OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

OSU to Study Influence of Columbia River, Climate Change and Humans on Ocean

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers will study the interaction of the massive Columbia River plume with the Pacific Ocean off the Pacific Northwest coast as part of a major grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a center that will be run by three Northwest institutions.

As part of that research, OSU scientists will also investigate how climate change propagates through the ocean to coastal and river ecosystems.

Plans for the new NSF Science and Technology Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction were announced Tuesday (Aug. 29) in Portland. Oregon Health & Science University is the lead institution, with partners OSU and the University of Washington. The $19 million grant will create one of the first two NSF centers to focus on marine research. OSU also is part of the other NSF center, headed by the University of Hawaii, which will study marine microbes.

The new center is important, experts say, because coastal margins are the interface between Northwest rivers and the ocean, and also are places where most people live. As a consequence, coastal margins have become highly stressed by human and natural influences.

“The Pacific Northwest is a great test-bed for climate change studies because of the natural processes like El Niño and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, as well as human-induced changes, such as dams on the Columbia River,” said Jack Barth, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at OSU and the project’s research and education director.

Bruce Menge, a distinguished professor of zoology at OSU, said the new consortium would be a “valuable complement” to the research focus of PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, which Oregon State heads. Both Menge and Barth are co-principal investigators in both research efforts.

“The new consortium should also benefit from PISCO’s policy and outreach activities, which extend across most of the U.S. West Coast,” Menge said.

OSU’s primary contribution to the new NSF research effort will be to study how the Columbia River plume interacts with the Pacific Ocean, and what its physical, chemical and biological impacts are on the ocean environment.

OSU researchers also will look at how climate change affects interactions among the river, ocean and a key coastal margin habitat – rocky shores. “Coastal margin habitats such as rocky intertidal zones have proven to be valuable model systems for detecting the effects of changes in the environment,” Menge said.

Researchers from both the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and the OSU College of Science will study microbial assemblages, phytoplankton blooms and the host of zooplankton species that prey on them in the waters of the coast of Oregon and Washington. These biological communities form the basis of the marine food chain and also are critical components in processes that have led to marine “dead zones” off the Oregon coast, and in sequestering atmospheric carbon dioxide.

“It is a complex system and part of our challenge is to overlay the study of that environment with an analysis of the impact of climate change,” Barth said.

The OSU scientists will use moorings, satellites and underwater gliders to observe, monitor and measure the waters off the Northwest coast. They also will create models they hope will offer warnings when the coastal margin’s normal processes go awry.

Their goal is to create predictive models like those for El Niño, Barth said.

“We are to the point where we can predict El Niño events three to five months out,” Barth said, “based on physical measurements of oceanic and atmospheric conditions. Now we’d like to do the same thing for circulation, nutrient fluxes and primary ocean production that dictate the biological response in coastal environments.

“Ideally,” he added, “we could look at the physical processes including winds, currents and temperatures, and predict which plankton species will dominate and whether that will lead to a healthy production of food, or to atypical conditions, including hypoxia and ‘dead zones.’”

Physicists have been able to remotely monitor the physical conditions of the ocean for two decades, Barth said. The NSF grant will test whether the same can be done for biological and ecological research.

In addition to its partnership with OHSU and UW, OSU will work with private industry on the grant, including Intel, which is helping to design the computer-based modeling systems, and Western Environmental Technology Laboratories in Philomath, Ore., which will provide some of the environmental sensors.

The grant also has a strong educational component and OSU will integrate students from its award-winning Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program into the project. The SMILE program, which focuses on developing science and math skills among minority, rural and low-income middle school and high school students, will work with the researchers to analyze data and explore real-life scenarios based on the results.

“One example might be to study what impact extraction of water from rivers has on the ocean ecosystem,” Barth said. “Another could be how ocean and atmosphere processes affect search and rescue efforts – through higher winds, or more powerful storms that create rougher bar conditions.”

Graduate students will assist with the research and have opportunities to take special courses relating to the project.

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Jack Barth,
541-737-1607

New Study Shows Importance of Iron in Ocean Productivity, Carbon Uptake

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that large segments of the Pacific Ocean lack sufficient iron to trigger healthy phytoplankton growth and the absence of the mineral stresses these microscopic ocean plants, triggering them to produce additional pigments that make ocean productivity appear more robust than it really is.

As a result, past interpretations of satellite chlorophyll data may be inaccurate, the researchers say, and the tropical Pacific Ocean may photosynthesize 1-2 billion tons less atmospheric carbon dioxide than was previously thought. Global ocean carbon uptake is estimated at 50 billion tons, so the reduction in the estimate of the uptake is significant – about 2 to 4 percent.

Results of the study are scheduled to be published tomorrow in the journal Nature.

When stressed by a lack of iron, phytoplankton create additional pigments that fluoresce, or light up, unlike normal pigments, according to lead author Michael J. Behrenfeld, a research scientist in Oregon State University’s Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. Unfortunately, he added, satellite imagery could not readily distinguish that difference.

“It’s really a fascinating process,” Behrenfeld said. “When phytoplankton species make these extra pigments, they don’t use them right away – they bank them. Then when they get an infusion of iron, they just take off. They don’t have to wait to begin dividing and growing. But that green color wasn’t an indication of health, it was an indication of stress from a lack of iron.”

The study is also important because it looked at the availability of iron throughout the tropical Pacific Ocean instead of small portions of it. Behrenfeld and his colleagues looked at 12 years of fluorescence data taken along 36,000 miles of ship tracks throughout the tropical Pacific. They now have a “fluorescence fingerprint” of which parts of the ocean are iron-stressed, as well as which parts suffer from lack of nitrogen – another key element to ocean productivity.

“Nitrogen and phosphorus are nutrients that come up from the ocean bottom to feed the upper water column,” Behrenfeld said. “Iron, on the other hand, can come from the deep or from the air, but it also enters the ocean through dust deposited by the wind. Windstorms blowing sand and dust off large deserts are a major source of iron for the world’s oceans.

“It’s like dumping a load of Geritol or some other iron supplement into the water.”

Three large areas appear limited by a lack of iron, the researchers say – the southern ocean around Antarctica, the sub-arctic north Pacific below Alaska, and a huge area in the tropical Pacific centered on the equator. With their newfound knowledge of fluorescence, the scientists believe they now can use satellite imagery to identify specific areas that are iron-stressed – and how they respond to changes such as the sudden influx of iron from a windstorm.

“It turns out different places in the ocean are missing different nutrients,” said Robert Sherrell, a scientist from Rutgers University and a co-author on the study. “The new fluorescence technology now allows us to tell which combination of nutrients is stressing the phytoplankton.”

Behrenfeld said the presence of iron stress in the ocean links phytoplankton to the climate through changes in terrestrial-based dust deposited in the ocean, but it is too early to tell if there is an impact of recent climate change on iron-stressed populations because the satellite data record is too short.

“But now we have the tools to determine that,” he emphasized.

The northern portion of the tropical Pacific is more nitrogen-stressed and doesn’t have the “false greenness,” according to Behrenfeld.

The researchers are creating new models of carbon cycling using NASA satellite imagery which they have calibrated using their ship-based measurements of fluorescence.

The role of the ocean in the global carbon cycle is critical – and nowhere is it more pronounced than the tropical Pacific Ocean. As phytoplankton plants grow, they suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to build new cells.

A better understanding of this carbon cycle is a key to studying global climate change. Iron fertilization of phytoplankton is also a key to a healthy marine food chain.

Both Behrenfeld and Peter Strutton, an assistant professor of oceanography at OSU and a co-author on the Nature paper, have been involved in experiments in which iron is introduced into the ocean in an attempt to boost productivity. Those studies found that introducing iron into small portions of the Pacific did indeed trigger phytoplankton growth, but it wasn’t as robust or as sustained as models predicted.

“It wasn’t the silver bullet that scientists originally hypothesized,” Strutton said. “The carbon export was slower than we thought. It could be the scale was too small, and it could be that the (biological) response was too slow and we didn’t wait long enough.”

Behrenfeld said introducing iron into the ocean system is complex because the mineral isn’t water-soluble and requires repeated infusions.

“When you first do it, there’s an explosion of growth and then it plateaus,” he said. “Then you add a bit more iron, and the phytoplankton respond a bit more. Then you add a third shot, and it triggers some more modest growth. But at the same time you’re promoting phytoplankton growth, the grazers that feed on them come to life because they suddenly have a more abundant food supply.

“So the plankton can disappear as fast as you’ve made them grow.”

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Mike Behrenfeld,
541-737-5289

American Fisheries Society Publishes Book on “Salmon 2100 Project”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new book of essays from more than 30 salmon scientists, policy analysts and wild salmon advocates suggesting ways to save runs of wild salmon has been published by the American Fisheries Society – and some of the prescriptions are certain to raise a few eyebrows.

The book is an outgrowth of the provocative three-year Salmon 2100 Project, a joint effort between Oregon State University and the Environmental Protection Agency laboratory in Corvallis, Ore.

The no-holds-barred project drew a variety of bold ideas, many of which would be politically or socially unacceptable. Even the authors admit that. But most of the participants say something drastic is needed to save wild salmon because of population increase, habitat loss, climate change and other factors.

“Salmon recovery as currently practiced suffers from a lack of imagination,” write Larry Bailey and Michelle Boshard, of Rural Resource Associates in Tonasket, Wash., in their essay called ‘Follow the Money.’ “Rural landowners and communities cannot be expected to maintain the environmental and cultural heritage of future salmon runs for everyone at their own expense. The best habitat remaining is in the poorest rural areas and surrounds people who can least afford the burden.”

Their solution? Take the same money spent by state and federal agencies on salmon recovery and funnel it into locally controlled efforts that would spend more on salmon and less on bureaucracy.

This is just one of many solutions for saving wild salmon offered by the participants of the Salmon 2100 project. Their conclusions were both grim and hopeful, according to the project leaders. The participants were unanimous in their opinions that present efforts and policies to preserve wild salmon runs would fail. Yet they all felt that wild salmon could be saved – with the right prescriptions.

“Some of the policy options are radical and surely would be difficult to implement – especially those requiring changes in the Endangered Species Act,” said Robert T. Lackey, a senior fisheries biologist with EPA and one of the three project leaders. “But it is important to remember that there are policy options that have a good chance of restoring wild salmon runs to significant, sustainable levels through 2100 and beyond.”

OSU sociologists Denise Lach and Sally Duncan helped lead the project with Lackey, who also is a courtesy professor in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

A proposal by James Buchal, a Portland attorney, suggests curtailing fishing and putting more resources into hatchery production to boost the number of salmon, then providing incentives for agencies and others to meet sustainability goals. Too much money is spent perpetuating the “salmon bureaucracy,” he argues, which also holds hostage companies generating hydroelectric power.

John H. Michael, Jr., a fisheries biologist from Olympia, Wash., represents a group of participants advocating a “triage” approach, where watersheds are managed for a specific purpose – not conflicting goals of sustainable fish, energy and agriculture.

“In specific areas where the emphasis is electrical generation, irrigation, domestic water supply and high-density human habitation, the result is the functional extinction of some fish stocks,” he writes. “Specific populations will have to be allowed to become extinct in order to ensure that sufficient money, effort and political will is applied to stocks that have a better chance at long-term survival.”

One of the essays, by James T. Martin, former fisheries chief with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and salmon adviser to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, suggests that current efforts are spread too thin and that salmon restoration should focus more on higher-elevation streams. In short, he says we should write off those rivers and creeks where the chances of success are impossibly high and focus society’s efforts on those waterways where salmon have at least a chance to survive through 2100.

“In some cases,” Martin writes, “…dams will have to be removed or significantly modified to facilitate juvenile downstream migration. In other cases, it may be feasible and preferable to construct small-head fish-sorting dams in the upper ends of reservoirs of the larger hydro facilities…The captured fish can then be trucked or piped around the reservoir and dam to allow migration downstream to the ocean or lower river rearing habitat.”

Ernest Brannon, a professor emeritus from the University of Idaho, suggests the only practical, cost-effective answer to saving salmon is engineering – specifically, creating artificial streams to replace lost habitat.

“An engineered stream is a concept of creating habitat for salmon and steelhead that replaces lost or degraded habitat resulting from economic development of western North America,” Brannon writes. “Engineered habitat that mimics natural streams, with the additional provisions of controlled flow and nutrient enrichment, can increase production efficiency several fold over unmanaged habitat.”

Jack E. Williams, a Southern Oregon University researcher and member of Trout Unlimited, and Edwin P. Pister, retired official with the California Department of Fish and Game, say the key to saving wild salmon runs lies within each individual. Technology advances and policy decisions are secondary to reducing our growing “ecological footprint” that demands water, energy and other natural resources whose depletion directly or indirectly affects salmon survival.

“Only when the great majority of the populace becomes ecologically literate…can we expect to receive the required political support necessary to affect a behavioral turnaround,” they write. “Brian Czech, in his landmark book, ‘Shoveling Fuel for a Runaway Train,’ envisions a future where more and more people will understand the folly of perpetual economic growth and will begin to see the conspicuous consumer as a bad citizen.

“This new set of values needs to come sooner than later for wild salmon and their habitats.”

The prescriptions offered by the authors represent their personal views and not those of the institutions and agencies for which they work, the project leaders noted. And though the ideas are fascinating, OSU’s Lach said, they aren’t endorsing any of them.

“We don’t have a dog in this fight,” she said. “The goal of the Salmon 2100 Project was to elicit innovative thinking from people involved with salmon across a wide spectrum. Our personal views don’t enter into it. It is ultimately up to the public to decide on what tradeoffs they are willing to consider that would help save wild salmon.”

Copies of the Salmon 2100 book are available from the American Fisheries Society. Information is available at: http://www.fisheries.org/html/publications/catbooks/x55050C.shtml

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Bob Lackey,
541-754-4607

Study: Wild Steelhead Reproduce More Successfully Than Hatchery Steelhead

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A 15-year analysis of spawning steelhead in one Oregon fishery has proven what many experts suspected for some time – that after fish from traditional hatcheries migrate to the ocean and return to spawn in natural habitat, they leave far fewer offspring than their wild relatives.

The study used DNA tracking technology of fish breeding in Hood River, and showed that traditional hatchery steelhead produced 60-90 percent fewer surviving adult offspring than wild steelhead.

However, the research also confirmed that fish from modern “supplementation” hatcheries, which begin with eggs from native, wild fish, are about as successful as wild steelhead. These fish can be used to boost the size of native populations without causing obvious genetic harm, at least for one generation.

The findings, by researchers from Oregon State University and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, were just published online in Conservation Biology, a professional journal.

“This provides very compelling data to confirm what we’ve suspected for quite a while, that fish from traditional hatchery operations have a much-reduced ability to reproduce and sustain a wild population,” said Michael Blouin, an OSU associate professor of zoology.

“We’ve essentially created a fish version of white lab mice,” Blouin said. “They are well-adapted to life in the hatchery, but do not perpetuate themselves in a wild environment as successfully as native-born fish. The good news, however, is that reducing the number of generations a stock is passed through the hatchery can greatly increase the fitness of that stock in its natural habitat.”

The historic role of hatcheries was to produce fish for harvest, but a new mission for many hatcheries is to produce breeders to add to dwindling wild populations.

“Our work suggests that first-generation hatchery fish can be used to provide a significant one-time boost to a wild population without apparent damage to the genetics of the wild stock,” Blouin said. “Whether you can continue that on a long-term basis is still unclear. But it seems that at least the first generation of fish produced this way function pretty well.”

Traditional steelhead and salmon hatcheries in Oregon, Blouin said, usually worked with non-native fish that were repeatedly – and purposefully – bred for generations in hatcheries. The offspring of hatchery fish actually made better “domesticated” fish in the hatchery environment, he said, where inadvertent selection for traits like a less aggressive temperament produced stocks that had high egg-to-smolt survival in the hatchery.

However, the genetic characteristics that make good hatchery specimens work against the offspring of those fish when the offspring are born into a competitive and predatory wild environment.

The techniques used in supplementation hatcheries – use of local, wild-born fish for eggs – have been designed specifically to minimize those genetic effects of the hatchery. And it appears that at least on a short-term basis, Blouin said, they can achieve that goal.

To study the issue, researchers used “genetic fingerprinting” techniques to track the pedigrees of fish in Oregon’s Hood River, doing DNA analysis with scales taken from about 15,000 fish since 1991. The relative reproductive success of wild fish and supplementation hatchery fish was compared to fish from traditional hatchery programs, by matching returning adult offspring to their parents that had spawned in the river in years past.

The study found that steelhead from traditional hatcheries had about 10-40 percent the reproductive success of wild fish. By contrast, fish from a supplementation hatchery had reproductive success indistinguishable from wild fish, and crosses between wild fish and supplementation hatchery fish also appeared healthy.

“By tracing the lineage of those fish, we’ve shown pretty clearly that fish from traditional hatcheries do not reproduce as successfully as wild fish, and thus could potentially drag down the health of wild populations by interbreeding with them,” Blouin said. “But in places where we need a short-term boost to a wild population, it also appears that supplementation hatcheries may work well and not cause significant problems.”

Although first-generation supplementation fish were as successful as wild fish, the researchers were hesitant to recommend supplementation as a long-term solution for dwindling wild runs.

“With many generations of supplementation you inevitably start using fish for broodstock that have hatchery ancestors,” Blouin said. “Whether this results in enough domestication to cause problems down the road is still an open question. All we can say for now is that supplementation does not appear to be harmful in the short term.”

The research considered only the genetic background and lineage of the fish, Blouin said, and did not take into account any other environmental or fishery management issues. If a stream or fishery environment is severely altered or degraded, he said, adding supplementation hatchery fish to the system will do little to achieve a self-sustaining wild population.

This research was supported by the Bonneville Power Administration and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

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Michael Blouin,
541-737-2362

Salmon Tracing Pilot Study a Success; May Expand to Look at Entire West Coast

NEWPORT, Ore. – A pilot study aimed at determining the origins of ocean-caught Chinook salmon proved successful this summer, raising hopes for the eventual implementation of in-season management protocols.

Much of Oregon’s offshore commercial fishing has been closed or restricted this summer to protect weakened runs of fish from the Klamath River basin. But the study by Oregon State University researchers – done in cooperation with Oregon commercial fishermen and the Oregon Salmon Commission – showed that it is possible to determine within 24-48 hours the origins of ocean-caught fish.

The next step of the research, the scientists say, is to broaden the study to see if fish from different river systems mingle in the ocean, or migrate separately as groups.

“The conclusions reached through genetic testing were consistent with the results from traditional coded wire tags we found in some of the hatchery fish,” said Gil Sylvia, director of OSU’s Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station. “What is remarkable is that the genetic testing has such a rapid turnaround time; instead of waiting for weeks or months, you get the results right away. And it works for wild fish, not just hatchery fish.”

In their study, the OSU scientists found that about 5 percent of the fish caught off the Oregon coast originated from the Klamath basin. About two of every three fish caught during the research – which included testing in June, July, August and September – came from California. Most of the others were from Oregon’s rivers, primarily the Columbia and its tributaries, with the exception of a small percentage of fish from British Columbia and Alaska.

The preliminary research findings underscore the importance of broadening the study to include Washington and California, the researchers point out. During a September meeting in Portland, the National Marine Fisheries Service labs in both those states agreed to work with OSU and other researchers from Oregon on a joint proposal to expand the research effort.

“One of the things we’re all interested in learning is how the distribution of fish is related to oceanographic data,” said Michael Banks, an OSU salmon geneticist and lead scientist on the study. “The fishermen are fascinated by the potential of the data, but for them to provide that data requires them to stop, and drop instruments to monitor those conditions, and check their (global positioning system) unit.

“It isn’t the most convenient approach,” Banks added. “By the end of the summer, though, we tested a glider from colleagues at OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and it followed the fishermen and recorded all of the data we needed. It was really slick.”

During the research, the OSU scientists tested more than 1,500 salmon caught off the Oregon coast and compared their genetic sequencing with that in a NOAA database of unique genetic signatures of fish from 200 river basins from California to Alaska. Klamath fish are genetically more distinct and can be identified 98 percent of the time.

But simply determining whether a fish caught in the ocean is a Klamath fish, or from some other river, won’t change management decisions unless more data pinpoints how the fish congregate and travel.

“We have one working hypothesis that Klamath fish tend to be further offshore than fish from most of the other river systems,” Sylvia said, “but we don’t have any firm data to back that up. It is the kind of hypothesis that would be valuable to test. This year we determined that the genetic testing protocols worked. The next step is to see if we can determine whether certain fish are more likely to be found farther north or south, near shore or offshore, and at what time of year.

“It’s a big project,” Sylvia said, “that may require 150 fishing vessels in California, another 100 in Oregon, and a few more in Washington. It is not trivial. But there is real potential here for real-time management, and the fishing community would like to make this happen.”

This summer’s research was funded by the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board and managed by the Oregon Salmon Commission. About 50 Oregon commercial vessels have thus far made nearly 200 fishing trips as part of the study, and supplied the scientists with more than 1,500 tissue samples and other data.

The OSU researchers also are keeping track of the salmon through an onboard electronic traceability system developed by the university over the past several years. This innovative “barcode” system allows commercial fishermen to log the location, date and time of the capture, as well as onboard handling techniques, for every fish captured.

Eventually, such a tool may play a major role in marketing, according to Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Seafood Laboratory in Astoria, and a principal investigator in the CROOS project.

“By identifying the river system through genetics, and being able to accurately label a fish as ‘wild,’ the potential exists for fishermen to brand their product and increase the value to consumers,” Morrissey said. “One such example is Copper River salmon, which often command twice the market price of similar fish, because of the attributes attached to it.”

More information on this project is available at www.projectCROOS.com

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Michael Banks,
541-867-0420

OSU’s Zaneveld Receives Jerlov Award for Work in Ocean Optics

CORVALLIS, Ore. - J. Ronald V. Zaneveld, professor emeritus of Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, has been awarded the 2006 Jerlov Award by The Oceanography Society.

Society leaders made the award presentation recently at the Ocean Optics conference in Montréal, Canada.

This international prize recognizes contributions to the advancement of knowledge of the nature and consequences of light in the ocean. Zaneveld was cited for his outstanding contributions to optical oceanography.

In 1971 Zaneveld received his Ph.D. in oceanography at OSU and rapidly transitioned from student to the head of the Ocean Optics group, where he spent his academic career. He became an emeritus professor in 2000.

Zaneveld also has had an impressive career in the private sector, co-founding two successful ocean optics companies, Sea Tech with Robert Bartz, and Western Environmental Technology Laboratories (WET Labs) with Casey Moore. Both companies have advanced optical technologies and accelerated the oceanographic community’s access to precision optical sensors and systems.

“Like Nils Jerlov, Ron (Zaneveld) recognized the need for optical instrumentation that could be deployed in the harsh marine environment,” said Tommy Dickey, professor of geography at the University of California, Santa Barbara, at the awards reception. “Early in his career, Ron began developing optical instruments for measuring inherent optical properties. These instruments are now used for not only optical oceanography, but also biological and biogeochemical oceanography and marine geology.”

The award commemorates Nils Gunnar Jerlov, an early leader in ocean optics research.

Long, Deadly Hypoxic ‘Dead Zone’ Event Finally Concludes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The largest and most devastating hypoxic event ever observed in marine waters off the Pacific Northwest coast has finally ended, researchers at Oregon State University say.

During mid-October, a normal shift arrived from summer southward-blowing winds to fall and winter northward-blowing winds, resulting in the end of the upwelling season and a rise in dissolved oxygen to levels that can generally support marine life, scientists said. The oxygen levels should continue to increase throughout the next month.

Monitoring efforts will continue, new technology will be utilized, federal funding will be sought for more work in the area, and work is already under way to identify the amounts of biological damage done by this event, the fifth “dead zone” in five years and, literally, one for the record books.

In 2006, the low-oxygen waters off Oregon stretched further north along the coast, reached closer to shore and were thicker than any event previously detected. The event was four times larger than any previous episode and lasted four times as long. More important, oxygen levels were by far the lowest ever recorded on the near shore of Oregon, approaching “anoxic” conditions in some places, or the complete lack of oxygen.

“The figures were just off the charts this year,” said Francis Chan, a marine ecologist with OSU and the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO. Any level of dissolved oxygen below 1.4 milliliters per liter is considered hypoxic for most marine life, and many areas were below that, some 10-30 times lower than normal, others approaching zero.

“We had stronger and more persistent winds from the north, causing greater upwelling and more severe hypoxic conditions, than we had ever seen before,” said Jack Barth, OSU professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences. “The winds were outside the normal summer range of anything seen in decades.”

Even though hypoxic concerns erupted for the fifth year in a row, the events are still considered an anomaly, Barth said.

“Given what’s happened, it would not be surprising if hypoxic conditions developed next year as well, but we can’t say that for sure,” Barth said. “And we don’t know what is causing the change in wind patterns that ultimately results in marine hypoxia. There’s a pressing need to better understand these ocean systems, and all this points to an ongoing need for a better coast-wide observing system.”

This year’s hypoxic event began in mid-June, and in the Heceta Bank off Florence oxygen levels were unusually low for four months. Many species fled to areas with more oxygen, such as a shallow refuge near shore where wave action raised oxygen levels – in some such areas, fishing was very good.

But those species that could not swim away or get out, including thousands of crabs, sea stars and marine worms, carpeted vast areas of the ocean floor with dead and rotting carcasses.

The event, due to its severity and unusual nature, attracted national media attention.

The next order of business, scientists say, is to continue monitoring the recovery from the dead zone. OSU will work closely with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, and consult with local fishermen to verify their findings. The event is complex – low oxygen waters are not static, they move up and down the coast and also towards shore, resulting in patchiness and variable effects in some areas.

This winter, the ocean off Newport will be continuously monitored for the first time by a submersible “glider” that will provide information on ocean conditions, and a sophisticated new buoy will be moored off Newport along the central Oregon coast to measure biological productivity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, current velocity and other data.

“We’re very interested now in seeing how the ocean recovers,” Chan said. “There is much we don’t know about how sensitive or resilient these ocean systems are, but an event of this magnitude gives us the chance to gain some real insights into how marine systems function and can recover. We expect some fish to return fairly quickly, but with other life forms, it’s hard to say. And we have deadlines -- we need to get a lot of this information before another possible hypoxic event starts next year.”

Funding is still inadequate for the types of video monitoring, water sampling, comprehensive ocean observations and research that is needed, the OSU scientists said.

Changes in oceanic and atmospheric conditions are expected as a result of global climate change, and events such as this summer’s stronger and more persistent winds from the north, contributing to hypoxia, are consistent with such predictions, the OSU researchers said. However, at this point there is no data or basis to suggest such cause and effect mechanisms, they said. There are also no known links to other marine or atmospheric events such as El Niño or the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

When the system operates normally, upwelling off Oregon is usually a process that brings deep, cold, nutrient rich waters to the surface near the coast, resulting in one of the nation’s more productive fisheries. When that process breaks down due to unusual winds, phytoplankton blooms that are healthy in moderation become too extreme, and lead to concentrations of low-oxygen water near the sea floor.

This type of “dead zone” is different than the 200 such areas that have been reported elsewhere in the United States and widely around the world and are usually caused by nutrient pollution, as outlined in a recent United Nations report. It is similar to some that have been documented in the past off the coasts of Peru, Chile, Namibia and South Africa.

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Francis Chan,
541-737-9131

Climate change and coastal erosion subject of OSU Byrne Lecture Nov. 15

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Sometimes, in a big winter storm, it can happen right before your eyes.

Most of the time, though, erosion at the Oregon coast is more gradual. But with increased rates of sea-level rise and higher storm waves, the 21st century will bring greater erosion to the Oregon coast, says Paul Komar, an expert in coastal processes at Oregon State University (OSU).

Komar, a professor emeritus in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will give a public lecture on the scientific background and the implications of increased natural hazards for coastal development, “Living on the Oregon Coast in a Century of Climate Change.”

The talk, part of the John Byrne Lecture Series, is Wednesday, Nov. 15, 7:30 p.m., in the Construction and Engineering Auditorium of the LaSells Stewart Center on the OSU campus.

Komar’s lecture, which is sponsored by Oregon Sea Grant and the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, is free, open to the public, and according to organizers, specifically intended for a public audience.

Komar, a member of the OSU faculty since 1970, has conducted research, lectured widely, and written and edited books touching on his lecture topic. One book written for a general audience, “The Pacific Northwest Coast: Living with the Shores of Oregon and Washington,” was published by Duke University Press in 1998.

The Byrne Lecture Series, named for former OSU President and NOAA Administrator John Byrne, presents public lectures on subjects of broad topical interest in marine and atmospheric sciences, particularly on themes of resources, policy and communicating science to an interested but non-specialist audience.

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Paul Komar,
541-737-5210

Dangerous tsunamis threat to Pacific Northwest

CORVALLIS, Ore. - On the warm Friday evening of July 17, 1998, villagers on the northern coast of Papua New Guinea were finishing a quiet day when a magnitude 7.1 earthquake suddenly shook the area and the offshore ocean bottom lurched upwards.

At first the sea receded. Then within 15 minutes, waves up to 45 feet high surged over the tropical lagoons, battered people with debris, swept them inland and killed more than 2,200 villagers.

That was a tsunami, the most powerful wave in the world. Usually triggered by earthquakes, they bear little resemblance to the usual ocean waves which are a mere ripple by comparison, and have nothing to do with tides, even though they are often inaccurately referred to as tidal waves. They can be huge and travel at enormous speeds of more than 400 miles per hour, fast enough to keep pace with a jet airliner.

Tsunamis are not dangerous in deep water, where they often pass unnoticed. But when they approach land, depending on their size, speed and the underwater topography, they can mount enormous, destructive and repeated waves.

Researchers at Oregon State University and from around the world will use a new tsunami wave basin research facility to gain a better understanding of the behavior of these deadly waves.

With its combination of a vast ocean and the frequent seismic activity of the "Ring of Fire," the Pacific Rim is particularly vulnerable to tsunamis. Twelve damaging tsunamis have struck Hawaii since 1895, including a killer wave in 1946 that originated near Alaska and killed 159 people in the islands.

It's now clear that the Pacific Northwest is eminently vulnerable to the destruction of a tsunami, most likely due to earthquake activity on the Cascadia subduction zone. Studies have identified sand and gravel deposits that scientists believe were carried far inland from the coast by past tsunamis on this subduction zone.

In 1992, the Cape Mendocino earthquake caused a tsunami that may just be a mild, sneak preview of more destructive waves in the region's future.

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Solomon Yim, 541-737-4273

$4.8 million grant to OSU will enhance tsunami research

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The National Science Foundation has announced that Oregon State University will receive a $4.8 million, four-year grant to create the world's most sophisticated tsunami wave basin research facility, allowing scientists to better understand these natural disasters, improve warnings and ultimately save lives.

Construction of the new research facility, which will be a significant expansion of the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory on the OSU campus, will begin this summer and be complete by late 2002. The award is part of the NSF's $82 million Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation, or NEES program, which will also support research at the OSU laboratory through at least 2014.

"This new facility will be an enormous step forward for tsunami research, and the knowledge our engineers gain with it should eventually help predict tsunami behavior and save lives all over the world," said Ron Adams, dean of the OSU College of Engineering. "It should also be of special value to citizens of the Pacific Northwest with the clear dangers we face from the Cascadia subduction zone."

Beyond that, Adams said, the facility will connect OSU researchers with ocean, structural, and earthquake engineers throughout the world, enhance education for undergraduate and graduate students, and represents another major step toward OSU's goal of operating a "top 25" engineering program.

This lab not only can conduct new types of experiments, but it will feature advanced computer networking that allows other scientists to design, observe and even control their own experiments from halfway around the world. The very concept of the lab, officials say, is to concentrate resources in one larger, world-class facility and then make it readily, conveniently available for use by scientists anywhere.

"This will be the largest and best tsunami research facility in the world for the next decade or more," said Solomon Yim, a professor of civil engineering and principal investigator on the project. Other OSU grant recipients are Charles Sollitt, director of the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory; and Cherri Pancake, professor of computer science and Intel Faculty Fellow.

According to Pancake, the new facility will allow researchers and students to collaborate via the Internet. Detailed images and data from each experiment will be added to an international Tsunami Experimental Databank that will be maintained at the Northwest Alliance for Computational Science and Engineering, or NACSE, located at OSU.

NACSE's powerful data analysis capabilities and high-speed networking connections will make it possible to replay experiments and watch the most important portions in slow-motion.

The databank is the first truly comprehensive repository for experimental information from any type of engineering laboratory.

"Researchers will be able to determine quickly if someone else has already performed the type of experiment they need, gain instant access to an incredibly wide variety of data from those experiments, and download the data for comparing with their own experiments and simulations," Pancake said.

Tsunamis, Yim said, represent complex "nonlinear" natural phenomena whose behavior is difficult to understand and predict. Since tsunamis are sudden and devastating, scientists can't routinely study the real thing. They depend on laboratories, computers and wave basin facilities such as this to "model" tsunami behavior and conduct experiments measuring tsunami impacts on shorelines or man-made structures such as piers and offshore drilling platforms.

The stakes are high. Just in the past 10 years, tsunamis have claimed more than 4,000 lives, and the death toll has the potential to increase as coastal areas become more heavily populated. More than 200 tsunamis are known to have affected the United States since the first records were kept in the 1700s.

For residents of the Pacific Northwest, the problem lies close to home. About 300,000 people live or work in nearby coastal regions, not including a huge influx of tourists. One survey suggested that a great Cascadia subduction zone earthquake and associated tsunami could cost the region between $1.25 billion and $6.25 billion.

Features of the new research laboratory include:

  • An existing wave basin will be expanded to create the first large-scale, shape-controlled, three dimensional tsunami testing facility, allowing for a full range of deep to shallow-water wave testing for ocean, coastal and harbor studies. 
  • A wealth of instrumentation at the new wave basin will include 20 wave gauges, four velocity transducers, 10 underwater cameras, six surface cameras and three microphones, and advances in networking technology will allow researchers to be involved in experiments from remote sites. 
  • The Tsunami Experimental Databank will make data easily accessible for replay and review via the web, improving the cost-effectiveness of future experiments and making it easy to use experimental data to improve computer models for predicting tsunamis. 
  • Both undergraduate and graduate students can participate in studies, as no fewer than 22 scheduled courses at OSU now involve topics that are clearly related to this type of research.

"Our long-term goal with studies such as this is to better understand how tsunamis will behave and react in different types of ocean terrain, depths, distances, and what impacts they will have once they reach land," Yim said. "Ideally, the databank will make it possible to use the information learned from previous experiments almost immediately when an earthquake or underwater landslide occurs and then transmit accurate warnings to people and coastlines that may be affected."

In the future, Yim said, it might also be possible to design tsunami resistant buildings and other structures with a better understanding of the wave forces they may face.

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Ron Adams, 541-737-7722

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Wave basins such as these existing facilities at the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory at Oregon State University are essential to research on ocean waves and their impacts. The facility will soon undergo its largest expansion in a decade with the creation of a new wave basin for tsunami research, supported by a major grant from the National Science Foundation.