OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

environment and natural resources

Corliss, OSU to commemorate 40th anniversary of hydrothermal vents discovery

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Forty years ago, a group of scientists led by Oregon State University oceanographer Jack Corliss discovered a unique colony of sea creatures living in the depths of the eastern Pacific Ocean in an area known as the Galapagos Rift.

There was no obvious source of light or food, yet clams, huge tube worms and other creatures were thriving. Their energy source turned out to be life-giving hydrothermal vents and the discovery revolutionized marine studies. 

This March 2-3, Oregon State University will celebrate the discovery with two presentations featuring Corliss, who is traveling from his home in Budapest, Hungary, to participate. The two-day commemorative event, which is free and open to the public, is called “OSU and Hydrothermal Vents: 40th Anniversary of the Discovery that Launched 1,000 Ships.”

“It was one of the biggest, most important discoveries by OSU scientists,” noted Martin Fisk, an OSU oceanographer who is helping coordinate the events. “Jack Corliss was designated by the National Science Foundation, which funded the research, as the leader of the submersible Alvin exploration, which descended into the depths of the Galapagos fracture zone, where the team discovered the vents and this unique biological community.” 

Robert Collier, a professor emeritus at OSU, was a participant on that 1977 expedition. “The discovery changed oceanography and spawned new fields of study, in everything from marine biology and chemistry to new approaches on the origin of life,” he said.

On Thursday, March 2, OSU will host three short lectures from 3:30 to 5 p.m. in the Learning Innovation Center, Room 210. They include:

  • Corliss and Collier will discuss the history of the discovery and the new fields of study it spawned;
  • Bill Chadwick, an OSU researcher at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, will describe new discoveries of hydrothermal vents in the western Pacific Ocean;
  • OSU oceanographer Andrew Thurber will explain how life at hydrothermal vents can influence global climate. 

On Friday, March 3, Corliss and others from the expedition will hold an open forum on the discovery that will be taped to help create an archive on its history. It will be held in Burt Hall Room 193 from 3:30 to 5 p.m.

Participating will be Lou Gordon, co-principal investigator on the expedition; Mitch Lyle, a graduate student with the late Jack Dymond; Collier, who was a grad student with John Edmond, also a co-principal investigator; and Corliss. 

During the 1977 discovery, the expedition scientists dubbed the hydrothermal vent community “The Garden of Eden” and used the mechanical arm of the Alvin to carefully collect samples of worms, mussels, clams and anemones. Some of those samples are still housed today at the Smithsonian Institution.

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Martin Fisk, 541-737-5208, mfisk@coas.oregonstate.edu

Low snowpacks of 2014, 2015 may become increasingly common with warmer conditions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon experienced very low snowpack levels in 2014 and historically low snowpack levels in 2015; now a new study suggests that these occurrences may not be anomalous in the future and could become much more common if average temperatures warm just two degrees (Celsius).

The low snowpack levels were linked to warmer temperatures and not a lack of precipitation, the researchers say. Based on simulations of previous and predicted snowpack, the study suggests that by mid-century, years like 2015 may happen about once a decade, while snowpack levels similar to 2014 will take place every 4-5 years.

Results of the study, which was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation, have just been published the journal The Cryosphere.

“It is a cautionary tale,” said lead author Eric Sproles, who conducted much of the research as a doctoral student at Oregon State University and has been working as a hydrologist in Chile. “California received a lot of attention for its drought, but the economic and environmental impacts from those two low-snowpack years were profound in the Pacific Northwest.”

“We set out to learn whether they were just off years, or if they would be likely to happen more often with increased warming. Unfortunately, the data show these will become more commonplace.”

The key, Sproles said, is what happened in the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of around 4,000 feet – a level that frequently is the boundary between rain and snow. In 2014, winter precipitation in the mountain region was 96 percent of normal and overall temperatures were 0.7 degrees (C) warmer than normal. But temperatures in that snow zone were 2.7 degrees (C) warmer than average.

The winter of 2014 led to drier springtime conditions and moderate to severe drought throughout western Oregon. That pattern was even stronger in 2015. A fair amount of precipitation still fell – 78 percent of normal – but temperatures in the snow zone were 3.3 degrees (C), or 5.9 degrees (F) warmer than average.

On March 1 of 2015, 47 percent of the snow monitoring sites in the Willamette River basin registered zero “snow water equivalent” – the amount of water stored in snowpack.

“The result was a significantly reduced stream flow in the summer, water quality concerns in the Willamette Valley, an increase in wildfires, high fish mortality and a dreadful season for ski resorts,” said Sproles, who worked with Anne Nolin and Travis Roth in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences on the project. “Hoodoo Ski Area was open for only a few weekends in 2013-14, and in 2015, they suspended operations in mid-January – the shortest season in their 77-year history.”

Detroit Reservoir in the adjacent Santiam basin had reservoir levels that were as much as 21 meters (or 68 feet) below capacity, and was plagued by high levels of harmful blue-green algae concentrations.

The study focused on the McKenzie River basin, which has a major influence on the Willamette River – all the way to Portland. In fact, during summer months nearly 25 percent of the water in the Willamette at its confluence with the Columbia River originates from the McKenzie. As much as 60 to 80 percent of the volume of the Willamette River in the summer originates from precipitation that fell above 4,000 feet.

“The study shows how incredibly sensitive the region’s snowpack is to increasing temperatures,” Sproles said. “The low snow years took place even though precipitation wasn’t that bad. But when it falls as rain instead of snow, it loses that ability to function as a natural reservoir in the mountains.”

The typically consistent flow of the McKenzie River in the summer of 2015 was only at 63 percent of its median flow.

“We don’t really know yet the impact of the 2015 low snowpack because some of the water takes as long as seven years to percolate through the ground and end up in the Willamette River,” Sproles said.

A comparatively cold and wet winter has made many Oregonians forget about the low-snowpack years of 2014 and 2015, Sproles said, but the region has been in a La Niña cycle – which is typically colder and wetter – and is expected to move toward neutral conditions by the end of February.

“It seems like much of the state has been socked with snow and ice this winter,” Sproles said, “but despite that, snowpack for the Sandy and Hood River basins is only 110 percent of normal and the Willamette basin snowpack is 124 percent of normal. That is certainly positive, but it seems like those numbers would be a lot higher considering what kind of winter we’ve had in the valley.”

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Eric Sproles,

510-629-1377, eric.sproles@gmail.com

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.

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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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Coal-tar based sealcoats on driveways, parking lots far more toxic than suspected

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The pavement sealcoat products used widely around the nation on thousands of asphalt driveways and parking lots are significantly more toxic and mutagenic than previously suspected, according to a new paper published this week by researchers from Oregon State University.

Of particular concern are the sealcoat products based on use of coal tar emulsions, experts say. Studies done with zebrafish – an animal model that closely resembles human reaction to toxic chemicals – showed developmental toxicity to embryos. 

Sealcoats are products often sprayed or brushed on asphalt pavements to improve their appearance and extend their lifespan. Products based on coal tar are most commonly used east of the U.S. continental divide, and those based on asphalt most common west of the divide.

The primary concern in sealcoats are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, which are common products of any type of combustion, and have been shown to be toxic to birds, fish, amphibians, plants and mammals, including humans. 

There are many different types of PAHs. This study was able to examine the presence and biologic activity of a much greater number of them in sealcoats than has been done in any previous research. The OSU program studying PAHs is one of the most advanced of its type in the world, and can identify and analyze more than 150 types of PAH compounds.

It found some PAHs in coal tar sealcoats that were 30 times more toxic than one of the most common PAH compounds that was studied previously in these products by the U.S. Geological Survey. 

The OSU study also showed that new PAH compounds found in coal tar sealcoats had a carcinogenic risk that was 4 percent to 40 percent higher than any study had previously showed. Among the worst offenders were a group of 11 “high molecular weight” PAH derivative compounds, of which no analysis had previously been reported.

By contrast, the study showed that sealcoats based on asphalt, more commonly used in the West, were still toxic, but far less than those based on coal tar. Use of coal tar sealcoats, which are a byproduct of the coal coking process, is most common in the Midwest and East. 

The research was reported this week in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, in work supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Science’s Superfund Research Program, and done by researchers in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences and OSU College of Science.

“Our study is consistent with previous findings made by the USGS,” said Staci Simonich, a professor with appointments in OSU’s departments of Environmental and Molecular Toxicology and Chemistry. “But we were able to study a much wider number of PAH compounds than they did. As a result, we found even higher levels of toxicity in coal-tar based sealcoats than has previously been suspected.” 

“This should assist individuals and municipalities to make more informed decisions about the use of sealcoats and weigh their potential health risks against the benefits of these products,” said Simonich, the corresponding author on the study. “And if a decision is made to use sealcoats, we concluded that the products based on asphalt are significantly less toxic than those based on coal tar.”

The previous research done by the USGS about the potential health risks of sealcoat products has been controversial, with some industry groups arguing that the federal government agency overstated the risks. The new OSU study indicates that previous research has, if anything, understated the risks. 

A 2011 report from the USGS outlined how PAH compounds from sealcoat products can find their way into soils, storm waters, ponds, streams, lakes, and even house dust, as the compounds are tracked by foot, abraded by car tires, washed by rain and volatilize into the air. They reported that the house dust in residences adjacent to pavement that had been treated with a coal tar-based sealcoat had PAH concentrations 25 times higher than those normally found in house dust.

Some states and many municipalities around the nation have already banned the use of coal tar-based sealcoats, due to the human, wildlife and environmental health concerns. In the European Union, use of coal tar-based sealcoats is limited or banned.

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Staci Simonich, 541-737-9194 or staci.simonich@oregonstate.edu

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Researcher Staci Simonich

Staci Simonich, OSU professor

OSU lecture to explore the 'Lost City' and ocean research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A veteran of more than 50 dives to the ocean floor in the submersible Alvin will describe in a lecture at Oregon State University a remarkable new underwater warm spring system she discovered.

Deborah Kelley’s find, dubbed “Lost City,” is the focus of the annual Hydrothermal Vent Discovery Lecture, hosted by OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. This free public talk will begin at 4 p.m. on Friday, April 1, in OSU’s Gilfillan Auditorium.

In 2000, Kelley discovered a new kind of seafloor hot spring vent in the Atlantic Ocean, with huge limestone spires hosting a novel assemblage of organisms.

“This astounding vent system, ‘Lost City,’ possesses a unique chemistry which supports a novel ecosystem,” said OSU oceanographer Robert Collier, one of the organizers of the lectures.

“This discovery vastly expands the regions of the seafloor still to be explored for hydrothermal vents," added OSU oceanographer Martin Fisk, another organizer of the events. 

Kelley is a marine geologist whose dives in the Alvin probe the ocean to a depth of 4,000 meters, or more than 13,000 feet. The hot springs at these vent sites can reach temperatures of more than 680 degrees Fahrenheit. 

She also will give a seminar on Thursday, March 31, at noon in Burt Hall Room 193 on research opportunities using the Cabled Observatory off the Oregon coast – part of the National Science Foundation-funded Ocean Observatories Initiative. OSU is one of the leaders on the project.

The lecture series celebrates the discovery of hydrothermal vents and their ecosystems on mid-ocean ridges in 1977 by a research team that included OSU scientists. Since that initial discovery, more than 300 vent fields have been explored.

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Martin Fisk, 541-737-5208, mfisk@coas.oregonstate.edu