OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

Scientists prepare for another wave of tsunami debris, possible invasives

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists monitoring incoming tsunami debris were taken aback last spring when some 30 fishing vessels from Japan washed ashore along the Pacific Northwest coast – many of them covered in living organisms indigenous to Asia.

Incidence of wayward skiffs and other tsunami debris subsequently declined sharply over the summer because of seasonal shifts in the winds. Now, those winds and currents have returned to their winter-spring pattern and scientists are expecting more items to wash ashore – even though it is nearing four years since a massive earthquake and tsunami shook Japan.

Blue mussels have been found on literally every boat that has washed ashore and some 200 different species overall have been documented on tsunami debris, according to John Chapman, an Oregon State University marine invasive species specialist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

“The crustaceans and bivalves are of particular concern because they could introduce new diseases, and compete with, displace or otherwise affect our oyster or mussel populations,” Chapman noted.

Just last week, a tote with numerous mussels washed up at Seal Rock – a sign that debris will still be arriving over the next few months. Of particular concern are boats and large objects that wash ashore carrying a variety of living organisms – including some new species that were not aboard the now-infamous dock that landed on Agate Beach near Newport, Ore., in June of 2012.

“We continue to find new organisms that we have never seen before,” Chapman said. “There isn’t as much diversity aboard the Japanese fishing vessels as there was on the dock, but each new species that we haven’t seen before is a cause for concern.

“No one can predict if these new species may gain a foothold in Northwest waters – and what impacts that may have,” he added.

Chapman and OSU colleague Jessica Miller have examined roughly a dozen boats that have washed ashore from the southern Oregon coast to the central Washington coast. Most of them were similar in style – long, narrow skiffs up to 30 feet in length, with no motors. As they drift from Asia to the West Coast of North America, they pick up a variety of organisms along the way.

“We’ve been surprised at the tenacity of some of these coastal Asian organisms that are arriving on the tsunami debris because the middle of the ocean isn’t the most biologically productive place for coastal species,” Miller said.

Among some of the species the Oregon State biologists have encountered over the past year are bat stars, which are sea stars that look like they have bat wings; striped knifejaw, fish that were found alive in at least one boat; and numerous small crustaceans.

Teams of scientists from around the North Pacific region, including Chapman and Miller, have identified more than 165 species that were aboard the original dock, and another 40-50 species that were found on other debris items, including boats. The rate of incoming debris should be slowing, the researchers say, but the arrival of so many boats last spring suggests that the threat is not over.

Invasive marine species are a problem on the West Coast, where they usually are introduced via ballast water from ships. OSU’s Chapman is well aware of the issue; for several years he has studied a parasitic isopod called Griffen’s isopod that was introduced from Asia. Griffen’s isopod infests mud shrimp in estuaries from California to Vancouver Island and is decimating their populations.

The OSU researchers are working with other scientists on the West Coast, who are attempting to genetically identify all of the species arriving on tsunami debris using genomic sampling – work led by Jon Geller of Moss Landing Marine Laboratory. Geller and his students also are collecting samples of marine life in Northwest coastal and estuary communities to look for evidence that non-native species may have established.

“We’re also doing a lot of old-fashioned looking,” Chapman said. “But new species can be difficult to identify if you aren’t searching for them directly in the first place. So we’ve identified three species that are particularly abundant in Asia, appear highly suited for invading the open coast, and would be readily apparent to searchers looking in the right place.”

These species include a hydroid, Eutima; a fly, Telmatogeton; and an amphipod crustacean, Caprella cristibrachium.

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John Chapman, 541-867-0235;

Jessica Miller, 541-867-0381

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OSU marine ecologist chosen as first U.S. Science Envoy for Oceans

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Building on a new commitment to improved marine protection and management, the U.S. Department of State has chosen Jane Lubchenco as the first Science Envoy for the Oceans.

Officials today named the fourth cohort of the U.S. Science Envoy Program, which was begun by President Obama in 2009. For the first time, one of the eminent scientists involved in the initiative has a specific focus on the world’s oceans.

Lubchenco is the University Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology at Oregon State University and former administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She is an international expert on marine ecology, environmental science and climate change.

“This new focus on the oceans is a strong statement by the Secretary of State and President Obama about the importance of our oceans to people around the world,” Lubchenco said. “They understand that science-based understanding, policy and management hold the key to a healthy, productive and resilient ocean, people and communities.”

Three other science envoys were also announced to focus on various nations and areas of expertise, including Geraldine Richmond, presidential chair and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon.

In this program, these “envoys” travel internationally as private citizens, but will also advise and share their insights with the White House, U.S. Department of State and the U.S. science community about science-based collaboration, innovation and economic growth.

Lubchenco said her appointment builds on progress made earlier this year at the Our Ocean Conference led by Secretary of State John Kerry.

Noting that she was “deeply honored to be named to the position,” Lubchenco said she hopes to work with international colleagues to identify opportunities for science-based policies, building scientific capacity and exchanging findings.

“Around the world, the ocean is changing,” Lubchenco said. “Climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution are all critical concerns. But we believe it’s possible to identify smart, science-based approaches that can help cope with many of these challenges.”

Science might help transform small-scale fisheries that are essential to the livelihoods and food security of millions of people into more sustainable and profitable fisheries, Lubchenco said. Marine protected areas could more effectively serve as “fish banks” to replenish fisheries, while also protecting habitats and biodiversity. And various steps could be taken to buffer against the forces of climate and other environmental changes.

“We haven’t yet decided on specific projects or regions,” Lubchenco said, “but we’re going to explore all the ways in which science can help create a healthy ocean, healthy people and a prosperous economy.

Lubchenco, who does research in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science, also said the new position will fit well with the Marine Studies Initiative at OSU, and provide opportunities for faculty and students to become more involved in new research and initiatives.

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 Jane Lubchenco, Lubchenco@oregonstate.edu

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Science study links greenhouse gases to African rainfall

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists may have solved a long-standing enigma known as the African Humid Period – an intense increase in cumulative rainfall in parts of Africa that began after a long dry spell following the end of the last ice age and lasting nearly 10,000 years.

In a new study published this week in Science, an international research team linked the increase in rainfall in two regions of Africa thousands of years ago to an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

The findings are critical, researchers say, because they provide new evidence that increases in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases could have a significant impact on the future climate of Africa.

“This study is important not only because it explains a long-standing puzzle, but it helps to validate model predictions of how rising greenhouse gas concentrations might change rainfall patterns in a highly populated and vulnerable part of the world,” said Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and co-author on the study.

The study was led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR). It used computer simulations and analysis of geologic records of past climate.

The researchers focused on the era following the last ice age. When ice sheets covering North America and northern Europe began retreating after the last glacial maximum some 21,000 years ago, there was a long dry spell in central Africa that lasted until about 14,700 years ago, when rainfall increased abruptly. Scientists have long been puzzled by the regime shift, which turned deserts into grasslands and earned the African Humid Period moniker.

Rainfall actually increased in two separate regions of Africa – one north of the equator, the other south. Some previous studies had suggested that the shift may have been triggered by changes in the Earth’s orbit, but lead author Bette Otto-Bliesner said orbital patterns alone could not explain increased rainfall of that extent in both regions.

As the Earth emerged from the ice age, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and methane increased significantly – almost to pre-industrial levels – by 11,000 years ago. As the planet continued warming, ice sheets melted and the influx of fresh water from North America and northern Europe began weakening the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which brings warm water up from the tropics and keeps Europe temperate.

This weakening of the Atlantic ocean current simultaneously moved precipitation southward toward the southernmost part of Africa, and suppressed rainfall in east Africa and northern equatorial Africa during the long dry spell, the researchers say.

When the ice sheets stopped melting, the circulation strengthened and brought precipitation back to the north. This change, coupled with the orbital shift and warming of both the atmosphere and oceans by greenhouse gases, triggered the African Humid Period.

“This study provides yet another demonstration of the sensitivity of the Earth’s climate to small changes in atmospheric greenhouse gases,” said Clark, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The science team recreated records of past moisture conditions by examining fossils, former lake levels and other geologic data, and simulated past climate with a power climate model developed by NCAR.

”The future impact of greenhouse gases on rainfall in Africa is a critical socioeconomic issue,” Otto-Bliesner said. “Africa’s climate seems destined to change, with far-reaching implications for water resources and agriculture in ways that may generate new conflicts.”

The study focused on the Sahel region of Africa to the north, including Niger, Chad and northern Nigeria; and the southeastern equatorial region of Africa, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Kenya.

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Peter Clark, 541-737-1247; clarkp@geo.oregonstate.edu

PNAS study: Ocean biota responds to global warming

CORVALLIS, Ore. – As the Earth warmed coming out of the last ice age, the rate of plankton production off the Pacific Northwest coast decreased, a new study has found, though the amount of organic material making its way to the deep ocean actually increased.

This suggests that during future climate warming, the ocean may be more efficient than previously thought at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere – at least in some regions – but raises new concerns about impacts on marine life.

Results of the study are being published online today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide like a sponge; scientists say that about one-third of all CO2   emitted historically by burning fossil fuels is now in the ocean. “This is a good news/bad news situation,” said Alan Mix, an Oregon State University oceanographer and co-author on the study. “It helps to slow the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere, but it makes the ocean more acidic.”

A major uncertainty has been how life in the ocean will respond to increasing CO2   and global warming. Growth of phytoplankton (microscopic plants such as diatoms) near the sea surface converts carbon dioxide into organic matter. When the plankton die, their organic remains either decompose in the surface ocean, or sink into the abyss.

This sinking of plankton effectively pumps CO2   out of the atmosphere. The so-called “biological pump” stores carbon in the deep sea, which is one way that biology influences global climate.

“It has been assumed that the amount of organic material that sinks to the sea floor would parallel that produced through photosynthesis near the sea surface,” said Mix, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Surprisingly, our study found that even as plant growth decreased, past warming actually enhanced the biological export of carbon to the deep sea, at least in the northeast Pacific.”

Lead author Cristina Lopes, a visiting scientist at Oregon State who is based at the Instituto Português do Mar e da Atmosfera (IPMA, Portuguese Sea and Atmosphere Institute) in Portugal, and colleague Michal Kucera at the Center for Marine Environmental Sciences at Germany’s University of Bremen, calculated the productivity of marine plankton during the last major global warming event leading to the end of the last ice age. They did so by examining fossil diatoms buried in sediment off the coast of Oregon.

A breakthrough came from applying neural network methods now used by financial and insurance industries. “Inspired by brain research, we adapted these machine learning methods to analyze the fossil record for a new view of how the ocean works,” Kucera said.

The researchers found that during the ice age, the carbon trapped in plankton off Oregon was mostly recycled rather than exported to the deep ocean. As the ice age waned and the ocean warmed, plant growth decreased while carbon export increased.

“This counterintuitive effect was driven by a shift in ecosystems to one dominated by large diatoms,” Lopes said. “Those diatoms bloomed, then sank fast when they died.”

The researchers say their findings don’t necessarily mean that the ocean can continue to absorb increasing amounts of CO2   indefinitely, but that computer models of the ocean’s carbon cycle will need to take into account that plant productivity and carbon export are not always linked.

Evidence that export of carbon to the deep sea increases in some regions during long-term warming may help to slow down global climate change, but it may make some other impacts worse, the researchers point out. For example, as the extra sinking organic matter decomposes, it consumes oxygen dissolved in seawater – and loss of oxygen in the ocean is a growing concern.

Low-oxygen “dead zones” have appeared off the coast of Oregon several times in recent years.

“If these connections between warming and enhanced carbon export that we’ve found in past climate changes are triggered in the future, we can expect those marine dead zones to show up more frequently,” Mix said.

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Alan Mix, 541-737-5212, amix@coas.oregonstate.edu

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PNAS Commentary: Study sheds new light on sea level rise at last ice age

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study published last week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences calculated global sea level changes over the past 35,000 years, concluding that in order to account for the amount of sea level lowering at the peak of the last ice age, much more ice would have had to have been tied up on land than previously thought.

The researchers further concluded that most of this “excess ice” – or an amount greater than today – was likely added to the present Antarctic ice sheets. Lead researcher Kurt Lambeck from Australian National University and colleagues estimated that during the last glacial maximum, these ice sheets had enough excess ice to increase global sea levels some 25 meters, much more than the 10-meter excess scientists previously estimated.

These new findings are critical to understanding the sources of sea level rise that is taking place today in response to a warming climate, according to Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist, who co-authored a commentary piece on the research in the latest edition of PNAS, which will be published this week.

“Essentially, this new study implies that the Antarctic ice sheets are losing less mass today than had previously been estimated through satellite measurements,” said Clark, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “During the last ice age, the ice sheets were so large and heavy they pushed the entire land mass down and displaced the viscous mantle below.

“As the ice sheets began to retreat, the land mass beneath began to rise due to the area below being refilled by the mantle as it slowly flows back,” Clark added. “This process is continuing today and needs to be accounted for when estimating from satellites current mass loss from the Antarctic ice sheets. If the effect of this process is bigger than previously thought, then current mass loss is less than we thought.

“If this is the case, then at least some of the rising sea level today that is being attributed to loss of the Antarctic ice sheets must have some other source.”

The other main sources of sea level rise today are from the loss of the Greenland ice sheets, receding glaciers on a global basis, and the expansion of the ocean itself through warming.

Studies show that sea level today is rising globally at a rate of about 3.0 millimeters a year, and about 1/10th of that (0.3 mm) was thought to be from Antarctica.

“If this new study holds up, that means that the rate of contribution from Antarctica to today’s rise is less than 0.3 millimeters,” Clark said. “Learning the source of the increase will help us better understand how sea level rise may play out in the future.”

Prior to Lambeck’s study, the prevailing theory among many scientists was that Antarctic ice sheets contained enough ice to raise global sea levels about 70 meters if it had melted all at once some 21,000 years ago. These ice sheets today hold enough water to raise sea levels 60 meters – about 10 meters less than during the last glacial maximum.

But the study by Lambeck and colleagues, which was based on a comprehensive analysis of nearly 1,000 paleo-sea level markers, suggests instead that the Antarctic had enough mass during the last ice age to raise global sea levels some 85 meters if melted.

In contrast, the entire Greenland ice sheet today contains enough ice to raise global sea levels about seven meters, if melted at once.

Clark, who was a coordinating lead author on sea level rise for the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, cautioned that there may be other explanations for the “excess ice” thought to account for the lower sea levels during the last ice age. These might include a greater influence from the lateral viscosity of the Earth’s mantle fluid, the possibility of a large, grounded East Siberian ice sheet, and the influence of physical factors on organisms used as proxies to determine sea level rises.

Lev Tarasov of Memorial University of Newfoundland, co-authored the commentary with Clark.

Media Contact: 
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Peter Clark, 541-737-1247; clarkp@geo.oregonstate.edu

New study shows three abrupt pulse of CO2 during last deglaciation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study shows that the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide that contributed to the end of the last ice age more than 10,000 years ago did not occur gradually, but was characterized by three “pulses” in which C02 rose abruptly.

Scientists are not sure what caused these abrupt increases, during which C02 levels rose about 10-15 parts per million – or about 5 percent per episode – over a period of 1-2 centuries. It likely was a combination of factors, they say, including ocean circulation, changing wind patterns, and terrestrial processes.

The finding is important, however, because it casts new light on the mechanisms that take the Earth in and out of ice age regimes. Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appear this week in the journal Nature.

“We used to think that naturally occurring changes in carbon dioxide took place relatively slowly over the 10,000 years it took to move out of the last ice age,” said Shaun Marcott, lead author on the article who conducted his study as a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University. “This abrupt, centennial-scale variability of CO2 appears to be a fundamental part of the global carbon cycle.”

Some previous research has hinted at the possibility that spikes in atmospheric carbon dioxide may have accelerated the last deglaciation, but that hypothesis had not been resolved, the researchers say. The key to the new finding is the analysis of an ice core from the West Antarctic that provided the scientists with an unprecedented glimpse into the past.

Scientists studying past climate have been hampered by the limitations of previous ice cores. Cores from Greenland, for example, provide unique records of rapid climate events going back 120,000 years – but high concentrations of impurities don’t allow researchers to accurately determine atmospheric carbon dioxide records. Antarctic ice cores have fewer impurities, but generally have had lower “temporal resolution,” providing less detailed information about atmospheric CO2.

However, a new core from West Antarctica, drilled to a depth of 3,405 meters in 2011 and spanning the last 68,000 years, has “extraordinary detail,” said Oregon State paleoclimatologist Edward Brook, a co-author on the Nature study and an internationally recognized ice core expert. Because the area where the core was taken gets high annual snowfall, he said, the new ice core provides one of the most detailed records of atmospheric CO2.

“It is a remarkable ice core and it clearly shows distinct pulses of carbon dioxide increase that can be very reliably dated,” Brook said. “These are some of the fastest natural changes in CO2 we have observed, and were probably big enough on their own to impact the Earth’s climate.

“The abrupt events did not end the ice age by themselves,” Brook added. “That might be jumping the gun a bit. But it is fair to say that the natural carbon cycle can change a lot faster than was previously thought – and we don’t know all of the mechanisms that caused that rapid change.”

The researchers say that the increase in atmospheric CO2 from the peak of the last ice age to complete deglaciation was about 80 parts per million, taking place over 10,000 years. Thus, the finding that 30-45 ppm of the increase happened in just a few centuries was significant.

The overall rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide during the last deglaciation was thought to have been triggered by the release of CO2 from the deep ocean – especially the Southern Ocean. However, the researchers say that no obvious ocean mechanism is known that would trigger rises of 10-15 ppm over a time span as short as one to two centuries.

“The oceans are simply not thought to respond that fast,” Brook said. “Either the cause of these pulses is at least part terrestrial, or there is some mechanism in the ocean system we don’t yet know about.”

One reason the researchers are reluctant to pin the end of the last ice age solely on CO2 increases is that other processes were taking place, according to Marcott, who recently joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“At the same time CO2 was increasing, the rate of methane in the atmosphere was also increasing at the same or a slightly higher rate,” Marcott said. “We also know that during at least two of these pulses, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation changed as well. Changes in the ocean circulation would have affected CO2 – and indirectly methane, by impacting global rainfall patterns.”

“The Earth is a big coupled system,” he added, “and there are many pieces to the puzzle. The discovery of these strong, rapid pulses of CO2 is an important piece.”

Media Contact: 
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Shaun Marcott, smarcott@wisc.edu;

Ed Brook, 541-737-8197, brooke@geo.oregonstate.edu

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(Feature photo at left) - Donald Voigt from Penn State looks at an ice core in January 2012 during the WAIS Divide project. Photo courtesy of Gifford Wong, Dartmouth

 

 

 

 

 

 

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OSU scientists have examined air bubbles trapped in a new ice core that are providing them with some of the clearest indications of atmospheric conditions during the last ice age.

Study: Could sleeper sharks be preying on protected Steller sea lions?

NEWPORT, Ore. – Pacific sleeper sharks, a large, slow-moving species thought of as primarily a scavenger or predator of fish, may be preying on something a bit larger – protected Steller sea lions in the Gulf of Alaska.

A new study found the first indirect evidence that this cold-blooded shark that can grow to a length of more than 20 feet – longer than a great white shark – may be an opportunistic predator of juvenile Steller sea lions.

Results of the study have just been published in the journal Fishery Bulletin. The findings are important, scientists say, because of management implications for the protected Steller sea lions.

For the past decade, Markus Horning of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University has led a project in collaboration with Jo-Ann Mellish of the Alaska SeaLife Center to deploy specially designed “life history transmitters” into the abdomens of juvenile Steller sea lions. These buoyant archival tags record data on temperature, light and other properties during the sea lions’ lives and after the animals die the tags float to the surface or fall out ashore and transmit data to researchers via satellite.

From 2005-11, Horning and his colleagues implanted tags into 36 juvenile Steller sea lions and over a period of several years, 17 of the sea lions died. Fifteen transmitters sent data indicating the sea lions had been killed by predation.

“The tags sense light and air to which they are suddenly exposed, and record rapid temperature change,” said Horning, who is in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. “That is an indication that the tag has been ripped out of the body, though we don’t know what the predator is that did this.

“At least three of the deaths were different,” he added. “They recorded abrupt temperature drops, but the tags were still dark and still surrounded by tissue. We surmise that the sea lions were consumed by a cold-blooded predator because the recorded temperatures aligned with the deep waters of the Gulf of Alaska and not the surface waters.

“We know the predator was not a killer whale, for example, because the temperatures would be much higher since they are warm-blooded animals.” Data collected from the transmitters recorded temperatures of 5-8 degrees Celsius.

That leaves a few other suspects, Horning said. However, two known predators of sea lions – great white sharks and salmon sharks – have counter-current heat exchanges in their bodies that make them partially warm-blooded and the tags would have reflected higher temperatures.

By process of elimination, Horning suspects sleeper sharks.

The Oregon State pinniped specialist acknowledges that the evidence for sleeper sharks is indirect and not definitive, thus he is planning to study them more closely beginning in 2015. The number of sleeper sharks killed in Alaska as bycatch ranges from 3,000 to 15,000 annually, indicating there are large numbers of the shark out there. The sleeper sharks caught up in the nets are usually comparatively small; larger sharks are big enough to tear the fishing gear and are rarely landed.

“If sleeper sharks are involved in predation, it creates something of a dilemma,” said Horning, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “In recent years, groundfish harvests in the Gulf of Alaska have been limited in some regions to reduce the potential competition for fish that would be preferred food for Steller sea lions.

“By limiting fishing, however, you may be reducing the bycatch that helps keep a possible limit on a potential predator of the sea lions,” he added. “The implication could be profound, and the net effect of such management actions could be the opposite of what was intended.”

Other studies have found remains of Steller sea lions and other marine mammals in the stomachs of sleeper sharks, but those could have been the result of scavenging instead of predation, Horning pointed out.

The western distinct population of Steller sea lions has declined to about 20 percent of the levels they were at prior to 1975.

Media Contact: 
Source: 

Markus Horning, 541-867-0270, markus.horning@oregonstate.edu

Scientists discover carbonate rocks are unrecognized methane sink

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Since the first undersea methane seep was discovered 30 years ago, scientists have meticulously analyzed and measured how microbes in the seafloor sediments consume the greenhouse gas methane as part of understanding how the Earth works.

The sediment-based microbes form an important methane “sink,” preventing much of the chemical from reaching the atmosphere and contributing to greenhouse gas accumulation. As a byproduct of this process, the microbes create a type of rock known as authigenic carbonate, which while interesting to scientists was not thought to be involved in the processing of methane.

That is no longer the case. A team of scientists has discovered that these authigenic carbonate rocks also contain vast amounts of active microbes that take up methane. The results of their study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, were reported today in the journal Nature Communications.

“No one had really examined these rocks as living habitats before,” noted Andrew Thurber, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-author on the paper. “It was just assumed that they were inactive. In previous studies, we had seen remnants of microbes in the rocks – DNA and lipids – but we thought they were relics of past activity. We didn’t know they were active.

“This goes to show how the global methane process is still rather poorly understood,” Thurber added.

Lead author Jeffrey Marlow of the California Institute of Technology and his colleagues studied samples from authigenic compounds off the coasts of the Pacific Northwest (Hydrate Ridge), northern California (Eel River Basin) and central America (the Costa Rica margin). The rocks range in size and distribution from small pebbles to carbonate “pavement” stretching dozens of square miles.

“Methane-derived carbonates represent a large volume within many seep systems and finding active methane-consuming archaea and bacteria in the interior of these carbonate rocks extends the known habitat for methane-consuming microorganisms beyond the relatively thin layer of sediment that may overlay a carbonate mound,” said Marlow, a geobiology graduate student in the lab of Victoria Orphan of Caltech.

These assemblages are also found in the Gulf of Mexico as well as off Chile, New Zealand, Africa, Europe – “and pretty much every ocean basin in the world,” noted Thurber, an assistant professor (senior research) in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

The study is important, scientists say, because the rock-based microbes potentially may consume a huge amount of methane. The microbes were less active than those found in the sediment, but were more abundant – and the areas they inhabit are extensive, making their importance potential enormous. Studies have found that approximately 3-6 percent of the methane in the atmosphere is from marine sources – and this number is so low due to microbes in the ocean sediments consuming some 60-90 percent of the methane that would otherwise escape.

Now those ratios will have to be re-examined to determine how much of the methane sink can be attributed to microbes in rocks versus those in sediments. The distinction is important, the researchers say, because it is an unrecognized sink for a potentially very important greenhouse gas.

“We found that these carbonate rocks located in areas of active methane seeps are themselves more active,” Thurber said. “Rocks located in comparatively inactive regions had little microbial activity. However, they can quickly activate when methane becomes available.

“In some ways, these rocks are like armies waiting in the wings to be called upon when needed to absorb methane.”

The ocean contains vast amounts of methane, which has long been a concern to scientists. Marine reservoirs of methane are estimated to total more than 455 gigatons and may be as much as 10,000 gigatons carbon in methane. A gigaton is approximate 1.1 billion tons.

By contrast, all of the planet’s gas and oil deposits are thought to total about 200-300 gigatons of carbon.

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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-4500, athurber@coas.oregonstate.edu

Anglers, beachcombers asked to watch for transponders from Japan

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Northwest anglers venturing out into the Pacific Ocean in pursuit of salmon and other fish this fall may scoop up something unusual into their nets – instruments released from Japan called “transponders.”

These floating instruments are about the size of a 2-liter soda bottle and were set in the ocean from different ports off Japan in 2011-12 after the massive Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. Researchers from Tattori University for Environmental Studies in Japan have been collaborating with Oregon State University, Oregon Sea Grant, and the NOAA Marine Debris Program on the project.

The researchers’ goal is to track the movement of debris via ocean currents and help determine the path and timing of the debris from the 2011 disaster. An estimated 1.5 million tons of debris was washed out to sea and it is expected to continue drifting ashore along the West Coast of the United States for several years, according to Sam Chan, a watershed health specialist with Oregon State University Extension and Oregon Sea Grant.

“These transponders only have a battery life of about 30 months and then they no longer communicate their location,” Chan said. “So the only way to find out where they end up is to physically find them and report their location. That’s why we need the help of fishermen, beachcombers and other coastal visitors.

“These bottles contain transmitters and they are not a hazardous device,” Chan added. “If you find something that looks like an orange soda bottle with a short antenna, we’d certainly like your help in turning it in.”

Persons who find a transponder are asked to photograph it if possible, and report the location of their find to Chan at Samuel.Chan@oregonstate.edu; or to the NOAA Marine Debris Program regional coordinator in their area at http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/contact-us. They will provide shipping instructions to persons who find the transponders so that the instruments can be returned to the research team.

One of the first transponders discovered in the Northwest washed ashore near Arch Cape, Oregon, in March 2013, about 19 months after it was set adrift. The persons who found it reported it to Chan, who began collaborating with researchers in Japan.

Another transponder was found near the Haida Heritage Site, formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands – the same location where a Harley-Davidson motorcycle floated up on a beach in a shipping container long after being swept out to sea in Japan by the tsunami.

“These transponders have recorded a lot of important data that will help us better understand the movement of tsunami and marine debris throughout the Pacific Ocean,” Chan said. “Everyone’s help in recovering these instruments is greatly appreciated.”

Media Contact: 
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Sam Chan, 541-737-4828; samuel.chan@oregonstate.edu

OSU part of major grant to study Southern Ocean carbon cycle

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new six-year, $21 million initiative funded by the National Science Foundation will explore the role of carbon and heat exchanges in the vast Southern Ocean – and their potential impacts on climate change.

The Southern Ocean Carbon and Climate Observations and Modeling program will be headquartered at Princeton University, and include researchers at several institutions, including Oregon State University. It is funded by NSF’s Division of Polar Programs, with additional support from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA.

The Southern Ocean acts as a carbon “sink” by absorbing as much as half of the human-derived carbon in the atmosphere and much of the planet’s excess heat. Yet little is known of this huge body of water that accounts for 30 percent of the world’s ocean area.

Under this new program known by the acronym SOCCOM, Princeton and 10 partner institutions will create a physical and biogeochemical portrait of the ocean using hundreds of robotic floats deployed around Antarctica. The floats, which will be deployed over the next five years, will collect seawater profiles using sophisticated sensors to measure pH, oxygen and nitrate levels, temperature and salinity – from the ocean surface to a depth of 1,000 meters, according to Laurie Juranek, an Oregon State University oceanographer and project scientist.

“This will be the first combined large-scale observational and modeling program of the entire Southern Ocean,” said Juranek, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “It is a very important region, but difficult to access – hence the use of robotic floats to collect data. However, not everything that we need to know can be measured by sensors, so we’ll need to get creative.”

Juranek's role in this project is to develop relationships between the measured variables and those that can't be measured directly by a sensor but are needed for understanding Southern Ocean carbon dioxide exchanges. These relationships can be applied to the float data as well as to high-resolution models. To do this work she is partnering with colleagues at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

In addition to its role in absorbing carbon and heat, the Southern Ocean delivers nutrients to lower-latitude surface waters that are critical to ocean ecosystems around the world, said program director Jorge Sarmiento, Princeton's George J. Magee Professor of Geoscience and Geological Engineering and director of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences. And as levels of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere, models suggest that the impacts of ocean acidification are projected to be most severe in the Southern Ocean, he added.

"The scarcity of observations in the Southern Ocean and inadequacy of earlier models, combined with its importance to the Earth's carbon and climate systems, means there is tremendous potential for groundbreaking research in this region," Sarmiento said.

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Laurie Juranek, 541-737-2368; ljuranek@coas.oregonstate.edu