marine science and the coast

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

OSU scientist one of four honored as Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scott Baker, an Oregon State University conservation geneticist and cetacean specialist whose work was featured in the Academy Award-winning documentary, “The Cove,” has been named one of four 2011 Pew Fellows in Marine Conservation.

The prestigious Pew Fellowship program provides a three-year stipend to distinguished scientists for conservation projects designed to address critical problems facing the world’s oceans. Baker, the associate director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, will use the fellowship to study populations of dolphins in the South Pacific.

There have been few studies of dolphins around islands of the South Pacific, thus scientists are unsure how many species there are, whether local populations from different islands are genetically distinct, and how they are faring in relation to their historic abundance.

“What little work that has been done suggests that dolphins show a lot more local fidelity than previously assumed,” Baker said. “Although some dolphins are found in large populations in the open ocean, others form much smaller communities attached to individual islands or island chains. One of the goals of our research is to determine whether the distribution of these island populations is influenced by seascape characteristics, and how genetically distinct these different populations might be.”

Baker’s study will focus on a vast area of the South Pacific stretching from Micronesia in the west to Polynesia in the east, an area roughly the size of the North Atlantic Ocean. The region has some of the largest protected marine areas in the world and Baker’s study will help determine if these are sufficient in scale to sustain local dolphin populations.

“Dr. Baker’s project can help guide policy decisions for creating permanent areas, not only to protect dolphins, but other highly migratory creatures as well,” said Joshua S. Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environmental Group.

A professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, Baker’s laboratory is located at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport on the central Oregon coast. In his genetic analysis laboratory, he conducts forensic work on the tissues of whales and other cetaceans. Baker has documented the under-reporting of fin whales in Japan, the threat to minke whales of commercial “bycatch” whaling, and the illegal sale of whale meat as sushi in restaurants in Seoul, South Korea, and Los Angeles.

Baker’s DNA identification of dolphin meat, potentially tainted with mercury contamination, was prominently featured in “The Cove,” where he was seen in a portable genetic laboratory working in a cramped Tokyo hotel room. The provocative film documented the hunting of dolphins in the small Japanese fishing village of Taiji, and the high levels of mercury found in the dolphin meat sold for human consumption.

Baker is also an adjunct professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, and supervises graduate students there and at OSU. He chairs the executive committee of the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium, frequently testifies at meetings of the International Whaling Commission, and edits the prominent Journal of Heredity, a publication of the American Genetic Association.

The Pew Fellows Program in Marine Conservation has awarded 120 fellowships to individuals from 31 countries since it began. The program is managed by the Pew Environmental Group in Washington, D.C.

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Scott Baker, 541-867-0255

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Sea lion entanglement in marine debris preventable, study finds

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute suggests most entanglements of Steller sea lions in human-made marine debris along the Pacific coast could be prevented through education and changes to manufacturing and packaging processes when the entangling materials are produced.

In the first study of its kind in the Pacific Northwest, Kim Raum-Suryan, an OSU faculty research assistant, studied Steller sea lions between 2005 and 2009 at two of Oregon’s most iconic locations, the Sea Lion Caves and Cascade Head. Steller sea lions use these as “haul-outs,” places where the mammals rest on land between feeding forays.

Over the past 30 years, the Steller sea lion population has declined by more than 80 percent, resulting in its threatened status in the eastern portion of its range (central California to southeast Alaska) and endangered status in the western portion (western Alaska).

During the study, which was completed with funding from Oregon Sea Grant, Raum-Suryan witnessed 72 animals entangled in debris including: black rubber bands used on crab pots; hard plastic packing bands used around cardboard bait boxes (and other cardboard shipping boxes); and hooks and other fishing gear.

Since 2000, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has recorded more than 500 Steller sea lions in Alaska and northern British Columbia that have either become entangled in marine debris or have ingested fishing gear.

“There are likely many more entangled animals from Alaska to the central California coast that are not observed because entanglement can lead to death by drowning, infection or starvation before the sea lions ever come ashore,” said Raum-Suryan, who used spotting scopes as well as remote video cameras to document the entangled mammals. “And because these animals can be observed only when they are on land, the numbers might be significantly higher.”

Raum-Suryan said sea lions often sink when they die at sea, resulting in few dead and entangled Steller sea lions stranding on beaches. “This adds to the difficulty of assessing the mortality of the entangled mammals,” she said.

Of the observed identifiable neck entanglements, black rubber bands were the most common neck entangling material (62 percent), followed by plastic packing bands (36 percent) that are cut and glued at the ends around cardboard boxes to keep boxes from bursting.

“We don’t want to point fingers or place blame, because the important thing here is that entanglement is preventable and everyone can do their part,” Raum-Suryan said. “From fishers and crabbers to beachcombers, people can help get the word out on what I call ‘Lose the Loop,’ or making sure all loops – from six-pack plastics to packing bands – are cut before any bands are discarded.”

Sea lions are curious animals and tend to seek out and play with entangling debris, which is how loops lodge around their necks and then cut into the flesh as the animals grow.

Raum-Suryan, who participated in a similar study in southeast Alaska where salmon fishing gear was a more common cause of entanglement, is working with Oregon’s fishing and crabbing industry to raise awareness about the bands and loops.

She has also suggested to manufacturers and packaging companies that the glue used to attach packing bands around boxes could be biodegradable so it would release after short exposure to saltwater and sunlight. Other materials also could be manufactured to biodegrade more quickly.

In both fishing and packaging industries, plastics and synthetic materials have replaced natural fibers over the past 50 years because these materials are lower cost, lighter weight, stronger, and more durable. But they last longer once discarded or lost, are less likely to sink, and are more difficult for marine organisms to escape from once entangled.

“Because entanglement is preventable, even one animal dying this way is too many,” Raum-Suryan said. “These are human-caused problems, and we can prevent them by being aware and making a few changes, like cutting all bands at home and at work.” She has seen packing bands used on boxes ranging from toys to furniture.

Raum-Suryan worked with Alaska Fish and Game to produce an educational video that helps viewers understand entanglement and what they can do prevent it. The video is available on a free DVD from the Alaska Fish and Game, or can be viewed online at: http://www.multimedia.adfg.alaska.gov:8080/WildlifeConservation/entanglement.wmv

The threatened and endangered Steller sea lions are much larger than the protected California sea lions that are common along the Oregon coast. Male Steller sea lions can weigh up to 2,500 pounds, compared to only 700 pounds for a male California sea lion The vocalizations and coloring also differ. Steller sea lions are lighter in color with thick necks and roar, while California sea lions are darker and bark.


Kim Raum-Suryan, 541-867-0393

Public urged to refrain from touching seal pups

NEWPORT, Ore. – The arrival of spring has brought a number of young seal pups onto Oregon beaches, where they are at-risk from well-meaning coastal visitors who want to “rescue” them.

Oregon State University marine mammal biologist Jim Rice is urging the public to refrain from touching or approaching the seal pups, which in most cases are not orphaned or abandoned, he pointed out. They frequently are left on the beach by their mothers, who are out looking for food.

“Seal pups being left alone on the beach in the spring is perfectly normal,” said Rice, who coordinates the statewide Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network headquartered at OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Newborn pups typically spend several hours each day waiting for their mothers to reunite with them.”

“Adult female seals spend most of their time in the water, hunting for food, and only come ashore periodically to nurse their pups,” Rice said. “But the mothers are wary of people and unlikely to rejoin a pup if there is activity nearby.”

Unfortunately, Rice said, concerned but uninformed beach-goers will sometimes interfere, by picking up seal pups and taking them away from the beaches – and their mothers. A more common threat is the hovering by curious onlookers around pups, which can cause stress to the pups and prevents their mothers from returning to them.

“It’s tempting for some people to attempt to ‘rescue’ these seemingly hapless pups,” Rice said, “but a pup’s best chance for survival is to be left alone. A dependent pup that’s taken away from its mother will certainly die.”

Even with the best of intentions, people can do a great deal of harm. And additionally, persons who disturb seal pups – even those who are just trying to help – risk being fined under laws intended to protect marine mammals from harassment. The Marine Mammal Protection Act prohibits interference with seal pups and other marine mammals on the beach.

Bystanders should stay at least 50 yards away and keep their dogs leashed, Rice said.

“After suckling for about four weeks, weaned pups are abandoned by their mothers, left to fend for themselves,” Rice added. “They will continue to come onto beaches periodically to rest as they grow and learn how to catch their own food.”

The harbor seal pupping season on the Oregon coast is generally March through June, with a peak in mid-May. Anyone who observes incidents of seal pup harassment, or animals in distress, should call the Oregon State Police at 1-800-452-7888, Rice said.

The Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network is an organization comprised of state agencies, universities, and volunteers, working together to investigate the causes of marine mammal strandings, provide for the welfare of live stranded animals, and advance public education about marine mammal strandings.

You can visit the Oregon Marine Mammal Stranding Network online at http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/ommsn

Story By: 

Jim Rice, 541-867-0446

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Data streaming in from Space Station to OSU lab

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A prototype scanner aboard the International Space Station has been taking new images of Earth’s coastal regions during the 16 months since it was launched, providing scientists with a new set of imaging tools that will help them monitor events from oil spills to plankton blooms.

The images and other data are now available to scientists from around the world through an online clearinghouse coordinated by Oregon State University.

Additional details of the project will be announced in a forthcoming issue of the American Geophysical Union journal, EOS, and can be found on an OSU website about the project.

The Hyperspectral Imager for the Coastal Ocean, or HICO, is the first space-borne sensor created specifically for observing the coastal ocean and will allow scientists to better analyze human impacts and climate change effects on the world’s coastal regions, according to Curtiss O. Davis, an OSU oceanographer and the project scientist.

“What HICO does that other ocean imaging systems like NASA’s MODIS cannot is provide color sensor data down to the human scale,” Davis said. “Whereas the normal resolution for an ocean imager is about one kilometer, HICO provides resolution down to 90 meters. And instead of having just nine channels like MODIS, it has 90 channels.

“This allows us to focus the imaging system on a section of the coastline and map the ocean floor in water as deep as 50 to 60 feet,” he added. “It gives us the ability to track sediment down the Columbia River, and to distinguish that sediment from phytoplankton blooms in the ocean. It can reveal near-shore eddies, currents, and the influence of coastal streams entering the ocean.

“It is a scientific treasure trove for the coastal oceanographer,” he added.

This sophisticated imaging system was developed by the Naval Research Laboratory and installed aboard the space station in 2009. Its development was an experiment – to see if engineers could create an “Innovative Naval Prototype” instrument very quickly, at low-cost, and make it work for a year, said Davis, who worked for several years at the laboratory before joining the OSU faculty.

That first goal was achieved last October and now the focus is on the second goal, conducting useful science with this unique data set.

“We’ve already talked to 40-50 interested scientists and shared some preliminary data,” he said, “and they’ve been excited about the potential. They all want a piece of it.”

Some of the images HICO has provided have revealed interesting data:

  • Images of the Han River in South Korea outline the dynamic, rapidly shifting shallow mud flats that are covered by the incoming tide, but include sandbars where boats can easily get mired;
  • Images from the Straits of Gibraltar, separating Spain from North Africa, reveal where large internal waves propagate hundreds of feet below the surface. These waves, which were used during World War II to hide submarines moving through the channel, can affect fishing and boat navigation.
  • Images of the Columbia River, taken during a large storm and after, reveal changing breakwaters and bars that demonstrate the complexity and dynamics of this large system.

“We hope to begin imaging the area around Sendai, Japan, which was devastated by the recent earthquake and tsunami to see what we might learn,” Davis said.

The space station orbits Earth about 16 times a day and the researchers are able to get about 5-6 good images daily of targeted locations. Cloud cover and darkness limit the number of possible images, and the transmission of data files is enormous.

Jasmine Nahorniak, a senior research assistant, developed and runs the website through OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences where HICO images and other data are stored and shared with scientists around the world.

"We have a couple of thousand images and a growing number of scientists who are interested in the data,” she said. “It’s a work in progress.”

The HICO website is at: http://hico.coas.oregonstate.edu/

Story By: 

Curt Davis, 541-737-5707

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HICO on Space Station
An image of HICO aboard the International Space Station

HICO Columbia River
The mouth of the Columbia River

Scientists seeking to save threatened Nassau grouper

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists studying the Nassau grouper, an iconic Caribbean reef fish decimated by over-fishing, say it is showing tentative signs of recovery off the Cayman Islands since the government there imposed protective restrictions eight years ago.

However, their research also shows that the groupers’ behavior during spawning – and subsequent dispersal of their larvae – may threaten the long-term viability of the species without further protection.

“Nassau groupers form large aggregations to spawn,” said Scott Heppell, a fisheries ecologist at Oregon State University. “They are very predictable. The same trait that promotes their reproductive success, however, also makes them extremely vulnerable to fishing. And once their populations diminish, it is hard to rebuild them.”

Heppell and his colleagues are working with the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF) and the Cayman Islands Department of Environment on a project to learn more about the Nassau grouper. They are particularly interested in how far the larvae disperse with the currents after spawning – a key factor in Caribbean nations’ efforts to rebuild depleted stocks.

As part of REEF’s “Grouper Moon Project,” the researchers deployed short-term and long-term drifter buoys to see where the currents potentially could carry the larvae. They also tagged several adult fish and set up telemetry sites to track the adults en route to their spawning aggregation – work supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program.

What they’ve found is that the groupers aggregate during the first full moon after the winter solstice. As many as 4,000 fish will gather at a site west of Little Cayman Island, then spawn some three to eight days later. The timing of their spawning appears driven by currents, said Heppell, an assistant professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“We wondered why the fish waited to spawn after aggregating,” Heppell said, “and the buoys appear to have provided the answer. As soon as the currents died down and eddies formed, spawning began. This has the effect of limiting short-term dispersal of larvae and keeps resident fish close to home.”

The long-term buoys that were released eventually drifted south, suggesting that some larvae would be carried far from the Cayman Islands. However, halfway through their 45-day journey, the buoys rode currents back to within 100 kilometers of the Cayman Islands.

“The combination of spawning when eddies arrive, and the circular nature of long-term currents has the effect of keeping fish close to home,” Heppell said. “The Cayman Islands used to have five spawning sites for Nassau groupers; now there is one. Despite protections, the other sites haven’t yet regenerated – and the limited distribution of larvae may be the reason.”

Project leaders have started a Baby Grouper Adrift website to track the location of drifter buoys over the next month in an effort funded by the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. The public is invited to follow the progress of the researchers at: http://www.reef.org/programs/grouper_moon/adrift/

Nassau grouper are fish that often grace tropical postcards and photographs, and they attract tourists who like to see them while scuba diving. In addition to that cultural benefit, the fish have an ecological role; they are a keystone species that influences the structure of reef communities and promotes coral health.

Scientists estimate that 60 to 80 percent of historic Nassau grouper aggregations have been wiped out from over-fishing. Those populations are slow to rebuild. Groupers don’t reach maturity until four to eight years of age, and juveniles are subject to predation by invasive lionfish and other species.

That’s what makes the protection of remaining aggregation sites important, Heppell said.

“Since protections were established in the Cayman Islands, we’ve seen evidence of increasing numbers of fish from diver survey, mark-and-recapture data, and video laser observations that document more juveniles,” Heppell said. “Sustaining that aggregation site is critical.”

“Ultimately, it is a cultural decision on managing the population,” Heppell added. “Is a fish worth more one time on a dinner plate, or being seen a hundred different times by diving tourists?”

Story By: 

Scott Heppell, 541-737-1086

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Nassau grouper
Nassau grouper

Cayman Islands study
Brice Semmens of NOAA (left) and Scott Heppell, OSU