from Mongolia. The work has been supported by NASA and OSU.

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Thomas Hilker, 541-737-2608

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Overgrazing in Mongolia

Grazing in Mongolia


Grazing in Mongolia

Mongolian herders

AAAS and Oregon State University announce 2016 Fellows

WASHINGTON D.C.— Three Oregon State University professors have been named Fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Election as an AAAS Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers.

The OSU honorees are: Peter Clark, a distinguished professor of geosciences in the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences; Alan Mix, a professor of geological oceanography in CEOAS; and Michael A. Osborne, a professor of history of science in the College of Liberal Arts.  

Clark and Mix were selected as part of the section geology and geography. Clark was elected for his seminal contributions toward understanding linkages among climate, ice sheets, and sea level over the past 100,000 years.

Mix was elected for distinguished contributions to the field of paleoceanography and paleoclimatology, particularly for improvement of proxy applications and understanding of the Quaternary ocean and climate dynamics.

Osborne was selected as part of the history and philosophy of science section. He was elected for distinguished contributions to the fields of the history of science and medicine with particular attention to the role of French colonialism and natural history.

This year 391 members have been awarded this honor by AAAS because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications. The Fellows will be formally announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science Nov. 25.

New Fellows will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue (representing science and engineering, respectively) rosette pin on Feb. 18, 2017, during the 2017 AAAS annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts.

The tradition of AAAS Fellows began in 1874. Currently, members can be considered for the rank of Fellow if nominated by the steering groups of the Association’s 24 sections, or by any three Fellows who are current AAAS members or by the AAAS chief executive officer.

Fellows must have been continuous members of AAAS for four years by the end of the calendar year in which they are elected. Each steering group reviews the nominations of individuals within its respective section and a final list is forwarded to the AAAS Council, which votes on the aggregate list.

 


 

About the American Association for the Advancement of Science: AAAS is the world’s largest general scientific society and publisher of the journal Science (www.sciencemag.org) as well as Science Translational Medicine, Science Signaling, a digital, open-access journal, Science Advances, Science Immunology, and Science Robotics. AAAS was founded in 1848 and includes nearly 250 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world. The non-profit AAAS (www.aaas.org) is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, public engagement, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert! (www.eurekalert.org), the premier science news website, a service of AAAS. See www.aaas.org.

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Nkongho Beteck, 202-326-6434, nbeteck@aaas.org

West Coast record low snowpack in 2015 influenced by high temperatures

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The western-most region of the continental United States set records for low snowpack levels in 2015 and scientists, through a new study, point the finger at high temperatures, not the low precipitation characteristic of past “snow drought” years.

The study suggests greenhouse gases were a major contributor to the high temperatures, which doesn’t bode well for the future, according to authors of a new study published today in the journal Geophysical Research Letters

In 2015, more than 80 percent of the snow measurement sites in the region – comprised of California, Oregon, Washington, western Nevada and western Idaho – experienced record low snowpack levels that were a result of much warmer-than-average temperatures. Most of the previous records were set in 1977, when there just wasn’t enough moisture to generate snow, according to Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University and lead author on the study.

“The 2015 snowpack season was an extreme year,” Mote said. “But because of the increasing influence of greenhouse gases, years like this may become commonplace over the next few decades.” Impacts of the snow drought in California, Oregon and Washington led the governors of those states to order reductions in water use and saw many ski areas, particularly those in lower elevations, struggle. 

California has been in a drought since 2011 and this multi-year period of low precipitation, by some measures, is the state’s most severe in 500 years. In 2015, higher temperatures combined with low precipitation, leading to one of its lowest snowpack levels on record.

Oregon and Washington experienced much higher-than-average temperatures during the 2014-15 winter but were not as dry overall as California. Oregon, in fact, was 6.5 degrees (Fahrenheit) warmer than average during that period. 

“The story of 2015 was really the exceptional warmth,” said Dennis Lettenmaier, distinguished professor of geography at University of California Los Angeles and co-author of the study. “Historically, droughts in the West have mostly been associated with dry winters, and only secondarily with warmth. But 2015 was different. The primary driver of the record low snowpacks was the warm winter, especially in California, but in Oregon and Washington as well.”

The 2015 year was an eye-opener for the scope of the snow drought:

  • A total of 454 sites in the western United States (or 81 percent of the total sites) recorded record-low snowpack levels that year;
  • For 111 of the sites, the April 1 value was zero for the first time ever, essentially indicating that there was no snow left;
  • The overall snowpack level on April 1 in California and Oregon was 90 percent below average.

To determine the impact of greenhouse gases, the researchers used tens of thousands of citizen computers, each running a regional climate simulation in a sort of crowd-sourced supercomputer. The researchers ran one set of simulations using actual sea surface temperatures and greenhouse gas emissions from December 2014 to September 2015. 

Then they ran a series of simulations with lower greenhouse gas levels corresponding to the pre-industrial era, and teased out the impacts. A third set of simulations used modern greenhouse gases but removed the unusual pattern of sea surface temperatures in 2014-15.

“The data showed that both greenhouse gases and sea surface temperature anomalies contributed strongly to the risk of snow drought in Oregon and Washington,” said Mote, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “The contribution of sea surface temperatures was about twice that of human influence for Oregon and Washington.” 

Higher sea surface temperatures led to a huge patch of warm water, dubbed “The Blob,” that appeared in the northern Pacific Ocean more than two years ago. Scientists aren’t sure why the blob formed, though many blame a ridge of high pressure that brought sunnier weather and less mixing of surface water with colder, deeper water.

“Some recent studies suggest that a high pressure ridge that caused warmer temperatures over land also created the blob, but our results suggest that the blob itself may also have contributed to the warm winter here,” Mote said.

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Phil Mote, 541-913-2274, pmote@coas.oregonstate.edu; Dennis Lettenmaier, 310-794-4327; dlettenm@ucla.edu

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The year 2015 was the warmest on record for Oregon, resulting in low snowpacks and less water in many lakes and rivers. Pictured is Wallowa Lake in northeastern Oregon.

Wallowa Lake

‘State of the Coast’ conference set for Oct. 29

GLENEDEN BEACH, Ore. – Registration has opened for Oregon Sea Grant’s annual State of the Coast conference, which will be held Oct. 29 at the Salishan Spa and Golf Resort.

The event is designed to bring together the public, scientists, business and community leaders, fishermen, resource managers, teachers, students and conservationists so they can learn about current marine research and issues facing the coast. There are fees for attendance.

The keynote speaker will be Emmy-winning Michael Bendixen, a videographer and editor with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Oregon Field Guide. Bendixen, who has worked with Oregon Sea Grant, has spent his career focusing on communicating science through art. He’ll talk about how he learns the science, crafts a story and produces a video.

Presentations will include the following topics:

  • an update on coastal legislation
  • what’s happening with wave energy
  • how and why the changing oceans are being monitored
  • the 50th anniversary of Oregon’s beach bill
  • innovations in coastal planning
  • harmful algal blooms
  • innovative approaches to engage youth in marine science, industry and issues in their communities
  • the effect of ocean oddities on fish ecology, such as “The Blob,” a huge patch of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean

Additionally, students from various universities in Oregon, including Oregon State University, will talk about their coastal research. Also, cooking demonstrations will teach participants how to prepare various types of seafood.

Registration in advance is recommended as space is limited. Cost is $35 for the public and $25 for students and includes lunch and a reception. Doors open at 8 a.m. and the conference starts at 9 a.m. For more information and to register, visit www.stateofthecoast.com. Salishan is at Gleneden Beach, about five miles south of Lincoln City.

Source: 

Flaxen Conway, 541-737-1339, fconway@coas.oregonstate.edu; Jamie Doyle, 541-572-5263, Jamie.Doyle@oregonstate.edu

Multimedia Downloads
Multimedia: 

Sara Shaw Roberts, a former master’s student at Oregon State University, talks about her research at the 2015 State of the Coast Conference in Coos Bay. (Photo by Anne Farrell-Matthews)
2015 State of the Coast


Marie Kowalski, a former master’s student at Oregon State University, talks about her research on mitigating microplastics at the 2015 State of the Coast Conference in Coos Bay. (Photo by Anne Farrell-Matthews)

2015 State of the Coast