OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

New study: Juvenile predation preventing Steller sea lion recovery

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new study suggests that the impact of predation on juvenile Steller sea lions in the Gulf of Alaska has been significantly underestimated, creating a “productivity pit” from which their population will have difficulty recovering without a reduction of predators.

Scientists using “life history transmitters” to study Steller sea lions found evidence of age-structured predation by orcas (killer whales) and other large predators in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and adjacent areas, which may change with the population density of the sea lions.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal PLoS ONE.

“It is generally accepted that most pinniped populations suffer from high attrition in the juvenile years, but this study suggests that predation accounts for most, if not all of this attrition in the case of Steller sea lions,” said Markus Horning, an Oregon State University marine mammal expert and lead author on the study.

“The focus of predators on juveniles has the end result of heavily capping female recruitment – or the number of females that survive until they are old enough to have pups,” Horning added.

Previous studies have pointed to a reduction of birth rates as a possible explanation for the decline of Steller sea lions in Alaska. But the newly published study by Horning, who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., and Jo-Ann Mellish of the Alaska Sea Life Center and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, counters that and suggests that predators increasingly are targeting younger Steller sea lions as populations of the marine mammal decrease – reducing the numbers of potential breeding females.

The end result may be the same: Not enough Steller sea lions are being born each year to rejuvenate the population, which has declined by 80 percent over the past four decades.

However, the mechanisms for such a deficit in newborn pups may be different, Horning says. Previous studies suggest that reduced birth rates are a result of episodic changes in the ocean that affect feeding, growth and reproduction. Other factors known to affect sea lions – including mortality from fishing gear, ship strikes, and legal and illegal hunting – typically affect survival, but rarely result in a lower birth rate.

Predation, on the other hand, may be preventing too many juveniles from reaching breeding age, the study concludes. Orcas are the most common predators of Steller sea lions, though salmon sharks and Pacific sleeper sharks also are known predators, and great whites are suspected.

To measure mortality and predation among western Steller sea lions, the researchers deployed specialized transmitters in 36 juvenile sea lions from 2005 to 2011 in the Kenai Fjords and Prince William Sound region of the Gulf of Alaska. The abdominally implanted archival tags are designed to record data on temperature, light and other properties during the sea lions’ lives, and after the animals die, transmit data to satellites.

These unique buoyant tags are liberated from decomposing or dismembered carcasses after death, or are passed through the digestive tract of predators, and float to the surface or rest ashore, according to Horning, an investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

“The transmitters are amazing recorders of the life history of the animals, and can tell us in most cases how they died,” Horning said. “Gradual cooling and delayed extrusion are signs of a non-traumatic death, say disease or starvation, or of entanglement, drowning or shooting. When the sensors record precipitous drops in ambient temperature along with immediate sensing of light and the onset of data transmission, it is indicative of acute death by massive trauma – usually associated with dismemberment by predators.”

Horning said other traumatic deaths, including ship strikes and shooting should leave a different “signature” on the recorders and are unlikely to result in the immediate extrusion of the tags.

During the study period, 12 of the animals died and at least 11 of those deaths were by predation, the researchers noted. Once they established a rate of predation-related deaths, the researchers applied that to a new population model of Steller sea lions and discovered that such a high rate of predation among juveniles could make it impossible for the population to recover without a lessening of predation.

Previous research has shown that an adult killer whale, from a purely caloric standpoint, would need to consume 2-3 Steller sea lions pups per day to exist, or one adult female sea lion every two to three days.  The new population model developed by Horning suggests that as Steller populations decrease, predators may be targeting more juveniles.

“Young sea lions spend more time close to shore and the haul-outs where they are suckled by their mothers,” said Horning, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU. “They can be found more predictably by predators than can older animals and adult males.”

“As the density of more ‘profitable’ adults declines, more juveniles may be targeted and never grow to adulthood, which makes rebuilding their populations problematic,” Horning added. “Unless predation is lessened, it appears they are in a productivity pit.”

The model suggests that at the highest abundance (such as before the decline began four decades ago), pups comprise 7 percent of all predation events, juveniles 46 percent, and adults 47 percent. But when overall populations decline to a level of 20 percent (which is the current level for the western stock), pups comprise 23 percent of the mortality, juveniles 72 percent, and adults just 5 percent.

“This changeover strongly suggests an age-structure density dependence in predation rates,” the authors wrote.

The study was funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the North Pacific Research Board, the Pollock Conservation Cooperative Research Center, the Alaska Sea Life Center and the North Pacific Marine Science Foundation.

 

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Markus Horning, 541-867-0270, or 

541-264-0571

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Stellers in Alaska

OSU to retire one research vessel, take over operation of another

NEWPORT, Ore. – For more than 35 years, the Oregon State University research vessel Wecoma has carried scientists out of Newport to sea to learn about fisheries, climate change, undersea earthquakes and volcanoes, tsunamis, marine dead zones and other scientific issues.

The R/V Wecoma made its last official voyage in November, taking a research team off the Northwest coast to map the Cascadia Subduction Zone. And now the venerable vessel is heading into retirement.

In its place, another ship in the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, the 35-year-old Oceanus, will support scientific research in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oceanus was also scheduled to be retired but will arrive in Newport, Ore., in February after making the long trek from the East Coast.

This changing of the ships is somewhat unusual, according to Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU.

Abbott approached the National Science Foundation about a rapid analysis of the two ships to see which one would be more cost-effective to operate over the next several years. A team of technicians returned the verdict – a strong recommendation for the 177-foot Oceanus.

“During the analysis, we also discovered some problems with the Wecoma’s hull, as well as corrosion that would have required costly dry-docking,” Abbott pointed out. “The combination of that discovery and the overall report prompted us to send a letter of interest to the NSF to take over the Oceanus and retire Wecoma.”

“There are a few differences in science capabilities,” Abbott added, “but Oceanus is very capable and will be more cost-effective to operate over the next five to 10 years, at which point we hope to have a new ship.”

OSU has operated large research vessels since 1964, and has had the Wecoma since 1975. The fate of the ship is unclear – after its retirement from the University National Oceanographic Laboratory System fleet, OSU and National Science Foundation leaders will review options for disposition.

Oregon State is an active member of UNOLS, a consortium of 60 academic research institutions that operate 16 vessels around the country, according to Demian Bailey, OSU’s marine superintendent. Wecoma and Oceanus are owned by the National Science Foundation and support research projects funded primarily by NSF and the U.S. Navy.

Both ships will be docked at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, adjacent to a new facility built for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to maintain its Pacific fleet. That fleet supports monitoring and research needs of NOAA.

OSU also operates the 54-foot Elakha and 85-foot Pacific Storm, which are used primarily for near-shore research.

Oceanus will leave Woods Hole in late January, sail through the Panama Canal and arrive in Newport in late February. It will be ready to support the first OSU research cruise in late March.

A retirement celebration for the Wecoma will be held at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in March.

The Wecoma:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1995;
  • 184.5 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 12 knots
  • Range: 7,200 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 13 crew members and 18 scientists

The Oceanus:

  • Built in 1975, and overhauled in 1994;
  • 177 feet long
  • Cruising speed: 11 knots
  • Range: 7,000 nautical miles
  • Endurance: 30 days
  • Capacity: 12 crew members and 14 scientists

History of OSU Research Vessels

  • 1964 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 180-foot Yaquina
  • 1968 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 80-foot Cayuse
  • 1975 – The School of Oceanography commissions the 184-foot Wecoma
  • 2000 – The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences commissions the 54-foot Elakha
  • 2012 – The College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences takes over operation of the 177-foot Oceanus.
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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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OSU’s Dawn Wright to receive national award

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Dawn Wright, a professor of geography and oceanography at Oregon State University, has received the 2012 Presidential Achievement Award from the Association of American Geographers.

Wright, a nationally recognized expert in geographic information systems, is on a two-year leave from OSU to serve as chief scientist for the Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI), a leading company in providing GIS software and services to hundreds of thousands of organizations worldwide, including most of the world’s governments.

Known as “Deepsea Dawn” for her work in mapping and studying the deep ocean, Wright has numerous achievements and awards. Last year, she was named an Aldo Leopold Fellow; in 2007, she was named Oregon Professor of the Year by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation; she went to Ireland on a Fulbright fellowship; and she has been featured in a National Science Foundation series on women oceanographers.

Wright’s research interests include geographic information science, ocean floor habitat and terrain, tectonics of mid-ocean ridges, and the interpretation of high-resolution bathymetry and underwater videography/photography. She has studied the recovery of coral reefs and other seafloor habitats after tsunamis and other extreme events.

Also receiving a 2012 AAG Presidential Achievement Award is Laura Pulido of the University of Southern California. Both scientists will receive their awards at the annual meeting of the association in New York City this February.

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Dawn Wright, 909-793-2853, ext. 2182

OSU’s Abbott receives top Microsoft research award

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University oceanographic leader Mark Abbott has been named the 2011 recipient of the Jim Gray eScience Award, presented by Microsoft Research.

Abbott, who is dean of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, is the fourth recipient of the award since its 2008 inception. It is presented to a nationally recognized researcher who has made outstanding contributions to data-intensive computing.

He will receive the award today (Dec. 5) in Stockholm, Sweden, at a joint meeting of the 2011 Microsoft Research eScience workshop and the annual Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers conference.

The award is named for Jim Gray, a Microsoft Research innovator, who disappeared at sea in 2007. A video feature focusing on the Gray Award is available on the Microsoft Research homepage.

"The Jim Gray eScience Award recognizes innovators who use computing to advance scientific discovery," said Tony Hey, corporate vice president, Microsoft Research Connections. "Mark Abbott represents the essence of this award with his outstanding contributions to integrating biological and physical science, data-intensive science and educational leadership."

Under Abbott’s leadership, OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has developed an international reputation for its research – especially in the collection, synthesis and distribution of data. The college’s Environmental Computing Center houses one of the most sophisticated marine science computing networks in the country, and OSU researchers are global leaders in data-driven research on climate change, near-shore oceanography, ocean-atmosphere interactions and other fields.

Abbott’s own research has pioneered the use of satellite measurements of ocean productivity, the deployment of an array of biological sensors in the Southern Ocean between New Zealand and Antarctica, and the use of advance computer technology on board ocean gliders and vehicles. All of these projects involved the collection and synthesis of complex data sets through the use of data-intensive information technology.

OSU also is a leader for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the National Science Foundation’s $386 million signature project to monitor the oceans’ response to climate change. The college operates a fleet of undersea gliders that patrol the near-shore Pacific Ocean, logging critical data.

Also being honored in Stockholm is Alex Szalay, a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist, who will receive a Jim Gray eScience award retroactively. Szaley had received a Microsoft Research award in 2007 based on technical computing contributions – the same profile as the Gray Award. He will retroactively be named a 2007 winner of the Gray Award.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

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Scientists describe new species of crab that “farms” methane vents

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A species of crab found a thousand feet below the surface of the Pacific Ocean near Costa Rica lives off the bacteria on its claws – bacteria that it fertilizes by waving them in methane and sulfide released from the seafloor.

This “farming” behavior was described for the first time in detail by the scientists this week in the journal PLoS One.

This new species of the Yeti crab, called Kiwa puravida, was first discovered in 2006, according to Andrew Thurber, a post-doctoral researcher at Oregon State University and lead author of the study. It is only the second member of the Yeti family of crabs – first discovered in 2005 – and illustrates how little scientists know about the deep ocean environment, the researchers say.

“We watched the crabs wave their claws back and forth in fluid from a methane seep, and rather than trying to capture bacteria, it appeared that they were providing food to the bacteria already growing on their claws,” Thurber said. “There isn’t sufficient food that deep that is derived from the sun’s energy, so vent and seep animals harness chemical energy released from the seafloor.

“These bacteria are specialists and can be found on a variety of crustaceans – crabs, shrimp and barnacles – near seeps and vents," added Thurber, who is in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. “But we hadn’t before seen that kind of ‘farming’ behavior in which the host waves its symbionts in seep fluid.”

Thurber, who did much of the research as a doctoral student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, wasn’t part of the 2005 that found the first Yeti crab, but participated in the 2006 expedition that discovered Kiwa puravida, and follow-up cruises in 2009 and 2010 that collected the crabs using the submersible Alvin.

Having the specimens allowed the scientists to more closely examine the bacteria on their claws and run their genetic code through GenBank – an international database that includes thousands of species of bacteria. They discovered that it is most similar to bacteria found on crabs and shrimp living near hydrothermal vents.

“We don’t know for certain whether hydrogen sulfide alone fuels this species’ symbionts,” Thurber said, “but we suspect it may use both hydrogen sulfide and methane released from the seafloor to exist so far from the sun.”

Thurber said symbiotic behavior in nature is common, but few animals are known to behave in quite the same way as Kiwa puravida. Some organisms, including mussels and tubeworms, have symbionts inside of them that allow them to harness chemical energy, while others that do not have symbionts – including barnacles – wave their appendages to grab food as it goes by. This new species is the only one that combines the two, by using symbionts on its appendages and waving those bacteria-laden appendages in seep fluid to capture chemical energy as a food for themselves.

Lipid and isotope analyses showed that these epibiotic bacteria are the crabs’ main food source, though Thurber said they may be getting a small amount of sun-derived energy from dead plankton that have filtered down through the water column.

Thurber said the crabs harvest the bacteria growing on their claws by using a specially adapted appendage to scrape the bacteria off their bodies and bring it to their mouths, and then continually waving their claws near methane seeps to boost the bacteria’s productivity.

Only one specimen of the original Yeti crab, K. hirsuta, has been collected and that was near a hydrothermal vent. About 30-40 specimens of Kiwa puravida have been examined and the scientists believe they may exist at similar methane seeps.

“Since this entire family of crabs wasn’t even discovered until 2005, there is a strong possibility other species are out there,” Thurber said.

Other authors on the study are W. Joe Jones of the University of South Carolina and Kareen Schnabel of the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research in Wellington, New Zealand.

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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-8251

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New study: Climate sensitivity to CO2 more limited than extreme projections

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study suggests that the rate of global warming from doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide may be less than the most dire estimates of some previous studies – and, in fact, may be less severe than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report in 2007.

Authors of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program and published online this week in the journal Science, say that global warming is real and that increases in atmospheric CO2 will have multiple serious impacts.

However, the most Draconian projections of temperature increases from the doubling of CO2 are unlikely.

“Many previous climate sensitivity studies have looked at the past only from 1850 through today, and not fully integrated paleoclimate date, especially on a global scale,” said Andreas Schmittner, an Oregon State University researcher and lead author on the Science article. “When you reconstruct sea and land surface temperatures from the peak of the last Ice Age 21,000 years ago – which is referred to as the Last Glacial Maximum – and compare it with climate model simulations of that period, you get a much different picture.

“If these paleoclimatic constraints apply to the future, as predicted by our model, the results imply less probability of extreme climatic change than previously thought,” Schmittner added.

Scientists have struggled for years trying to quantify “climate sensitivity” – which is how the Earth will respond to projected increases of atmospheric carbon dioxide. The 2007 IPCC report estimated that the air near the surface of the Earth would warm on average by 2 to 4.5 degrees (Celsius) with a doubling of atmospheric CO2 from pre-industrial standards. The mean, or “expected value” increase in the IPCC estimates was 3.0 degrees; most climate model studies use the doubling of CO2 as a basic index.

Some previous studies have claimed the impacts could be much more severe – as much as 10 degrees or higher with a doubling of CO2 – although these projections come with an acknowledged low probability. Studies based on data going back only to 1850 are affected by large uncertainties in the effects of dust and other small particles in the air that reflect sunlight and can influence clouds, known as “aerosol forcing,” or by the absorption of heat by the oceans, the researchers say.

To lower the degree of uncertainty, Schmittner and his colleagues used a climate model with more data and found that there are constraints that preclude very high levels of climate sensitivity.

The researchers compiled land and ocean surface temperature reconstructions from the Last Glacial Maximum and created a global map of those temperatures. During this time, atmospheric CO2 was about a third less than before the Industrial Revolution, and levels of methane and nitrous oxide were much lower. Because much of the northern latitudes were covered in ice and snow, sea levels were lower, the climate was drier (less precipitation), and there was more dust in the air.

All these factor, which contributed to cooling the Earth’s surface, were included in their climate model simulations.

The new data changed the assessment of climate models in many ways, said Schmittner, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. The researchers’ reconstruction of temperatures has greater spatial coverage and showed less cooling during the Ice Age than most previous studies.

High sensitivity climate models – more than 6 degrees – suggest that the low levels of atmospheric CO2 during the Last Glacial Maximum would result in a “runaway effect” that would have left the Earth completely ice-covered.

“Clearly, that didn’t happen,” Schmittner said. “Though the Earth then was covered by much more ice and snow than it is today, the ice sheets didn’t extend beyond latitudes of about 40 degrees, and the tropics and subtropics were largely ice-free – except at high altitudes. These high-sensitivity models overestimate cooling.”

On the other hand, models with low climate sensitivity – less than 1.3 degrees – underestimate the cooling almost everywhere at the Last Glacial Maximum, the researchers say. The closest match, with a much lower degree of uncertainty than most other studies, suggests climate sensitivity is about 2.4 degrees.

However, uncertainty levels may be underestimated because the model simulations did not take into account uncertainties arising from how cloud changes reflect sunlight, Schmittner said.

Reconstructing sea and land surface temperatures from 21,000 years ago is a complex task involving the examination of ices cores, bore holes, fossils of marine and terrestrial organisms, seafloor sediments and other factors. Sediment cores, for example, contain different biological assemblages found in different temperature regimes and can be used to infer past temperatures based on analogs in modern ocean conditions.

“When we first looked at the paleoclimatic data, I was struck by the small cooling of the ocean,” Schmittner said. “On average, the ocean was only about two degrees (Celsius) cooler than it is today, yet the planet was completely different – huge ice sheets over North America and northern Europe, more sea ice and snow, different vegetation, lower sea levels and more dust in the air.

“It shows that even very small changes in the ocean’s surface temperature can have an enormous impact elsewhere, particularly over land areas at mid- to high-latitudes,” he added.

Schmittner said continued unabated fossil fuel use could lead to similar warming of the sea surface as reconstruction shows happened between the Last Glacial Maximum and today.

“Hence, drastic changes over land can be expected,” he said. “However, our study implies that we still have time to prevent that from happening, if we make a concerted effort to change course soon.”

Other authors on the study include Peter Clark and Alan Mix of OSU; Nathan Urban, Princeton University; Jeremy Shakun, Harvard University; Natalie Mahowald, Cornell University; Patrick Bartlein, University of Oregon; and Antoni Rosell-Mele, University of Barcelona.

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Andreas Schmittner, 541-737-9952

Book explores resilience as management goal for Pacific salmon

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Fishery management programs designed to benefit Pacific salmon have failed to prevent their decline and have caused greater uncertainty for salmon, their ecosystems and the people who depend upon them. So what is to be done about this knotty problem?

A new book from the Oregon State University-based Oregon Sea Grant program, “Pathways to Resilience: Sustaining Pacific Salmon in a Changing World,” explores the radical approach of strengthening salmon resilience.

“Strengthening salmon resilience will require expanding habitat opportunities for salmon populations to express their maximum life-history variation,” said Dan Bottom, a NOAA Fisheries researcher and one of the book’s authors and editors.

Salmon exhibit a wide variety of life history traits, Bottom says, including differences in migration timing, duration of estuary rearing and size at ocean entry. “The habitat connections that sustain diverse salmon life histories also provide diverse social and economic opportunities for people, whose life styles and livelihoods depend on healthy watersheds.”

Joe Cone, assistant director of Oregon Sea Grant, says the book’s 11 peer-reviewed articles “represent the most-forward thinking about resilience and Pacific salmon collected to date.” Cone, author of a 1995 book on salmon decline, “A Common Fate,” believes the new book “points to new ways we may consider and interact with this iconic fish.”

“Pathways to Resilience” will be of interest to those active in fisheries, Cone said, as well as to policymakers and anyone interested in the resilience of other ecological and social systems.

Jim Lichatowich, onetime Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife salmon official and author of “Salmon without Rivers: A History of the Pacific Salmon Crisis,” said the “ideas in ‘Pathways to Resilience’ are important guides toward a different and sustainable relationship between salmon and humans.”

The 392-page, full-color book features a prologue by Oregon Gov.  John Kitzhaber. The book was edited by Bottom, Kim Jones of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Charles Simenstad of the University of Washington, Court Smith of Oregon State University and Rick Cooper of Oregon Sea Grant.

Copies of Pathways to Resilience may be ordered for $34.95 each (plus shipping and handling) online at marketplace.oregonstate.edu or by calling Sea Grant Communications at 541-737-4849. The book is also available at the OSU Beaver Store, 2301 SW Jefferson Way, Corvallis, Ore.

Pathways to Resilience was published by Oregon Sea Grant and printed with assistance from the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center and the U.S. Geological Survey.

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Dan Bottom, 541-758-7789

Geosciences joins COAS to form powerful new college at OSU

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The geosciences program at Oregon State University is joining the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences to form a powerful new academic and research college at OSU focusing on the Earth as an integrated system.

The move has been approved by the OSU Faculty Senate, and signed off by OSU President Edward J. Ray. It is effective immediately.

Impetus for the move sprung up from the faculty of both units, according to Mark Abbott, dean of the newly named College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

“The faculty have been thinking about and planning this for more than a decade,” Abbott said. “It makes sense to look at terrestrial environments and ecology and the way they interact with oceans and the atmosphere as part of a ‘whole Earth’ approach. The opportunities for collaborative research and education are enormous.”

The move may lead to more undergraduate opportunities in ocean and atmospheric science, as well as more undergraduate research experiences, Abbott said. The former College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences was a graduate program offering master’s degrees and Ph.D.s in ocean, earth and atmospheric science, as well as through the Marine Resource Management program.

OSU’s strengths in earth, ocean and atmospheric sciences are global in scope, ranging from coastal ocean dynamics and their impact on ocean ecosystems, to the study of undersea volcanoes and their link to plate tectonics, to how changes in Earth’s continents affected ancient climates. OSU is internationally recognized as a leader in the study of the Earth as an integrated system.

Faculty in the former Department of Geosciences, which had been in the College of Science, also are internationally known, with expertise in high-latitude ice sheets, glaciers, climate change, plate tectonics, volcanoes, earthquakes, snowpack, hydrology and water resources, mineral deposits, cartography and geographic information systems.

“The new college will be like an ‘honors college’ for Earth sciences,” Abbott said.

Existing undergraduate and graduate degree programs will continue and likely expand. A new Bachelor of Science degree in earth sciences was approved as well, and the college will assume responsibility for the university’s Environmental Sciences program, which offers BS and BA degrees.

The new College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences has an annual budget of more than $50 million, with much of the research support coming from the National Science Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and other federal agencies. It has approximately 104 faculty, 220 graduate students and 613 undergraduate students.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

Debris from Japanese tsunami slowly making its way toward West Coast

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A massive trail of debris from the devastating tsunami that struck Japan in March of 2011 is slowly making its way across the Pacific Ocean en route to the West Coast of the United States, where scientists are predicting it will arrive in the next two to three years – right on schedule.

The mass of debris, weighing millions of tons and forming a trail a thousand miles long, will likely strike Oregon and Washington, according to models based on winds and currents.

But new accounts of where the trail has progressed suggest that at least some of that debris may peel off and enter the infamous “Garbage Patch,” a huge gyre in the Pacific where plastic and other debris has accumulated over the years, according to Jack Barth, an Oregon State University oceanographer and an expert on Pacific Ocean currents and winds.

“Recent reports of debris are from farther south than the axis of the main ocean currents sweeping across the north Pacific toward Oregon,” said Barth, a professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “This means a fair amount of debris may enter the patch. We should still see some of the effects in Oregon and Washington, but between some of the materials sinking, and others joining the garbage patch, it might not be as bad as was originally thought.”

Barth said as time goes on, more of the materials will sink as they become waterlogged, or become heavy from barnacles and other organisms growing on them.

Conversely, he said, items of debris that are higher in the water and can be caught by the winds – such as small boats – may arrive more quickly than anticipated. The “westerlies,” as these winds are called, blow straight across the Pacific Ocean from Japan to the Pacific Northwest coast “and they can be pretty strong,” Barth pointed out.

Recent reports that the debris is ahead of schedule don’t match Barth’s calculations, which suggest that the bulk of the debris should arrive along the West Coast in 2013 to 2014. It appears to be moving about 10 miles a day, he said.

Fears of contamination from the debris are largely unfounded, Barth said. The OSU scientist just returned from a meeting of PICES - the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, where Japanese scientists reported that radiation levels in the waters off the Japanese coast were below a safe threshold.

“The dilution power of the Pacific Ocean is enormous,” Barth said.

Barth led a five-year study a decade ago looking at how water moves off the Oregon coast in the aftermath of the 1999 shipwreck of the New Carissa. Hundreds of gallons of oil leaked from the vessel and despite sophisticated ocean current models, the fuel appeared in places that surprised scientists.

Although the westerlies will bring some of the debris toward the Northwest coast, what happens as it arrives near the shore will depend on the time of year, Barth said.

“One thing we learned from the New Carissa, is that when things get dumped off the Oregon coast in winter, they go quickly northward,” Barth pointed out. “If the debris arrives in the winter, some of it may get pushed up to Vancouver Island. If it gets here in the summer, it is more likely to drift down to the south.”

Local winds can further confuse the issue, keep debris off-shore in the summer when the winds are from the north, and pushing it on-shore in the winter.

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Jack Barth, 541-737-1607

NOAA again selects OSU to run marine studies institute

NEWPORT, Ore. – The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has selected Oregon State University to administer a collaborative marine research program in Newport called the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, or CIMRS.

The research program, which examines marine ecosystems, undersea geologic features and marine life, was established at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore., in 1982, but the program’s funding renewal was open this year through a competitive application process.

The selection of OSU to continue operating the program will provide ongoing funding for at least five more years, and up to 10 years, according to NOAA officials.

“Oregon State has proven to be an excellent partner in marine research,” said Alexander MacDonald, deputy assistant administrator for the NOAA Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research and chair of the NOAA Research Council. “Through CIMRS it brings together researchers from our Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and from our Northwest and Alaska Fisheries Science Centers.

“CIMRS science contributes greatly to NOAA’s climate and ecosystem research goals,” he added.

Projects funded through CIMRS will focus on four research areas, officials say. These include:

  • Seafloor processes, including hydrothermal vents, volcanoes and the micro-organisms that thrive in their vicinity;
  • Marine mammal acoustics, including acoustic technology to locate and identify marine mammal species, to study migration patterns and to study marine mammal responses to changing ocean environments;
  • Marine ecosystems research to understand how ecosystems function and change;
  • Protection and restoration of marine resources, including development of technology, research tools, and scientific approaches to coastal and marine management.

CIMRS scientists have made numerous discoveries and contributions, including the recent documentation of undersea volcanic eruptions and their effects on marine ecosystems by OSU geologist Bill Chadwick and colleagues at NOAA and beyond.

The renewed program will strengthen agency partnerships, officials say, including with NOAA Fisheries at its Northwest Fisheries Science Center’s research station in Newport.

“We are looking forward to continuing our valuable and innovative work with OSU scientists that will increase our understanding of the California Current ecosystem and support the priorities of the National Ocean Policy,” said John Stein, acting director of the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

"Oregon State University has a long tradition of innovative, relevant, cooperative research with NOAA, and the renewal of CIMRS brings significant value to both partners and the marine community, “ said Richard Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research. “It also highlights the partnerships between OSU with the several agencies at the Hatfield Marine Science Center."

CIMRS is one of 18 NOAA cooperative institutes nationwide.

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Michael Banks, 541-867-0420