marine science and the coast

Invading crabs pose serious concern, not chaos

CORVALLIS - The European green crab that has arrived in Coos Bay has the potential to spread fairly rapidly up and down the Pacific Coast, experts say, but may not totally decimate marine ecosystems as some reports have suggested.

This unwanted crab species breeds and spreads rapidly, grows fast, eats almost anything, and has an unusually wide tolerance for variation in both water temperature and salinity, says Sylvia Yamada, an instructor of zoology at Oregon State University and expert on crab predation.

"There's little doubt this crab will spread and cause some problems, and there's not much we can do to stop that," Yamada said. "In some local cases the problems may be severe. But it's also true that other marine species will adapt and survive. Our native marine fauna will not be wiped out."

Yamada just completed a literature review of research on this invasive crab species, which is native to Europe and has been causing problems on the West Coast since showing up in San Francisco Bay in 1989.

Among the findings:


  • A female green crab can produce up to 200,000 eggs per year, and its planktonic larvae, in theory, can travel up to 400 miles in one generation on Pacific Ocean currents.


  • All bays, estuaries and inland seas from Baja California to Alaska may be habitat for the green crab - including Puget Sound - but it won't become abundant on wave-exposed portions of the coast.


  • The green crab is voracious, eating barnacles, clams, oysters, mussels, worms, urchins, young Dungeness or red rock crabs, some plants and small fish.


  • These crabs are smaller than native Dungeness and red rock crabs, but larger than other native crab species that can tolerate low salinity, such as the purple shore crab and hairy Oregon shore crab.


  • Because of its size, fast growth and low-salinity tolerance, the green crab will pose a special problem to commercial shellfish growers as it feeds on young oysters and clams. It may also disturb the ecosystem through its burrowing habits in soft sediments.

A picky eater? No. In lean times the green crab will make dinner out of 104 biological families, 18 genera, five plant and 14 animal phyla. If it's alive, it's lunch.

But in spite of this list of predatory accomplishments, Yamada said the green crab will probably become just another predatory crab species within the marine ecosystem.

"For one thing, it's important to remember that the European green crab will not only be a predator, it will also be a prey," she said. "Especially when young, it will be eaten by other native crabs, fish, otters, seals, the great blue heron, ducks, gulls and other birds. And maybe humans."

The green crab also can't take waves very well - it will confine itself largely to inland waters of one type or another.

"It's very difficult to predict exactly how a new species will establish itself in a given situation," Yamada said. "It will take time for the green crab to build up breeding populations as it spreads, and it will be preyed upon by many other marine species."

If the green crab does form dense enough populations, Yamada said, we can expect some reduction in clam harvests, decrease in the survival of young oysters, an evolutionary "natural selection" for shellfish with thicker shells, a displacement of native species such as the hairy Oregon shore crab from some of their habitats, and a decrease in the survival of young Dungeness crabs.

Silver linings are hard to come by with this crab species. It might make decent fish bait, and in theory it can be eaten - the green crab is harvested and eaten by people in Portugal, Spain, France and England. But due to its small size it won't compare favorably to a succulent Dungeness crab.

"It's very unfortunate this species has arrived," Yamada said. "In all likelihood we'll just have to learn to live with it. And that's exactly what the other marine species will do."

Media Contact: 

Sylvia Yamada, 541-737-5345

OSU marine mammal expert to lead educational whale-watching trip

NEWPORT, Ore. - An educational excursion this Sept. 22-28 to the inland passage of Vancouver Island will offer participants a closeup view of killer whales and other wildlife.

Organized by Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center, the trip will be led by Bruce Mate, one of the world's most prominent marine mammal experts. Mate holds an endowed chair in marine mammal research at OSU.

Participants will travel on a 70-passenger ship equipped with zodiacs for exploring the area from the San Juan Islands to Johnstone Strait. In addition to whale watching, the tour will explore Princess Louisa Inlet, called one of North America's most beautiful fjords, as well as the San Juan archipelago and the Gulf Islands of British Columbia.

The trip also will include a stop in Victoria to view Butchart Gardens and local museums.

Joining Mate will be a group of naturalists and historians, who will offer a blend of science and history to participants on the expedition.

OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport also is offering a trip March 5-13, 1998, to visit breeding and calving lagoons of gray whales near Baja California, and an excursion to the Antarctic in January, 1999.

For more information on any of the trips, or to be put on a mailing list, write to the Marine Mammal Program, Oregon State University, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Newport, OR 97365, or call 541-867-0133 for more information.

Media Contact: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202


NEWPORT - Ginny Goblirsch, an Oregon State University Extension Sea Grant agent who works out of Newport, has been recognized as one of three "Highliners of the Year" by National Fisherman, a national publication serving commercial fishermen and other marine professionals.

The magazine cited her both for her work as an extension agent and as a member of a fishing family.

In addition to working as an extension agent with Oregon Sea Grant, Goblirsch supports her family's albacore boat, the EZC out of Newport, specialty marketing their albacore.

"I'm extremely proud of the fact that I am a fisherman's wife," she told National Fisherman. "These guys take an enormous risk, so when I see misinformation out there, whether it's in my local community or statewide, I like to try to clarify issues."

As an extension agent, Goblirsch has been a statewide leader on safety, insurance and other initiatives and works to keep open communication between the commercial fishing industry and various agencies. She also presents information and gives advice about issues of importance to fishermen, and encourages the agencies to understand and actively respond to these concerns.

She shared the "Highliners" honor with Tim Thomas of Edmonds, Wash., and Jamie Ross of Homer, Alaska.

National Fisherman is the most widely read commercial-fishing magazine in the U.S., reaching more than 38,000 readers.




Jay Rasmussen, 541-867-0368

Climate changes may have major impact on salmon

CORVALLIS - Natural climate cycles and the advent of global warming could both have a dramatic impact on already-depleted stocks of Pacific Northwest salmon, one fisheries expert said today.

There's evidence of a natural 40-year cycle in weather patterns, and some people are hoping that conditions in the ocean will follow past patterns, soon improve and help solve the salmon fisheries conservation crisis.

But it's also possible that global warming caused by the greenhouse effect might negate any positive trends and create future conditions on both inland streams and in the ocean that are worse than ever, the researcher said.

A summary of these climatic, ocean, and precipitation trends was made today by Daniel Bottom in a meeting at Oregon State University of the Pacific Division of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

"The focus in recent years has turned very strongly towards the impact of climate and ocean conditions on salmon growth and survival," Bottom said. "In the past we always emphasized hatcheries, dams, and fishing pressure as the only important factors in salmon conservation. That was shortsighted, this problem involved environmental changes literally Pacific Rim in scope."

Factors such as dams and riparian protection are still very important, Bottom said, but there's now more appreciation of the critical role that long-term climate change can play, as it dictates ocean upwelling and currents, marine food supply, terrestrial temperatures, snowpacks and stream flows.

And when looked at from that perspective, the news is not good.

"There's a lot of variability in the predictions for this region, but the latest climate models based upon a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide indicate that large interior basins like the Columbia River may shift from a spring to a winter peak period of flow," Bottom said. "More precipitation may fall as rain and less as snow, with serious impacts on summer stream flows."

And to complete the double whammy, ocean upwelling cycles and nutrient rich currents may continue to resemble those most often observed during recent "El Nino" events, which have been disastrous for salmon health and survival.

Bottom is a research biologist with the Oregon Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, and has managed the salmon conservation program with OSU's Center for the Analysis of Environmental Change.

He and other climatic experts have identified a significant "turning point" in 1976 which seemed to begin a long, downward spiral in the ocean conditions and onshore weather patterns salmon need to thrive in this region.

For about two decades now, a low-pressure system that forms over the Aleutian Islands each winter was often more intense than usual. That seemed, by mechanisms still not clearly understood, to enhance salmon fisheries in Alaska and British Columbia while those in the Pacific Northwest withered.

If historical trends were to continue, Bottom said, this trend might soon reverse itself and begin improving weather and ocean conditions in the Pacific Northwest. Whether that will actually happen is less clear.

"A lot of people don't seem to think that the one or two degree changes we talk about with climate change are a big deal," he said. "But global warming can have a profound ripple effect that changes entire ecosystems, including those necessary to support salmon. It's a very big deal."

As yet another El Nino looms this year, Bottom said, an unusually-frequent occurrence of this global weather phenomenon begins to raise still more questions about links to a changing global climate.

Many people also don't realize, Bottom said, that despite its historic association with salmon, California and the Pacific Northwest are actually on the southern fringe of the natural range of this cold-water fish species.

"Our salmon are already literally living on the edge," Bottom said. "And since future climatic conditions are impossible to predict with certainty, that makes it all the more important to preserve as many different stocks as possible to give us the best chance that some can adapt to new conditions."

The new facts that are being learned about climate, ocean conditions and weather impacts in no way lessen the need to improve salmon survival and habitat in other areas, Bottom said.

In fact, the dubious climatic conditions of the future make it all the more important to give the fish every possible advantage. And it's also important to better understand such climate mechanisms, so that other salmon restoration efforts are not inappropriately given credit for which they may not really be responsible.

"Too often in the past we've managed these fisheries from a perspective of the times always being good and production always high," he said. "Now we must quit deluding ourselves, and manage the fisheries for the lean years."

Media Contact: 

Daniel Bottom, 541-737-7631

Natural controls on fish populations analyzed

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon State University have demonstrated for the first time one of the natural mechanisms that helps regulate populations of marine fish species, so that the fish neither go extinct or expand their numbers to unsupportable levels.

The study, to be reported Friday in the journal Science, documents how the population of a tropical fish species called damselfish is controlled by combined attacks from predators in the reefs below and the waters above.

The research also confirms a theory about "density dependent" mortality, which suggests that as populations of a fish species grow large, the levels of predation increase; but as populations fall, the "roving" predators lose interest and move away to better hunting grounds, allowing populations to rebound.

"Among other findings, this research suggests that it's important to not overfish these predatory species, since they may play a key role in regulating the populations of other fish," said Mark Hixon, an OSU professor of zoology. "If you were to remove the predatory species, you could seriously destabilize the population and make it far more erratic than it already is."

The findings, Hixon said, help explain on a basic ecological level how the population of at least one fish species may be regulated on a short-term basis, and it probably has applications to a number of other species with related mechanisms. However, these small-scale oscillations in fish population are a different issue than large-scale population changes - such as the salmon crisis in the Pacific Northwest - that may be influenced by overfishing, habitat degradation and marine climate change.

It's commonly known, Hixon said, that many fish populations can vary dramatically, sometimes on a scale of 10-100 times over a period of decades or even a few years. It's been far less clear what prevents this natural variation from getting out of control, although it is widely theorized that some natural mechanism causes a high level of natural mortality when fish populations are too high, and the mortality lessens when the populations are low.

In field research done on tropical reefs in the Bahamas Islands, scientists from OSU and the University of California at Santa Cruz showed that the damselfish - during their particularly vulnerable juvenile stage - were preyed upon by two distinct types of predators, both of which were necessary for this type of "density dependent" population control.

Groupers, and other "resident" fish species living within the same coral reefs the damselfish favored, preyed on them if they ventured too close to the reef. Jacks, another tropical fish species, were "roving" predators that attacked the damselfish from above.

"When damselfish populations became high, the jacks would show up and attack the juvenile fish from above and the groupers would eat them if they ventured into the reefs below," Hixon said. "They were literally caught between the devil and the deep blue sea."

But when damselfish populations dwindled, Hixon said, the jacks would lose interest and move on to other feeding grounds, giving the damselfish time and opportunity to rebuild their populations.

These types of natural population control mechanisms are complex, quite variable, and no doubt operate differently for different fish species, Hixon said. Cod fisheries in the North Atlantic - which have practically collapsed due to overfishing - may have predatory fish similar to the damselfish involved in their population control. But there is speculation that marine bird species and other predators may regulate juvenile salmon in the ocean.

Basic ecological research such as this may help fisheries managers better understand the life cycle and ecology of marine fish, Hixon said, and take steps to protect the natural interaction of different species. For instance, the research suggests that overfishing of important marine predators could seriously disrupt natural population controls on other fish species.

"What we basically need to do is understand how natural systems work and then make sure they are not seriously disrupted by human activities," Hixon said.

Media Contact: 

Mark Hixon, 541-737-5364

Oregon seafood processors facing deadline

NEWPORT - Like their counterparts across the nation, Oregon seafood processors face a December deadline to comply with new federal regulations aimed at ensuring that America's seafood supply is safe and fit to eat.

The industry should be ready, an Oregon State University seafood specialist predicts, thanks to the efforts of an alliance of educators, government agencies and trade groups pulled together three years ago by the National Sea Grant College Program.

That alliance is being honored this month with a Hammer Award from Vice President Al Gore, in recognition of its "significant contribution to the nation."

Ken Hilderbrand, an OSU Extension Sea Grant seafood specialist, has been part of the alliance since its inception in 1994, soon after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced plans to apply Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (or HACCP) standards to seafood.

HACCP lays out seven principles for food processors, intended to ensure food safety from the point of harvest to the consumer's table. Among other things, the system identifies critical points in the processing chain at which potential hazards can be controlled or eliminated.

The principles require careful planning, record-keeping and monitoring, all backed by sound scientific information.

Instead of relying on after-the-fact food inspections to make sure food is wholesome, the new system looks at food processing every step of the way, including shipping, warehousing and overseas imports. FDA Commissioner David Kessler called HACCP "the most fundamental shift in the way we think about inspecting food in the past 50 years."

Federal law set a Dec. 18, 1997, deadline for HACCP to be in use by all processors engaged in interstate seafood commerce. At that point, the local, state and federal agencies which monitor seafood safety will begin checking for HACCP compliance. (Similar plans for the beef and poultry industries are to be phased in by the year 2000)

Putting such a system in place is a massive national - and even international - undertaking. That was evident to seafood specialists with the National Sea Grant College Program, which provides university-based marine research, education and outreach in 29 coastal and Great Lakes states, including Oregon.

The Sea Grant network helped pull together the National Seafood HACCP Alliance, with representation from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Cooperative Extension services, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Fisheries Institute, National Food Processors Association, Interstate Shellfish Sanitation Conference, the Association of Food and Drug Officials, and various state agencies that deal with health, food safety and commerce.

Their goal: To develop a uniform, national HACCP education, training and technical assistance program for the seafood industry and those who are charged with inspecting their products.

Hilderbrand, who serves on the Alliance's steering committee, says most of the pieces of that program are in place, including:


  • A national HACCP training curriculum for seafood safety inspectors. Assembled and distributed by the North Carolina Sea Grant program, the 200-plus page guide has been translated into four languages and more than 6,000 copies have been sold in the U.S. and abroad.


  • An HACCP training and certification program to "train the trainers" who in turn teach HACCP procedures to seafood industry workers, regulators and seafood safety inspectors. The program has already certified more than 400 trainers who have gone on to teach an additional 5,000 people in the industry, regulatory agencies and academia.


  • A list of seafood safety-related questions which need additional scientific attention - "the things we need to know that could help the industry do a better job of implementing their mandated HACCP plans," Hilderbrand said. That list, compiled by an Alliance subcommittee he chaired, has been distributed to various agencies which support ocean and coastal research.


  • A series of "generic" HACCP plans, written by Hilderbrand and other Sea Grant specialists around the country, designed to serve as models for processors who need help drafting their own plans. To speed circulation of the medels, and make it possible to update and refine them quickly, the Alliance has mounted them on its World Wide Web site at
Media Contact: 

Ken Hilderbrand, 541-867-0242

Seminars to explore salmon recovery programs

CORVALLIS - The Oregon Water Resources Research Institute at Oregon State University will present a 10-part seminar series this fall on successes and failures in Pacific Northwest salmon recovery plans, featuring leading scientists, agency administrators and other experts.

Titled "Learning from Failure: The Columbia River Salmon Restoration," each program will be held on a Monday from 4-5 p.m. in Room 102 of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Building on the OSU campus. A reception for speakers will precede each lecture and begin at 3 p.m.

All presentations are free and open to the public.

Speakers and topics include:

  • Sept. 29: Jonathan Brinckman, natural resources reporter for the The Oregonian newspaper, "Investigative Journalism of the Salmon Restoration Program for the Columbia Basin."


  • Oct. 6: David Bella, professor of environmental engineering at OSU, "Cumulative Impacts and their Resistance to Restoration."


  • Oct. 13: Boone Kaufmann, associate professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU, "Review of the Success of Salmon Restoration Activities."


  • Oct. 20: speaker and topic to be announced.


  • Oct. 27: Ken Bierly, governor's Watershed Enhancement Board, "Establishing Priorities and Seeking Success for Water Quality and Salmon Restoration - The GWEB Approach."


  • Nov. 3: Joyce Cohen, Oregon council member of the Northwest Power Planning Council, "A review of NPPC Salmon Restoration Program."


  • Nov. 10: Paul Engelmeyer, manager of Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary, "Reflections on Salmon Restoration Strategies."


  • Nov. 17: Bob Lohn, manager of fish and wildlife for the Bonneville Power Administration, "Restoration of Salmon in the Columbia Basin - a BPA Perspective."


  • Nov. 24: Emery Castle, professor of agricultural and resource economics at OSU, "Where Did the $3 Billion Go? Cost Effectiveness of NPPC's Salmon Restoration Program."


  • Dec. 1: David Geiger, salmon coordination office of the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, "Restoration of Salmon in the Columbia Basin - Meeting the Biological Goals."
Media Contact: 

Water Resources Research Institute, 541-737-4022

Douglas-fir and geoducks make strange bedfellows in studying climate change

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists are comparing annual growth rings of the Pacific Northwest’s largest bivalve and its most iconic tree for clues to how living organisms may have responded to changes in climate.

Analyzed by themselves, the rings from a single tree or mollusk may sometimes reflect conditions that are either favorable or unfavorable for growth. When scientists look at numerous individuals of the same species, however, the consistency of the ring patterns allows them to build a model and compare that to known climatic measurements.

But when you add in a second species – and compare the growth rings of geoducks and Douglas-firs, for example – the reliability of the data increases significantly, according to Bryan Black, a dendrochonologist at Oregon State University. Black has been applying tree-ring techniques to the growth increments of long-lived marine and freshwater species.

“When we associate rings from one species with known sea surface temperatures, we can account for almost 50 percent of the variability in the instrument records,” Black said. “But when we add the data from a second species, we can increase that number to 70 percent or more. And that’s important because it is allowing us to go back and create more accurate models of sea surface temperatures and at time scales more than twice the length of the instrument measurements.

“Each species brings its own ‘perspective’ of past climate, such that their combination provides a more accurate account,” Black added.

Results of the study are being published in the professional journal, Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. Other authors include Carolyn Copenheaver of Virginia Tech, David Frank of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research, and Matthew Stuckey and Rose Kormanyos of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Sea surface temperatures are an important factor in analyzing the effects of climate change, said Black, a researcher at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport and lead author on the study. Any methodology that improves scientists’ ability to estimate their past variability is met with interest in the research community. This new study has enabled scientists to develop an improved model of sea surface temperatures in the northeastern Pacific Ocean dating back to 1880.

When Black first began publishing comparisons of tree rings and the otoliths – or ear bones – of long-lived fish, he attracted the attention of climate change scientists.

“We found that chronologies for rockfish living at the 300-meter depth in the Pacific strongly related to tree-ring chronologies in the Cascade Mountains as well as to Pacific geoduck along the coast,” Black said.

That study, recently published by Black in the professional journal Marine Ecology-Progress Series, showed that climate synchronized the growth of organisms from the continental shelf to alpine forests.

“The next step was to use the longest-lived organisms – trees and the geoduck – to tell us about climate prior to the start of instrumental records,” Black pointed out.

Sea surface temperatures affect climate on land and when there is a spike in average yearly temperatures, such as during an El Nino year, it can have a profound impact on both trees and marine life. In general, Black said, warmer temperatures boost metabolism in geoduck and result in greater growth rates. Warm sea surface temperatures also mean less snow in the Cascade Mountains and a longer growing season for Douglas-firs and other trees, which are reflected in wider growth rings.

The limiting factor in using growth rings to study climate change is the age of the geoduck specimens. Old-growth evergreens may reach 500 to 1,000 years in age, but geoducks rarely exceed 150 years.

“Scientists at the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans are dredging up shells of dead geoducks from the ocean floor,” Black said, “and we hope we can append their growth patterns to chronology developed from live individuals. If so, it may be possible to extend geoduck chronologies over several centuries and greatly extend our climate histories.”

Black is working with Jason Dunham, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Corvallis, and OSU graduate student Brett Blundon to apply tree ring techniques to freshwater mussels, which also show annual growth through rings. They recently discovered that wider growth rings reflect low river flows during that year, which is another valuable piece of climate information.

“We’re not sure why low river flows are associated with good growth in freshwater mussels,” Black said. “High-flow events may damage the mussel, while low-flow events may be associated with higher food levels. But it is another example of how aquatic organisms can provide valuable information on climate impacts and history.”

Media Contact: 

Bryan Black, 541-867-0283

Multimedia Downloads

Pacific geoduck peel

This magnified slice of a geoduck shell clearly shows incremental growth rings used by scientists to analyze sea surface temperatures (Photo courtesy of Bryan Black, OSU)

Geoduck tree core

A core taken by Bryan Black from this large Douglas-fir near Cape Perpetua will be dated and its rings compared with those of other trees as well as geoducks – the Northwest’s largest bivalve. Such comparisons allow scientists to study climate change in new ways (photo courtesy of Bryan Black, OSU)

Figure showing a sea surface temperature

This figure shows reconstructed sea surface temperatures using growth ring analysis from geoducks and Douglas-fir trees. The accuracy allows scientists to extend the record of sea surface temperatures back to 1880 – far before the first instrument measurements (Graphic courtesy of Bryan Black, OSU)

Free series highlights research for fishermen

NEWPORT - Commercial fishermen can hear what science is learning about the problems and opportunities of Pacific fisheries during a series of seminars this winter at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

Sponsored by OSU Extension Sea Grant, the free four-part series will feature fisheries scientists from OSU and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) discussing recent research into distinct aspects of the fishery.

Scheduled to speak are:


  • Dec. 10: "Anatomy of a Groundfish Stock Assessment" - David Sampson, associate professor of fisheries at OSU, will explain how groundfish stock assessments are put together, and will solicit discussion on how they can be improved.


  • Jan. 8: "North Pacific Climatological Shifts: Beyond El Nino" - Pete Lawson, NMFS fishery biologist, will explore apparent fundamental, long-term shifts in ocean conditions which have major implications for all fisheries.


  • Feb. 12: "Understanding Seafood Markets: Improving Private and Public Fisheries Management" - Gil Sylvia, associate professor of agricultural and resource economics at OSU, will review U.S. and international seafood marketing and highlight fundamental changes taking place in those markets.


  • March 12: "Getting More With Less: Adding Value to Your Catch" - Michael Morrissey, director of the OSU Seafood Lab in Astoria, will discuss current research in adding value to hake and other species both in the boat and at the plant through techniques such as onboard superchilling.

All seminars will take place from 1 to 3 p.m. at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center. Although the programs are free, those planning to attend are asked to call Extension Sea Grant Agent Ginny Goblirsch at 541-265-3463.

Media Contact: 

Ginny Goblirsch, 541-265-3463

El Nino could tear at West Coast shorelines

CORVALLIS, Ore. - West Coast beaches could lose thousands of yards of shoreline, and homes and bays could be endangered as El Nino settles in for the winter, according to an Oregon State University researcher who monitored damage to Oregon coastlines more than a decade ago.

No one knows if this season's erosion will match the magnitude of the 1982-83 El Nino, when celebrity homes were dumped into the sea at Malibu, Calif., and pieces of the Oregon Coast were ripped away by massive waves, said Paul Komar, an OSU professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences.

But there is the potential for a serious coastal menace, Komar said.

"We now understand that El Ninos affect far more than the fisheries of Peru, they can also have major impacts on erosion on the Northwest Coast. Now, when we hear news reports that another El Nino may be developing, we have a justifiable feeling of apprehension," said Komar, who is the author of several books on erosion and serves as editor of the journal Shore and Beach, which focuses on the science and management of coastal erosion.


"The 1982-83 El Nino event caused a range of unusual conditions on the coast," Komar said. "There was a substantial rise in overall sea level for up to six months, a change in the direction of some storm patterns and three unusually large, intense storms with very high waves up to a 23-foot average height."

If conditions this winter mimic those in place during the 1982-83 El Nino, damage along West Coast beaches could be brutal, he said.

During the 1982-83 El Nino, the area sustaining the greatest erosion was Alsea Spit at the Central Oregon Coast town of Waldport. But few areas of the coast were spared, Komar said.

Komar stresses that no one know how the factors will fall into place as winter progresses. Increased sea levels spawned by El Nino don't cause significant erosion - the key is the combination of factors, he said. And erosion isn't the only problem. Some areas could have too much sand.

In 1983, north of Newport's Yaquina Head, the beach eroded to bedrock, while south of the headland, so much sand was deposited by the shift in currents that a large dune field was formed.

Generally, El Ninos cause a northward movement of sand along the coast, resulting in sand erosion on the south ends of Oregon pocket beaches and accumulation of sand at the north ends. In 1982-83, this erosion pattern stripped away sand buffers along cliffs just north of headlands, exposing them to the direct force of storm waves and causing large pockets of erosion.

El Nino was first named about 200 years ago by South American fishermen who noticed that in some years cold water currents along the coast were being replaced by warmer tropical waters. The event usually begins to intensify near the end of December, so fishermen associated it with the story of Christ and named it El Nino - Spanish for The Child. The peak months of El Nino usually last through February, but the effects of the phenomena can be felt for several years after the event, Komar said.

During normal years, trade winds blow westward from the coast of South America toward Asia, causing an elevated sea level along the Asian coast. During El Nino periods, these winds are disrupted and the water surges back across the Pacific toward the Americas, Komar said.

"You can duplicate the effect of El Nino along the West Coast by blowing across a cup of coffee. The surface of the coffee becomes highest on the side away from you. If you stop blowing, the coffee surges back and runs up the side of your cup. This is similar to what happens when the tradewinds stop blowing during El Nino. It produces an eastward flow of warm water along the equator toward Peru."

When this flow reaches the South American coast, it splits, with water moving both north and south. During the 1982-83 El Nino, this flow pushed water higher along the U.S. West Coast, until the maximum increase of about 24 inches was reached in February, 1983.


Paul Komar, 541-737-5210