OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

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

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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

Tours available on OSU research vessel to dock in Portland at end of STEM cruise

NEWPORT, Ore. – For three days this week, Oregon high school students and teachers are joining scientists at Oregon State University aboard the research vessel Oceanus to gain at-sea research experience off the Oregon coast as part of a project to enhance their STEM, or science, technology, engineering and math skills.

This Friday, the young scientists and their professional partners will journey up the Columbia River aboard the R/V Oceanus and dock at Riverplace Marina in Portland, where they will spend the weekend doing a series of activities, including tours for K-12 students and the public.

The public tours will be held from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17. Space is limited and advance registration is required. For more information or to register for a tour, visit: http://bit.ly/2bTKyQ0.

The project is a collaborative effort from Oregon Sea Grant and the Oregon Coast STEM Hub, which serves educators, students and communities along the Oregon coast and is located at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. The students and high school teachers participating in the cruise are from Bandon, North Bend, Waldport, Newport and Warrenton.

“This is an opportunity for Oregon high school students and teachers to work with marine researchers and really dig into investigative scientific methods,” said Tracy Crews, marine education manager for Oregon Sea Grant. “It also provides an opportunity for graduate students to work as mentors with these young students alongside top scientists addressing some very real issues facing our oceans.”

Leigh Torres, a principal investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, will serve as chief scientist on the cruise, which will include line transect surveys for marine mammals and seabirds off the Oregon coast.

“We will record where and when we observe different species assemblages of marine mammals and seabirds off the Oregon coast, and link this data with habitat and prey data collected during the cruise,” Torres said. “This will demonstrate the patchiness of ocean resources and how species are distributed differently relative to their particular needs.”

“We’re really hoping that this hands-on experience will trigger interest in STEM and enthusiasm for working on environmental challenges,” added Stacia Fletcher, director for the Oregon Coast STEM Hub.

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Tracy Crews, 541-867-0329, tracy.crews@oregonstate.edu

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Research vessel Oceanus; photos by Pat Kight

R/V Oceanus

Oceanus004PK

When kids learn to conserve energy, their behavior also spreads to parents

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Girl Scouts and their parents reported increases in energy-saving behaviors, such as turning off power strips at night and washing clothes in cold water, after the children participated in an intervention program, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Energy.

The new energy conservation program was developed by researchers from Oregon State University and Stanford University, who designed and tested the program’s effectiveness with 30 Girl Scout troops in northern California.

The researchers found that the increased energy-saving behavior, as self-reported by the children, continued for more than seven months after the trial program ended. They also found that the intervention had an effect on parents’ energy-saving behavior for more than eight months. The findings suggests that these kinds of educational programs could have a significant and lasting impact on family energy consumption, said Hilary Boudet, an assistant professor of climate change and energy at Oregon State University and lead author of the paper.

“Children are a critical audience for environmental programs, because their current behavior likely predicts future behavior,” said Boudet, who teaches in the School of Public Policy at OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. “By adopting energy-saving behaviors now and engaging family and community members in such efforts, children can play an important role in bringing about a more sustainable future.”

The study was supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy Program, the California Energy Commission, the Child Health Research Institute and the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center. Co-authors of the study are Nicole Ardoin, June Flora, K. Carrie Armel, Manisha Desai and Thomas N. Robinson of Stanford University.

The researchers set out to develop a new energy conservation intervention program for children, using best practices from social cognitive theory and public health interventions to guide the program’s design.
 
“The goal of the program was to get the girls actively practicing and mastering the skills, and modeling the behaviors that would lead to reduced energy use,” Boudet said. “But we also recognized the importance of making the project fun and engaging.”
 
The program, called Girls Learning Environment and Energy, or GLEE, offered two interventions designed to promote energy-saving behaviors either at home or in food and transportation decisions. Using a randomized control trial, the 318 participating girls, all fourth- and fifth-graders, were randomly assigned to one of the programs.
 
In 50- to 60-minute lessons once a week for five weeks, the Girl Scouts learned about different ways to save energy in their assigned intervention group and participated in activities designed to support the lessons.
 
The girls and their parents completed surveys about their energy-saving behaviors in those areas at the beginning and end of the five-week program and again several months later.
 
The study’s authors estimate that the reported behavior changes associated with the home energy savings intervention represent an annual household energy savings of approximately 3-5 percent immediately following the intervention and 1-3 percent at follow-up. If magnified across the population, those savings become quite significant, Boudet said.
 
Girls participating in the food and transportation intervention also reported a significant increase in energy-saving behavior at the end of the program, but there was no significant change noted at the seven-month follow-up or among parents.
 
Boudet said the food and transportation program may have proved more challenging for the children, in part, because they have less control over the types of transportation used by their families or the types of food their families buy and eat. Additional study could help researchers understand which pieces of the program worked best and which could be improved, she said.
 
Based on GLEE’s initial success, researchers are working to disseminate the curriculum to Girl Scout leaders around the country. They are also hoping to adapt the program for other groups, including schools and youth-focused organizations such as 4-H. More information is available online at  https://sites.stanford.edu/glee/.

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Hilary Boudet, 541-737-5375, hilary.boudet@oregonstate.edu

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Girl Scouts participate in the Girls Learning Environment and Energy program, or GLEE. Credit: Oregon State University

GLEE

GLEE

Hydropeaking of river water levels is disrupting insect survival, river ecosystems

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A group of researchers concluded today in a study in the journal BioScience that “hydropeaking” of water flows on many rivers in the West has a devastating impact on aquatic insect abundance.

The research was based in part on a huge citizen science project with more than 2,500 samples taken on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, and collaboration of researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon State University, Utah State University and Idaho State University. 

It raises serious questions about the current practice of raising river volumes up and down every day – known as hydropeaking – to meet hour-by-hour electricity demand, which has nearly wiped out local populations of some insects that feed local river ecosystems.

“Insects have evolved to live with occasional extreme floods and droughts, and gradual or seasonal changes in river levels,” said David Lytle, a professor of integrative biology in the OSU College of Science. 

“These large daily rises and peaks in river flows due to hydropower dams are not normal. Prior to the construction of dams, there were almost no major daily changes in river levels. This can interrupt the egg-laying practices of some species, and the impact of this is poorly appreciated. Until now no one really looked at this, and it’s a serious problem.”

Hydropeaking is used around the world and is particularly common with hydropower dams in the American West. Rivers are some of the most extensively altered ecosystems on Earth, the researchers wrote in their study, and more than 800,000 dams exist globally. Hydropower provides 19 percent of the world’s electricity supply and far exceeds the generation of all other renewable sources combined. 

Lytle is a national expert on how organisms and communities are shaped by disturbances such as floods, droughts, and dams, with much of his research focused on aquatic insects. Hydropower dams, in this case, have a particular impact on insects that lay their eggs near the shore of streams, such as a mayfly, stonefly or caddis fly. Given normal water conditions, the eggs are laid slightly below the water surface and soon hatch. But if the water level drops suddenly, they can be stranded, dry out and die before hatching.

In this study, the researchers found a clear correlation between hydropeaking and the number of insect species present, and an almost complete absence of certain insects in some parts of rivers where they should have been present – including the Colorado River downstream of Glen Canyon and Hoover Dams. A majority of aquatic insects are vulnerable to this phenomenon, the scientists said in their report, and they can be “subject to acute mortality.” 

Some of these insects, Lytle said, are the food base for fish, birds, bats, and other wildlife.

“The loss of these aquatic insects can have a major impact on fisheries and other aspects of ecosystem health,” Lytle said. 

The researchers did point out in their study that one possible way to address the problem might be to leave river levels stable for several days at a time – possibly on weekends when electricity demands did not vary as much – so that insects could lay their eggs with success. This might help address but not totally solve the problem, Lytle said.

It’s been known that dams can impose serious environmental problems, including alterations of flow, temperature, sediment regimes and migratory fish barriers. However, the researchers called the impact of dams on aquatic insects a “hitherto unrecognized life history bottleneck.”

“For the first time, this study determines the ecological impacts of hydropeaking separated from other dam-imposed stressors, and identifies the specific cause-and-effect relationships responsible for biodiversity loss below hydroelectric dams,” said Ted Kennedy, a USGS scientist and lead author of the study. “These results may help resource managers improve river health while still meeting societal needs for renewable hydroelectricity.”

Funding for this study was provided by the Bureau of Reclamation’s Glen Canyon Dam Adaptive Management Program, the U.S. Geological Survey’s Southwest Biological Science Center, and the Department of Energy’s Western Area Power Administration.

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