OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

Federal oceans and polar policy expert to direct climate change center at OSU

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Gustavo “Gus” Bisbal, a science and policy expert with the United States Department of State who specializes in the world’s oceans and polar regions, has been named director of the Northwest Climate Science Center based at Oregon State University.

Bisbal established his career in the Pacific Northwest, spending four years in Portland in the district office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, where he managed the Columbia River Basin and water development program for the agency.

He also spent eight years (1994-2002) with the Northwest Power and Conservation Council in Portland, where he was responsible for the integration of scientific information into policy decisions to protect and restore fish and wildlife resources in the Columbia River basin. Among his areas of specialty was incorporating variable ocean conditions into salmon management policy decisions.

The Northwest Climate Science Center was established by the Department of the Interior last year as one of eight regional centers. It is a consortium of three universities – OSU, University of Washington and University of Idaho – with an administrative home in Corvallis, Ore., site of Oregon State University. The center is designed to serve as a resource for federal agencies in providing necessary science in advising policy decisions, especially relating to climate change.

“It is the agencies that create action plans to adapt to climate change,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at OSU. “The center is here to provide the best possible science to agencies so they can make the best management decisions. Gus Bisbal brings a wealth of scientific and resource management experience, along with proven leadership skills across multiple levels of government – from local, to regional and beyond.”

Bisbal, who will have a U.S. Geological Survey appointment as well as a courtesy faculty appointment at OSU, has been a foreign affairs officer with the State Department since 2006. Working in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, he advanced the State Department’s foreign policy efforts related to oceans, holding leadership roles in U.S. delegations at numerous international conferences and organizations.

Bisbal also spent two years in Washington, D.C., working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as a Knauss Fellow in International Affairs. He has two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. from the University of Rhode Island and an undergraduate degree from the University of Buenos Aires.

The Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, which began in 2009, anchors two federally funded northwest efforts to translate science into “actionable knowledge,” Mote said. In addition to launching the Northwest Climate Science Center, funded by the Interior Department and co-led by Mote, OSU also was selected last year to coordinate a climate change consortium funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to address climate assessment needs for businesses, municipalities, tribes and agencies.

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Phil Mote, 541-737-5694

Oregon Sea Grant receives $2.6 million NSF grant for learning research

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon Sea Grant has received a five-year, $2.6 million grant from the National Science Foundation to support the creation of a free-choice learning lab at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. 

The grant is the largest single research award to Oregon Sea Grant in its 40-year history and among the largest ever awarded to a Sea Grant program nationwide, according to program director Stephen Brandt.

Free-choice learning is the study of how people learn across the lifespan and across contexts where they have choice and control over that learning. Most of the learning people do over the course of our lives, including about the ocean and marine sciences, happens in such contexts.

“Studying how people learn is critical to Sea Grant because it can help us to understand how best to communicate with the diverse public audiences who rely on us for research and education related to ocean and aquatic issues,” Brandt said.

Oregon Sea Grant and OSU researchers will conduct innovative research at the Hatfield Marine Science Center’s Visitor Center, a destination that attracts more than 150,000 visitors a year, and will collaborate with the public to gain a deeper understanding of what and how they learn. The funding will support cyber-learning – the use of networked computing and communications technologies to support learning – and exploit emerging technologies for real-time assessment and evaluations.

Guest scholars from academia, as well as museums, zoos, and aquariums nationwide will conduct research projects within the developing laboratory infrastructure. Projects will utilize state-of-the-art human observation technologies that will be developed and deployed in the center.

“This new NSF award is strong recognition of the HMSC Visitor Center's cutting-edge work,” said George Boehlert, director of the OSU center. “The research now being developed will create new advances in delivery of marine science education to people of all ages."

The research project will be led by Shawn Rowe, a faculty member in both Sea Grant and the OSU College of Education.

“This project is a substantial ramp-up and extension of free-choice learning research efforts that began in 2004 and that have been supported by Oregon Sea Grant, NSF, NOAA, and the Oregon Department of Education,” said Rowe.

Ten graduate student theses have been developed through that research, and the new NSF project promises significant additional opportunities for graduate students, he said.

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Shawn Rowe, 541-867-0190

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Lecture series to examine engineering approach to climate change

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University will host a fall lecture series examining the potential of “geoengineering” to mitigate the impacts of future climate change, bringing three international scientists to Corvallis to present the latest research in this emerging field.

The first event in the series will begin on Wednesday, Oct. 5, with a lecture by Florida State University scientist Kristine Harper. Her talk, “Experiments in Geoengineering: Controlling the Weather in 20th-Century America,” will begin at 7 p.m. in LaSells Stewart Center. She is a visiting researcher at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Geoengineering has been described by the British Royal Society as the deliberate large-scale manipulation of the planetary environment to counteract anthropogenic, or human-caused, climate change. The United States General Accountability Office has said geoengineering is not an option for mitigation because of cost, effectiveness and potential consequences.

However, some critics have argued that geoengineering may provide the only realistic options for slowing climate change long enough for mitigation efforts to take effect. Proposals have ranged from seeding the upper atmosphere with reflective aerosols to fertilizing ocean plankton to consume more carbon dioxide.

Other lectures in the series include:

  • Nov. 10 – “Who Chooses the ‘Right’ Climate:  Geoengineering Governance,” by Steve Rayner, director of the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society at the University of Oxford. Rayner also directs the Oxford Programme on the Future of Cities. (7 p.m., location TBA)
  • Dec. 8 – “Soaking it Up: Ocean Fertilization to Preserve the Climate,” by Richard Lampitt of the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, United Kingdom. (7 p.m., location TBA)

All events in the series are free and open to the public, with a reception to follow. The series is sponsored by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, an Oregon University System institute on the Oregon State campus, and OSU’s School of Public Policy. Also supporting the series are the University of Oregon and Portland State University.

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Phil Mote, 541-737-5694

Nature study: Rising CO2 levels at end of Ice Age not tied to Pacific Ocean

CORVALLIS, Ore. – At the end of the last Ice Age, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rose rapidly as the planet warmed; scientists have long hypothesized that the source was CO2 released from the deep ocean.

But a new study using detailed radiocarbon dating of foraminifera found in a sediment core from the Gorda Ridge off Oregon reveals that the Northeast Pacific was not an important reservoir of carbon during glacial times. The finding may send scientists back to the proverbial drawing board looking for other potential sources of CO2 during glacial periods.

The study, which was supported by the National Science Foundation and the University of Michigan, was published online this week in Nature Geoscience.

“Frankly, we’re kind of baffled by the whole thing,” said Alan Mix, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State University and an author on the study. “The deep North Pacific was such an obvious source for the carbon, but it just doesn’t match up. At least we’ve shown where the carbon wasn’t; now we just have to find out where it was.”

During times of glaciation, global climate was cooler and atmospheric CO2 was lower. Humans didn’t cause that CO2 change, so it implies that the carbon was absorbed by another reservoir. One obvious place to look for the missing carbon is the ocean, where more than 90 percent of the Earth’s readily exchangeable carbon is stored.

The Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean by volume. The deep water mass longest isolated from the atmosphere and most enriched in carbon is found today in the Northeast Pacific, so the researchers focused their efforts there. They hypothesized that the ventilation age in this basin – or the amount of time since deep water was last in contact with the atmosphere – would be older during glacial times, allowing CO2 to accumulate in the abyss.

“We were surprised to find that during the last ice age, the deep Northeast Pacific had a similar ventilation age to today, indicating it was an unlikely place to hide the missing carbon,” said David Lund, a paleoceanographer at the University of Michigan, formerly at Oregon State, and lead author on the Nature Geosciences paper.

“This indicates that the deep Pacific was not an important sink of carbon during glacial times,” Lund added. “Even more intriguing is that we found the ventilation age increased during the deglaciation, at the exact time that atmospheric CO2 levels were rising.”

The researchers reconstructed the ventilation history of the deep North Pacific, examining the sediments at a site about 75 miles off the coast of southwestern Oregon. There the water is more than a mile-and-a-half deep and is known as the oldest water mass in the modern oceans, Mix said. By radiocarbon dating both the planktonic, or surface-dwelling, and benthic (seafloor-dwelling) foraminifera, the scientists can determine whether the isotopic signatures of the foraminifera match “values predicted by the assumption of oceanic control of the atmosphere.”

The organisms that lived on the seafloor have older “apparent” radiocarbon ages than the organisms that lived at the sea surface, Mix said, even though both come from the same sediment sample and are of the same true age. The radiocarbon dating was performed using an advance particle accelerator by the authors’ colleague, John Southon of the University of California at Irvine.

“Different sources of CO2 have different apparent ages, depending on how long they have been isolated from the atmosphere,” Mix said. “We use these dates as kind of a ‘return address label’ rather than to establish precise ages of the events. The bottom line is that the deep North Pacific wasn’t the source of rising CO2 at the end of the last ice age.”

The study is important not just in tracing climatic history, scientists say, but in forecasting how the Earth may respond to future climate change. The Earth “breathes carbon in and out,” Mix said, inhaling carbon into sediment and soils, while exhaling it via volcanism and a slow exchange between the oceans, soils and plant life with the atmosphere.

When everything is in balance, the Earth is said to be in a “steady state.” But on numerous occasions in the past, the carbon balance has shifted out of whack.

“Because the ocean is such a huge repository of carbon, a relatively small change in the oceans can have a major impact,” Mix said. “We know ocean circulation changed during the ice ages and that is why many scientists assumed the deep Pacific Ocean was the source for rising CO2 levels during the last deglaciation.”

Lund said it “is conceivable that we are misunderstanding the radiocarbon signal by assuming it is controlled by ocean mixing.”

“These are volcanically active regions, so the input of carbon from volcanoes, which lacks radiocarbon because of its great age, needs to be looked at,” Lund pointed out. “But it is premature to draw any conclusions.”

The researchers’ next step will be to look for chemical traces of volcanic influence.

Another source of carbon could be from land, though the authors say it would be difficult to account for the magnitude of atmospheric carbon increase and the apparent radiocarbon age of released carbon by pre-industrial terrestrial sources alone.

“If we can better understand how carbon has moved through the Earth’s systems in the past, and how this relates to climate change, we will better predict how the carbon we are now adding to the atmosphere will move in the future,” Mix said.

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Alan Mix, 541-737-5212

OSU to join Scripps on technical support for Arctic science missions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Research technicians at Oregon State University and Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego have received a $2.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create a new program that provides technical support for Arctic research cruises.

As part of the program, OSU and Scripps will supply trained technicians to go aboard the Healy and Polar Star – both United States Coast Guard icebreaker research ships – and provide technical support for projects focusing on fisheries, climate change, marine ecosystems, physical oceanography, whale research and other areas.

The technicians will come from OSU’s Marine Technician Group in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and from Scripps’ Shipboard Technical Support department.

“We will be the liaisons between the scientists and the shipboard support team, and work to operate and maintain all of the oceanographic instrumentation,” said Daryl Swensen, superintendent of OSU’s Marine Technician Group. “Though these are Arctic-bound icebreakers, almost everything on board in terms of instrumentation we’ve seen before on the Wecoma (an OSU research vessel) or other ships.

“Most of our technicians have worked off Alaska, in the Bering Sea, and other extreme environments,” Swensen added, “so it should be familiar in many ways. But it will be exciting to be a part of this polar research program.”

OSU has four technicians in the group who will rotate aboard the Coast Guard vessels. The technicians will oversee operation of a variety of instrumentation and equipment, including seafloor coring instruments, bathymetric arrays for seafloor mapping, water sampling and retrieval systems, and ocean sensors that measure everything from dissolved oxygen levels, to phytoplankton productivity.

Research aboard these vessels is broad, researchers say, because so few ships have the capability of journeying into the polar region to conduct studies that are critical to better understanding of climate change and other issues.

“Now more than ever, global policymakers are looking to scientists for accurate information about our polar environments,” said Bruce Appelgate, associate director for Ship Operations and Marine Technical Support at Scripps. “By partnering with the outstanding team at Oregon State, we strengthen our ability to insure that scientific observations performed in the Arctic Ocean will be of the highest possible quality.”

Swensen said the NSF grant is for three years, with the possibility of renewal.

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Daryl Swensen, 541-737-4622

Scientists find eruption at undersea volcano - after forecasting the event

NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists just discovered a new eruption of Axial Seamount, an undersea volcano located about 250 miles off the Oregon coast – and one of the most active and intensely studied seamounts in the world.

What makes the event so intriguing is that the scientists had forecast the eruption starting five years ago – the first successful forecast of an undersea volcano.

Bill Chadwick, an Oregon State University geologist, and Scott Nooner, of Columbia University, have been monitoring Axial Seamount for more than a decade, and in 2006 published a paper in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research in which they forecast that Axial would erupt before the year 2014. Their forecast was based on a series of seafloor pressure measurements that indicated the volcano was inflating.

“Volcanoes are notoriously difficult to forecast and much less is known about undersea volcanoes than those on land, so the ability to monitor Axial Seamount, and determine that it was on a path toward an impending eruption is pretty exciting,” said Chadwick, who was chief scientist on the recent expedition, which was jointly funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

Axial last erupted in 1998 and Chadwick, Nooner and colleagues have monitored it ever since. They used precise bottom pressure sensors – the same instruments used to detect tsunamis in the deep ocean – to measure vertical movements of the floor of the caldera much like scientists would use GPS on land to measure movements of the ground. They discovered that the volcano was gradually inflating at the rate of 15 centimeters (six inches) a year, indicating that magma was rising and accumulating under the volcano summit.

When Axial erupted in 1998, the floor of the caldera suddenly subsided or deflated by 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) as magma was removed from underground to erupt at the surface. The scientists estimated that the volcano would be ready to erupt again when re-inflation pushed the caldera floor back up to its 1998 level.

“Forecasting the eruption of most land volcanoes is normally very difficult at best and the behavior of most is complex and variable,” said Nooner, who is affiliated with the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We now have evidence, however, that Axial Seamount behaves in a more predictable way than many other volcanoes – likely due to its robust magma supply coupled with its thin crust, and its location on a mid-ocean ridge spreading center.

“It is now the only volcano on the seafloor whose surface deformation has been continuously monitored throughout an entire eruption cycle,” Nooner added.

The discovery of the new eruption came on July 28, when Chadwick, Nooner and University of Washington colleagues Dave Butterfield and Marvin Lilley led an expedition to Axial aboard the R/V Atlantis, operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Using Jason, a remotely operated robotic vehicle (ROV), they discovered a new lava flow on the seafloor that was not present a year ago.

“It’s funny,” Chadwick said. “When we first arrived on the seafloor, we thought we were in the wrong place because it looked so completely different. We couldn’t find our markers or monitoring instruments or other distinctive features on the bottom. Once we figured out that an eruption had happened, we were pretty excited.

“When eruptions like this occur, a huge amount of heat comes out of the seafloor, the chemistry of seafloor hot springs is changed, and pre-existing vent biological communities are destroyed and new ones form,” Chadwick added. “Some species are only found right after eruptions, so it is a unique opportunity to study them.”

The first Jason ROV dive of the expedition targeted a field of “black smoker” hot springs on the western side of the caldera, beyond the reach of the new lava flows. Butterfield has been tracking the chemistry and microbiology of hot springs around the caldera since the 1998 eruption.

“The hot springs on the west side did not appear to be significantly disturbed, but the seawater within the caldera was much murkier than usual,” Butterfield said, “and that meant something unusual was happening. When we saw the ‘Snowblower’ vents blasting out huge volumes of white floc and cloudy water on the next ROV dive, it was clear that the after-effects of the eruption were still going strong. This increased output seems to be associated with cooling of the lava flows and may last for a few months or up to a year.”

The scientists will examine the chemistry of the vent water and work with Julie Huber of the Marine Biological Laboratory to analyze DNA and RNA of the microbes in the samples.

The scientists recovered seafloor instruments, including two bottom pressure recorders and two ocean-bottom hydrophones, which showed that the eruption took place on April 6 of this year. A third hydrophone was found buried in the new lava flows.

“So far, it is hard to tell the full scope of the eruption because we discovered it near the end of the expedition,” said Chadwick, who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. “But it looks like it might be at least three times bigger than the 1998 eruption.”

The lava flow from the 2011 eruptions was at least two kilometers (1.2 miles) wide, the scientists noted.

“Five years ago, these scientists forecast this eruption, which has resulted in millions of square meters of new lava flows on the seafloor,” said Barbara Ransom, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences. “The technological advances that allow this research to happen will lead to a new understanding of submarine volcanoes, and of any related hazards.”

The bottom-anchored instruments documented hundreds of tiny earthquakes during the volcanic eruption, but land-based seismic monitors and the Sound Surveillance System (SOSUS) hydrophone array operated by the U.S. Navy only detected a handful of them on the day of the eruption because many components of the hydrophone system are offline.

“Because the earthquakes detected back in April at a distance from the volcano were so few and relatively small, we did not believe there was an eruption,” said Bob Dziak, an OSU marine geologist who monitors the SOSUS array. “That is why discovering the eruption at sea last week was such a surprise.” Both Dziak and Chadwick are affiliated with the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies – a joint NOAA/Oregon State University institute.

This latest Axial eruption caused the caldera floor to subside by more than two meters (six feet). The scientists will be measuring the rate of magma inflation over the next few years to see if they can successfully forecast the next event.

“The acid test in science – whether or not you understand a process in nature – is to try to predict what will happen based on your observations,” Chadwick said. “We have done this and it is extremely satisfying that we were successful. Now we can build on that knowledge and look to apply it to other undersea volcanoes – and perhaps even volcanoes on land.”

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Bill Chadwick, 541-867-0179

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Researchers seeking to use popular “beach cams” for scientific analysis

CORVALLIS, Ore. – For 25 years, scientists have employed a network of land-based video cameras called Argus stations to monitor coastal surf zones – including a pioneering station at Newport’s Yaquina Head – in an effort to learn about the ever-changing dynamics of the surf zone.

There are about three dozen Argus stations around the world, and the data they have churned out have led to new revelations about beach formation, erosion, rip currents and other critical features.

Now scientists at Oregon State University and their colleagues are working to incorporate a new resource into the Argus system – the literally hundreds, even thousands of cameras mounted above beaches around the world and used by surfers, beach combers, weather watchers and coastal hazard specialists.

“There has been a proliferation of beach cameras around the world and they’re out there taking pictures constantly, but they don’t necessarily collect the scientific data that can be useful,” said Rob Holman, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State and one of the founders of the Argus system. “We think they can be tweaked into providing data that will let us create a near-shore prediction model based on remote sensing.”

Creating such a model, Holman says, would be “huge.” If scientists can map the bathymetry of a beach, analyze the physics of the waves, and plug in water movement patterns, they could predict storm surges, hurricane inundation, beach formation, dune stability, and dangers from rip currents.

Holman is co-principal investigator on a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the Office of Naval Research that is designed to explore how to meld data from radar, optics and infrared observations to make such a model a reality. OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences is partnering with the University of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on the project.

“We know enough about the fluid dynamics of the near-shore to make a model that we think can work,” Holman said. “What is lacking, though, is the input data – especially the bathymetry. The surf zone changes every day and bathymetry is critical for making successful predictions. The lack of such data has always stopped us dead. If we solve that, we should be able to create a model.”

That’s where the beach cameras come in. Holman and his colleagues are working with an Australian company called Coastalwatch that has hundreds of such cameras around the world. Getting those cameras to collect measurable data at timely intervals would be invaluable, he said.

“If we could have, say, 10 well-designed sites along the Oregon coast instead of just the one at Yaquina Head, it might do wonders,” Holman said.

Holman worked on the prototype Argus station at Duck, N.C., in 1986. He and his colleagues “decided on a whim” to leave a camera and video recorder at the beach and return later to see what it would record.

“We used to think that beaches were simple and repetitive,” he said with a laugh. “If we understood the physics of one storm, we knew about all storms. Then we learned about chaos.”

In 1992, OSU installed the first automated Argus system at Yaquina Head near Newport, Ore., where it has collected data ever since. OSU operates 11 Argus systems around the world, and several others are operated by scientists from other institutions internationally.

Oregon State organized the first Argus Workshop to discuss technical issues and advancements, and will host the 10th such workshop in July.

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Rob Holman, 541-737-2917

Quarter century later, methane deposits intrigue scientists, industry

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A quarter-century after the discovery of methane seeps in the Pacific Ocean – cold undersea vents associated with deposits of gas hydrates – researchers are still trying to figure out whether this is an energy resource that can be extracted, or poses a potential environmental threat because of climate change.

One of the scientists who first located those methane seeps in 1985 off the coast of Oregon is being honored this month (July 17-21) with a lifetime achievement award at the seventh International Conference on Gas Hydrates in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Erwin Suess was an oceanographer at Oregon State University when he and his colleagues found the seeps. He subsequently moved to GEOMAR, a marine research center in Germany, where he collaborated with colleagues at OSU on seep research for many years.

In 1996, an international expedition with researchers from Oregon State, Germany, Canada and Japan located a rich methane hydrate deposit within a seep field about 55 miles off the Oregon coast. The location has since become known as Hydrate Ridge and is a famous site for gas hydrate research. That discovery has launched numerous international initiatives and piqued the interest of scientists and industry leaders, who are intrigued by the potential of the deposits and frustrated by the complexities.

Though the methane hydrate deposits are rich, the hydrates are highly unstable and the cost of extracting them has precluded an industrial push – so far. But the interest in hydrates has evolved over the years from initial thoughts of extraction, said Suess, a professor emeritus of the University of Kiel in Germany, and a courtesy faculty member in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“Views about gas hydrates have changed a lot over 25 years,” Suess said. “They were first looked at as an energy resource, and then as a potential means for mitigating atmospheric carbon dioxide. Now gas hydrates are looked at as a potential danger if global warming continues and methane is released.”

Gas hydrates are crystalline substances that look like packed snow, or ice. They form when water and methane are combined at high pressure and low temperature. Commonly found along the continental margins, they are created from the natural gas that occurs after decomposition of organic material within ocean sediments.

Marta Torres, an Oregon State University marine chemist who has worked with Suess, says worldwide deposits of methane hydrates are significant, yet remained untapped.

“When you bring a piece up from deep water, it just melts,” Torres said. “As soon as these methane chunks get warm, or the pressure eases, they disappear and the methane escapes into the ocean or atmosphere, unless it is trapped and confined.”

In recent years, scientists began looking at methane hydrates as a way to sequester carbon dioxide and mitigate global warming. The approach, Suess said, involves pumping liquid CO2 deep into a methane hydrate deposit to create an exchange – a carbon dioxide hydrate would form and remain trapped at depth, while releasing methane gas that could be tapped.

Several patents exist on the technology and a pilot test was scheduled – until the Gulf of Mexico oil spill derailed plans, said Suess, who has published extensively on the topic.

"There is a lot of resistance to even testing the idea, especially in Europe,” he said.

Now the concern about gas hydrates has shifted toward global warming and what may happen if those undersea deposits become destabilized if the oceans warm significantly. Suess said that such an event may have happened long ago.

“Fifty-five million years ago, there was a hot period in our Earth’s history that include a high level of CO2, which has not been explained,” he pointed out. “At least one group of scientists believes that the cause was a methane hydrate release into the atmosphere.”

Suess says there are several hundred methane seeps now known around the world, usually occurring in subduction zones where tectonic plates are colliding. When he and his colleagues documented the first methane seep back in 1985, however, it was a significant discovery.

Suess is being honored this month at a major international meeting of gas hydrate scientists and industry participants. Nearly 900 people are expected at the event, which takes place every three years.

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 Erwin Suess, esuess@ifm-geomar.de

Tie-dyed ocean? Don’t be alarmed, this is only a test…

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The rugged ocean waters off Yaquina Head near Newport have made many an Oregonian turn green over the years; now a team of oceanographers is turning the tables.

Oregon State University scientists and students on Thursday (July 14) will drop six samples of bright, fluorescent green dye into the ocean to learn more about near-shore water movement. The dye, known as fluorescein, is harmless to the environment and will degrade after several hours of sunlight, but for a brief time will turn patches of the ocean “a Gatorade green,” said OSU oceanographer Kipp Shearman.

“It is pretty spectacular and should be visible from Yaquina Head,” Shearman said of the dye. “But it’s also a powerful tool for accurately measuring fluid movement, which you can’t do as well with other methods, such as drifters. Fluid can move vertically in the ocean and it can diffuse, and the dye will help us track those movements.”

The researchers are scheduled to begin deploying the dye at about 8 a.m. Thursday.

This pilot project will be directed by students under the supervision of faculty from OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, including Shearman, Jim Lerczak and Jonathan Nash. Leading the project will be Allison Einolf, an undergraduate student from Macalester College who is at OSU this summer as part of the National Science Foundation-funded Research Experience for Undergraduates program, and newly arrived OSU doctoral student Alejandra Sanchez.

Learning more about near-shore water movement is important, Shearman says, because marine organisms living in the intertidal zone or on the beach – including Dungeness crabs, clams and mussels – disperse larva that needs to go out to deeper ocean waters for those species to repopulate. Circulation in this near-shore region is also important in gauging the effects of pollution, contamination from oil spills and the movement of sediment.

Surprisingly, Shearman says, scientists don’t know all that much about water movement just off our own shore.

“It seems so basic and fundamental, but we just don’t know that much about it,” he said. “We know a lot about ocean currents, waves and upwelling, but how water moves from the rocks and surf zone out to the coastal ocean hasn’t been well-documented. One reason is that it’s a tough place to study.  OSU’s ships – the Elakha and Wecoma – can’t get in there easily.”

The OSU oceanographers are going out in the private boat of Scott and Selina Heppell, marine ecologists who work in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU. Beginning at about 8 a.m. on Wednesday, they will drop six floating drifters in the water between the surf zone and a reef about a mile offshore – just south of the Yaquina Head lighthouse – and at each location, will also dispense about a liter of water that has 200 grams of the fluorescein dye.

The dye will disperse and leave trails of bright green water behind – at least, for a few hours – that will be tracked by OSU’s Coastal Imaging Lab cameras located on Yaquina Head. By sunset, the dye should be gone.

Fluorescein is the same dye used by eye doctors to look for physical defects, and by plumbers to test for water leaks.

“If this works well, we may do it again in August or September, and use the results to plan for a more comprehensive study in the future,” Shearman said.

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Kipp Shearman, 541-737-1866

Scientists unlock keys to global ocean circulation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Though the United Kingdom and the Aleutian Islands are at the same latitude, they have vastly different climates – due largely to the difference in salinity between the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and the system of currents those oceans produce.

Now researchers may have solved the mystery of why the Atlantic is saltier than the Pacific; the cause appears to be global mountain ranges and the Antarctic ice sheet.

When the cold, salty surface water of the North Atlantic Ocean sinks and begins its long journey toward Antarctica, it triggers a complex pattern of global ocean currents that brings enough warmer water back along the European shoreline to keep most of that continent’s climate temperate. The northern Pacific Ocean doesn’t have that same mechanism because its salinity is much lower, and scientists have long speculated as to why.

The new study pinpointing the role of mountains and ice sheets was published by researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Hamburg. Funded by the National Science Foundation’s Paleoclimate Program, it was just published online in the Journal of Climate.

The Rocky Mountains of North America and the Andes of South America block water vapor transport from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic, according to Andreas Schmittner, an Oregon State oceanographer and lead author on the study. Most of the water that evaporates from the Pacific is blocked by those mountains and falls as rain or snow, eventually returning to the Pacific Ocean and keeping it fresher.

“Without those mountains, much of the precipitation would fall in the middle of the continents and drain into the Atlantic instead of the Pacific,” said Schmittner, an associate professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State.

Water vapor from the tropical Atlantic and Caribbean Sea, on the other hand, comes across Central America via tradewinds and dumps into the Pacific – creating the salinity disparity. The amount of fresh water this mechanism creates is significant, Schmittner said, about 200,000 cubic meters per second.

“That is roughly equivalent to the output of the Amazon River flowing into the Pacific,” he pointed out.

The mountains of East Africa keep water transport originating in the Indian Ocean from reaching the Atlantic.

Meanwhile, the massive Antarctic ice sheet also plays a major role, the researchers report in their study. This ice sheet intensifies the winds and shifts the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to the south. Without the sheet, the temperature contrasts between the land mass and the atmosphere at lower latitudes would lessen, decreasing winds, Schmittner said.

“Those winds push the Circumpolar Current, which is the most powerful ocean current in the world, to the south,” he said. “If the ice sheet disappeared and was replaced by air, the current would be pushed northward and block the flow of salty water from the Indian Ocean, around the tip of South Africa, into the Atlantic.”

Climate model simulations by the researchers found that removing the mountain ranges creates a fresh North Atlantic and a salty North Pacific.

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Andreas Schmittner, 541-737-9952