marine science and the coast

New study: Loss of reflectivity in the Arctic double estimate of climate models

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis of the Northern Hemisphere’s “albedo feedback” over a 30-year period concludes that the region’s loss of reflectivity due to snow and sea ice decline is more than double what state-of-the-art climate models estimate.

The findings are important, researchers say, because they suggest that Arctic warming amplified by the loss of reflectivity could be even more significant than previously thought.

The study was published online this week in Nature Geoscience. It was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation, with data also culled from projects funded by NASA, the Department of Energy and others.

“The cryosphere isn’t cooling the Earth as much as it did 30 years ago, and climate model simulations do not reproduce this recent effect,” said Karen Shell, an Oregon State University atmospheric scientist and one of the authors of the study. “Though we don’t necessarily attribute this to global warming, it is interesting to note that none of the climate models used for the 2007 International Panel on Climate Change report showed a decrease of this magnitude.”

The cryosphere is the collective portion of the Earth’s surface where water is in solid form and includes sea ice, snow, lake and river ice, glaciers, ice sheets and frozen ground. Most of these frozen areas are highly reflective, and “bounce” sunlight back into the atmosphere, keeping the Earth cooler than it would be without the cryosphere.

But as temperatures warm, ice and snow melts and reflectivity decreases, noted Shell, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences.

“Instead of being reflected back into the atmosphere, the energy of the sun is absorbed by the Earth, which amplifies the warming,” Shell said. “Scientists have known for some time that there is this amplification effect, but almost all of the climate models we examined underestimated the impact – and they contained a pretty broad range of scenarios.”

As part of the study, Shell, lead author Mark Flanner of the University of Michigan, and their colleagues compared Northern Hemisphere cryosphere changes between 1979 and 2008 in 18 different climate models to changes in actual snow, ice and reflectivity measurements of the same period. They determined that mean radiative forcing – or the amount of energy reflected into the atmosphere – ranged from 4.6 to 2.2 watts per meter squared.

During the 30-year study period, cryosphere cooling declined by 0.45 watts per meter squared. The authors attribute that decline equally to loss of snow and sea ice.

“Some of the decline may be natural climate variability,” Shell said. “Thirty years isn’t a long enough time period to attribute this entirely to ‘forcing,’ or anthropogenic influence. But the loss of cooling is significant. The rate of energy being absorbed by the Earth through cryosphere decline – instead of being reflected back to the atmosphere – is almost 30 percent of the rate of extra energy absorption due to carbon dioxide increase between pre-industrial values and today.”

The “albedo” or reflectivity process is simple, scientists say, but difficult to measure on a broad scale. The reflectivity of ice and snow is obviously much greater than that of darker, unfrozen ground, or open sea water. But researchers also have discovered that variations in the snow and ice result in different albedo impacts.

For example, pools of melted water on top of sea ice can have significantly less reflectivity, which in essence may speed up the warming and possibly melting of that sea ice.

“While the current group of models underestimates these Northern Hemisphere cryosphere changes, new models will be released this year that will have better representations of snow and ice,” Shell said. “This study will help climate modelers improve the new generation of models to better predict the rate of cryosphere and albedo decline in the future.”

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Karen Shell, 541-737-0980

OSU’s Abbott president-elect of The Oceanography Society Council

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, has been elected president-elect The Oceanography Society Council.

The council is the governing body for The Oceanography Society, which was founded in 1988 to disseminate knowledge of oceanography, enhance research and education, promote communication among oceanographers and bring together different disciplines. Its membership includes oceanographers, engineers and other scientists active in ocean-related fields, as well as persons who have advanced oceanography through leadership and public service.

This non-profit organization, headquartered in Washington, D.C., also publishes the magazine, Oceanography.

“With the release last year of a new national ocean policy, this is an important time for the oceanographic community in regards  to research, education and public service,” Abbott said. “The Oceanography Society will engage its members in the implementation of this policy.”

Abbott joined the OSU faculty in 1988 and has been dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences since 2001. He is a member of the National Science Board, and serves as vice-chair of the Oregon Global Warming Commission.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

Scientists in Newport may hold key to future of Alaska king crab

NEWPORT, Ore. – Both the red and blue varieties of Alaska king crab have declined significantly and as resource managers struggle to determine why, a small team of scientists in a most unlikely location is working on an insurance policy – trying to raise crabs from the larval stage to juveniles in a hatchery setting.

The idea isn’t to immediately begin seeding the Bering Sea or Gulf of Alaska with hatchery-raised youngsters, the scientists say. It is to see if it’s even feasible – in case it’s needed in the future.

And this all is taking place in Newport, Ore., where the only places to find king crab are in stores and restaurants. In Oregon, the Dungeness reigns supreme among crabs; but Newport is also the site of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, a place that more than a dozen scientists and technicians from NOAA’s Alaska Fisheries Science Center call home.

The reason for locating at HMSC is simple, according to Allan Stoner, who directs the Alaska Fisheries group in Newport. “The OSU lab provides seawater facilities rivaling any in the country for research with cold-water species, and our biologists have more than 25 years experience working with the systems here,” he said.

In the OSU laboratories, where clean seawater is pumped daily from Yaquina Bay, the scientists will try to perfect culture of king crab through the juvenile stages – and explore whether or not the young crabs can be conditioned or “trained” to select good habitat and avoid predators. Hatchery-reared animals are “often deficient in these tasks,” Stoner pointed out.

“Pacific halibut are death on crabs,” Stoner said. “We’re going to see if experience with young halibut about 25 centimeters long helps the juvenile crabs to learn avoidance behavior. Pacific cod can also be a problem, though they aren’t as aggressive as halibut. If these controlled experiments work, we’ll test similarly trained crabs in the field in Alaska.”

The Alaska King Crab Research, Rehabilitation and Biology program – known as AKCRRAB –  received $303,000 from the NOAA SeaGrant Aquaculture Research Program, and an additional $157,000 in matching funds from Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery, Alaska Department of Fish and Game, University of Alaska, and Alaska SeaGrant for the project, some of which will support the Newport research.

AKCRRAB scientists from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, the Alaska Fisheries Science Center and the Alutiiq Pride Shellfish Hatchery have made great strides in producing king crab larva that can survive in hatcheries. Their early experiments, in 2007, generated just a 2 percent survival rate and a few thousand juveniles. That rose to 31 percent in 2008, and 50 percent in 2009 and 2010, when scientists successfully raised more than 100,000 red king crabs to their first juvenile stage.

But the key now is helping them get bigger – and smarter – so they eventually could be released back into the wild and have a chance at survival, Stoner said.

“It should be an interesting experiment,” Stoner said. “Ben Daly (a Ph.D. student at the University of Alaska) will take crabs into the Gulf of Alaska on tethers during 2011 to see how they respond to their environment and potential predators. The action will be observed using underwater cameras with live-feed to the nearby shore.”

The project is ambitious, but so are the stakes. Red king crab has been Alaska’s top shellfish fishery and since 1959, U.S. fishers have harvested nearly 2 billion pounds of the delicacy from Alaska waters, worth about $1.6 billion. But the fishery has crashed as fewer crabs are reaching adulthood and the fishery for red king crab is now closed entirely in the Gulf of Alaska.

“Overfishing, climate change, predation by fish, and ocean acidification are all possible explanations,” Stoner said, “though it’s likely a host of factors.”

George Boehlert, director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, said the location of so many scientists from state and federal agencies on site is equally important to the center’s seawater system.

“We have scientists from many different disciplines, as well as agencies, who can provide different experiences and perspectives that make the Hatfield Marine Science Center unlike any research facility in the country,” Boehlert said.

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Allan Stoner, 541-867-0165

Oceanic “garbage patch” not nearly as big as portrayed in media

CORVALLIS, Ore. – There is a lot of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean, but claims that the “Great Garbage Patch” between California and Japan is twice the size of Texas are grossly exaggerated, according to an analysis by an Oregon State University scientist.

Further claims that the oceans are filled with more plastic than plankton, and that the patch has been growing tenfold each decade since the 1950s are equally misleading, pointed out Angelicque “Angel” White, an assistant professor of oceanography at Oregon State.

“There is no doubt that the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans is troubling, but this kind of exaggeration undermines the credibility of scientists,” White said. “We have data that allow us to make reasonable estimates; we don’t need the hyperbole. Given the observed concentration of plastic in the North Pacific, it is simply inaccurate to state that plastic outweighs plankton, or that we have observed an exponential increase in plastic.”

White has pored over published literature and participated in one of the few expeditions solely aimed at understanding the abundance of plastic debris and the associated impact of plastic on microbial communities. That expedition was part of research funded by the National Science Foundation through C-MORE, the Center for Microbial Oceanography: Research and Education.

The studies have shown is that if you look at the actual area of the plastic itself, rather than the entire North Pacific subtropical gyre, the hypothetically “cohesive” plastic patch is actually less than 1 percent of the geographic size of Texas.

“The amount of plastic out there isn’t trivial,” White said. “But using the highest concentrations ever reported by scientists produces a patch that is a small fraction of the state of Texas, not twice the size.”

Another way to look at it, White said, is to compare the amount of plastic found to the amount of water in which it was found. “If we were to filter the surface area of the ocean equivalent to a football field in waters having the highest concentration (of plastic) ever recorded,” she said, “the amount of plastic recovered would not even extend to the 1-inch line.”

Recent research by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that the amount of plastic, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, hasn’t increased since the mid-1980s – despite greater production and consumption of materials made from plastic, she pointed out.

“Are we doing a better job of preventing plastics from getting into the ocean?” White said. “Is more plastic sinking out of the surface waters? Or is it being more efficiently broken down? We just don’t know. But the data on hand simply do not suggest that ‘plastic patches’ have increased in size. This is certainly an unexpected conclusion, but it may in part reflect the high spatial and temporal variability of plastic concentrations in the ocean and the limited number of samples that have been collected.”

The hyperbole about plastic patches saturating the media rankles White, who says such exaggeration can drive a wedge between the public and the scientific community. One recent claim that the garbage patch is as deep as the Golden Gate Bridge is tall is completely unfounded, she said.

“Most plastics either sink or float,” White pointed out. “Plastic isn’t likely to be evenly distributed through the top 100 feet of the water column.”

White says there is growing interest in removing plastic from the ocean, but such efforts will be costly, inefficient, and may have unforeseen consequences. It would be difficult, for example, to “corral” and remove plastic particles from ocean waters without inadvertently removing phytoplankton, zooplankton, and small surface-dwelling aquatic creatures.

“These small organisms are the heartbeat of the ocean,” she said. “They are the foundation of healthy ocean food chains and immensely more abundant than plastic debris.”

The relationship between microbes and plastic is what drew White and her C-MORE colleagues to their analysis in the first place. During a recent expedition, they discovered that photosynthetic microbes were thriving on many plastic particles, in essence confirming that plastic is prime real estate for certain microbes.

White also noted that while plastic may be beneficial to some organisms, it can also be toxic. Specifically, it is well-known that plastic debris can adsorb toxins such as PCB.

“On one hand, these plastics may help remove toxins from the water,” she said. “On the other hand, these same toxin-laden particles may be ingested by fish and seabirds. Plastic clearly does not belong in the ocean.”

Among other findings, which White believes should be part of the public dialogue on ocean trash:

  • Calculations show that the amount of energy it would take to remove plastics from the ocean is roughly 250 times the mass of the plastic itself;
  • Plastic also covers the ocean floor, particularly offshore of large population centers. A recent survey from the state of California found that 3 percent of the southern California Bight’s ocean floor was covered with plastic – roughly half the amount of ocean floor covered by lost fishing gear in the same location. But little, overall, is known about how much plastic has accumulated at the bottom of the ocean, and how far offshore this debris field extends;
  • It is a common misperception that you can see or quantify plastic from space. There are no tropical plastic islands out there and, in fact, most of the plastic isn’t even visible from the deck of a boat;
  • There are areas of the ocean largely unpolluted by plastic. A recent trawl White conducted in a remote section of water between Easter Island and Chile pulled in no plastic at all.

There are other issues with plastic, White said, including the possibility that floating debris may act as a vector for introducing invasive species into sensitive habitats.

“If there is a takeaway message, it’s that we should consider it good news that the ‘garbage patch’ doesn’t seem to be as bad as advertised,” White said, “but since it would be prohibitively costly to remove the plastic, we need to focus our efforts on preventing more trash from fouling our oceans in the first place.”

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Angel White, 541-737-6397

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Larger plastic from trawls

A sample of plastic found in the ocean

2010 ocean conditions make future salmon outlook a flip of the coin

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Pacific Ocean conditions off the Northwest coast were truly Jekyll and Hyde-like in 2010 and that is making life difficult for biologists who try to predict future salmon runs by analyzing how well juvenile fish will survive their first few weeks at sea.

The sudden transition from El Niño to La Niña conditions was so abrupt that the impact on fisheries may not be known for a while, says Bill Peterson, a NOAA fisheries biologist at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

“The warm El Niño water lasted until June, and then within just a few days, the ocean got as cold as it has been in recent years,” said Peterson, who is a courtesy professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “It was just plain nuts.

“I don’t think I’m making a forecast this year,” he added with a laugh. “It could go either way.”

For the past 13 years, Peterson and his colleagues have conducting trawl surveys funded by the Bonneville Power Administration in June and September from Cape Perpetua to La Push, Wash., counting the abundance of juvenile salmon along the near-shore waters of the West Coast. The survival rate of juvenile salmon is the key indicator for future salmon runs, says Peterson.

When salmon first enter the ocean, they must have enough food to not only survive, but to grow rapidly enough to avoid predation. The smaller they are, the more potential predators there are lurking offshore. And when ocean productivity is high, other fish like herring, anchovies and sardines provide a dining alternative for those predators.

Which brings us back to 2010.

“During the tail end of the El Niño, in May and June, we had some of the worst ocean conditions we’ve seen in the 13 years we’ve been sampling,” Peterson said. “Then in July, the conditions were as good as they’ve ever been. So it’s a question of timing.

“If the juvenile salmon came out early, they likely died,” he said. “If they came out later, they should be fine.”

Peterson said the juvenile chinook count this summer was the third highest they’ve had in their 13 years, raising hope for future chinook runs.

But, he warned, there is a caveat.

“We caught almost no juvenile coho salmon in September,” Peterson said, “and that worries me.”

Juvenile coho tend to stay just off the Northwest coast and if they migrated seaward too early, Peterson pointed out, they may have encountered a barren ocean.

“We’ll find out soon enough,” he said. “Coho return as adults after 18 months; spring chinook come back after two years and fall chinook, three years or longer. If these fish can make it to adulthood, they should be fine. There’s not much that out there that feeds on them other than sea lions and orcas.

“It’s all about how they fare as youngsters,” he added, “and the jury is definitely still out this year.”

Juvenile salmon spend months in fresh water and can leave estuaries at any time. Scientists aren’t sure exactly what triggers their migration to the ocean, but they should learn quite a bit about the importance of timing this year, Peterson said. “If the fish didn’t come out too early, we should have a great run of chinook salmon in 2013,” he said.

As for next year? That, too, is something of a crapshoot, Peterson says. Fishermen reported large numbers of chinook jack salmon in many Oregon bays and rivers; on the other hand, the coho jack count at Bonneville Dam was 15 percent less than normal, he added.

“Jack salmon can be an indicator of the strength of runs the next year, but in some years, its predictive value is truly awful,” Peterson said. “If the cold ocean conditions persist, we can hope for the best.”

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Bill Peterson, 541-867-0201

Whale from endangered population surprises scientists

NEWPORT, Ore. – A lone western gray whale, tagged off Russia’s Sakhalin Island by scientists in September and tracked for more than 70 days, has suddenly taken off from its feeding area and sped across the Sea of Okhotsk to the west side of the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Dubbed “Flex” by researchers, this 13-year-old male is one of just 130 western grays remaining in what is one of the world’s most endangered whale populations.

Scientists tracking the whale’s movements via satellite at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center say they are surprised by Flex’s movements and wonder what the animal will do next. They are inviting the public to follow the whale’s progress on a map that is updated weekly (http://mmi.oregonstate.edu/Sakhalin2010).

“We’re making guesses as to where ‘Flex’ will now head, but they’re just guesses because western gray whales have never been tagged before and we do not know where they breed and calve in the winter,” said Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and a principal investigator on the project.

“Many scientists think he could wind up in the southeast China Sea, but he might head over to the east side of Kamchatka Peninsula for the winter, or he could surprise us all and come east across the Aleutian Island chain and then head south to Baja and the Sea of Cortez with eastern gray whales.”

Going to Baja would be unexpected, Mate pointed out, because western whales are considered genetically distinct from their much more common eastern North Pacific cousins.

“These are uncharted waters for scientists and we’re anxious to see where he goes – and how long the tag will last.”

Mate is a pioneer in the use of satellites to track marine mammals. The OSU professor led the tagging portion of the study, which was conducted in collaboration with Russian scientists. Western grays were decimated by whaling in previous centuries and the whales were feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s. But a population was rediscovered off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored since the mid-1990s.

Sakhalin Island is the site of major offshore oil and gas activities and efforts are under way to minimize the impacts of industrial development on the whales, which also face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing gear. Five female western gray whales have died accidentally via entanglement over the past four years.

Flex spent two months feeding off Sakhalin Island after he was tagged and his departure may be timed to the weather, Mate said. The ocean there will ice over soon. The whale was first seen as a calf in 1997 and has been observed visually on a regular basis during summers since then. But this is the first time a whale from this critically endangered population has been tagged and followed by satellite.

Scientists had hoped to tag a dozen whales during the month-long expedition in the fall, but poor weather conditions and treacherous seas made even finding and approaching the whales difficult. They finally were able to tag Flex on the last day of their voyage and have been tracking him since.

“We’re keeping our fingers crossed,” Mate said. “This particular tag stays attached an average of about three months on gray whales. Western grays are bottom feeders and the tag can easily get scraped off while feeding, or during contact with other whales during mating.

“But we’ve had two months of monitoring during the feeding season now, which has never been done before with western gray whales,” he added. “And we have seen movements over a very small area. This is a great chance for the public to learn about these whales at the same time we are.”

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Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

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Western Gray Whale - Sakhalin Island, Russia

Hatfield center’s art campaign to support marine education

NEWPORT, Ore. – A new fund-raising campaign is designed to support and enhance marine education programs and exhibits at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, while creating a work of ocean-themed art to hang in the visitor center's lobby.

The “Glass Quilt Campaign” is seeking sponsors for glass squares printed with names of donors, friends, organizations or loved ones. There will be as many as 160 squares, each bearing a colorful image of Oregon marine life that will be combined to create the work of art.

The squares will be interlocked to form a large “quilt,” which will be displayed at the HMSC visitor center for the next five years. The art work was designed by David Adamson, a Newport artist who graduated from OSU in 1991 and worked at the center as a marine educator.

Donors can support the Glass Quilt Campaign through tax-deductible donations of $250 or more. Donations may be made through the center's Web site at: http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/visitor/glassquilt, or by check, made payable to OSU Foundation-HMSC Glass Quilt and mailed to Nancee Hunter, Glass Quilt Giving Campaign, Hatfield Marine Science Center, 2030 SE Marine Science Drive, Newport OR 97365.

Since 1965, the visitor center has served as the public face of the Hatfield Marine Science Center research and education complex on Newport's South Beach.  The visitor’s center is managed by Oregon Sea Grant, an OSU-based marine research, education and public engagement program affiliated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Sea Grant marine education programs at the visitor center encourage children and adults to enjoy marine science as they learn more about the natural world.

This year, the visitor center expanded its reach to worldwide audiences via the popular OctoCam – live, streaming online video of its resident giant Pacific octopus – and its new ScienceCam, providing live science education programming for classrooms far from the ocean.

“New and exciting opportunities arise every day,” said Nancee Hunter, director of the visitor center.  “Advancements in teaching and classroom science, technology that allows for hands-on exhibits, guest teachers, new and fascinating animal displays – these require resources beyond our typical operating budget.

“By giving to the Glass Quilt Campaign, people will contribute to our ongoing work of teaching the next generation to value Oregon's oceans, land and way of life.”

The Glass Quilt effort is part of The Campaign for OSU. Guided by the university's strategic plan, The Campaign for OSU seeks $850 million to provide opportunities for students, strengthen the Oregon economy and conduct research that changes the world. Approximately $635 million has been committed to date from more than 54,000 donors.

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Nancee Hunter, 541-867-0357

OSU prof named deputy head of NSF’s Office of Polar Programs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University oceanographer Kelly Falkner will leave the university after 19 years to take a leadership position with the National Science Foundation, where she will be the new deputy head of the Office of Polar Programs.

A professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Falkner will begin her new role with NSF on Jan. 3.

“It wasn’t an easy decision, because I’ve had a great career at OSU and I’ll miss my excellent colleagues, the students, and the supportive staff here,” Falkner said. “But I couldn’t pass up this opportunity to take my polar interests into broader community service.”

Falkner is familiar with the National Science Foundation. In 2007, she took a two-year leave from OSU to serve as the agency’s first program director for integrated Antarctic research. Her stint was so successful, her NSF colleagues named a glacier after her. “Falkner Glacier” is an east-flowing valley glacier stretching four miles long through the Mountaineer Range in Victoria Land.

The irony is that Falkner hardly had any experience with Antarctica when she took the assignment. Most of her work centered around the Arctic, where she has spent much of her career studying how various sources of water entering the Arctic contribute to ocean circulation – and how changing circulation patterns relate to the other major environmental changes in the north.

She also has coordinated OSU contributions to the NSF-funded North Pole Environmental Observatory for several years.

In her new role, Falkner will join the NSF Office of Polar Programs, which manages and initiates the agency’s funding for basic research and operational support in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The office supports individual investigators, as well as research teams and United States participation in multi-national projects.

“Kelly brings enormous talent, insight and energy to everything she does and all of us here at COAS will miss her – as a scientist, teacher, leader and colleague,” said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “But the nation will be gaining a leader in an important area of research – how the polar regions are connected with the rest of the planet. We know she will do well.”

OSU faculty have taken on a variety of leadership positions with federal agencies in recent years, most notably when zoologist Jane Lubchenco was named administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year. Among the OSU oceanographers in leadership positions are:

  • Mark Abbott, dean of the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) is a member of the National Science Board;
  • Michael Freilich, a COAS professor, is director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA;
  • Timothy J. Cowles, COAS professor, is program director for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the National Science Foundation’s signature research project on climate change;
  • Jim McManus, COAS professor, recently served as associate program director of the chemical oceanography program at the National Science Foundation.

And Kelly Benoit-Bird, an associate professor in COAS, received a fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – popularly known as a “Genius Award.”

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Kelly Falkner, 541-737-3625

OSU’s Bruce Mate joins Russian scientists to track endangered whale

NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists from Russia and the United States has successfully tagged and is tracking by satellite a whale from one of the world’s most endangered populations – a western gray whale off the coast of Russia’s Sakhalin Island.

There are only about 130 western gray whales left, scientists say, and only about 30-35 of them are mature, reproductively active females. The project is important because although the whales’ feeding grounds in the Russian Far East are known, details of their migration routes and breeding grounds are not.

This is the first time an individual whale from a critically endangered species has been tagged and tracked using telemetry, according to Greg Donovan, head of science for the International Whaling Commission (IWC) based in Cambridge, U.K., which is coordinating the project.

“Tremendous care was taken to select a healthy adult male,” Donovan said. “Although the risks associated with such tagging are minimal, we wanted to take absolutely no chances with females or young animals. The information we expect to get from this study is vital to international conservation efforts to preserve this population, as is the collaboration between governments, international organizations, international scientists, industry and other stakeholders.”

The tagged whale, known as “Flex,” has been seen regularly in the Sakhalin area in summer since it was photographed as a calf in 1997. The team has been following its movements via satellite with data beamed from the transmitting tag.

The tagging component was led by Bruce Mate, director of Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute and a pioneer in the use of satellites to track whales since the late 1970s.

“Not a lot is known about western gray whales, so finding out where they migrate to breed and calve will be a tremendous step forward,” said Mate, whose 37-year OSU career has taken him around the world to study threatened and endangered whales.

The scientific expedition was led by Vladimir Vertyankin, of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evoluation of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who has more than 35 years of experience with marine mammal research in the region. Other team members include Grigory Tsidulko of the Severtsov Institute and Amanda Bradford from the University of Washington, both of whom have studied western gray whales for years.

The telemetry program was developed in conjunction with an international team of experts from the International Whaling Commission and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and carried out under a permit granted to the Severtsov Institute.

Vyatcheslav Rozhnov, deputy director of the Severtsov Institute, who advances satellite telemetry in Russian, concurred. “Finding the migration routes and winter grounds of this critically endangered population will allow range states to develop or improve effective measures to protect the whales,” Rozhnov said.

The field team embarked on its expedition in late August to the remote Sakhalin Island region to locate and tag whales. Logistical challenges and bad weather conspired to thwart their efforts, even though some 25 males were sighted and approached. Finally, on the last day of the expedition, the team managed to tag “Flex,” whose movements have since been tracked via satellite on a daily basis.

“The conditions were particularly difficult because of the weather,” said Valentin Ilyashenko, of the A.N. Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission. “The team had to cope with the remnants of two typhoons and several smaller storms. But the perseverance of the entire group and the international collaboration – especially between U.S. and Russian scientists in the field – has really paid off.

“We should learn new things about these endangered whales that will help national and international efforts to better protect these whales,” Ilyashenko added.

The western North Pacific population of gray whales was greatly reduced by whaling in previous centuries and the whales were feared to be extinct in the mid-1970s. But a population was rediscovered off Sakhalin Island and has been monitored since the mid-1990s.

Mate and his colleagues say there is evidence of a “fragile recovery.” Individual animals can be recognized and identified by sex through photographs and genetic information. However, Sakhalin Island also is the site of major offshore oil and gas activities and efforts are under way to minimize the impacts of industrial development on the whales, which also face threats from accidental entanglement in fishing gear and by heavy ship traffic.

Project team members are hopeful that the transmitter will continue tracking “Flex” for up to a year.

“What we really hope to discover is where these whales migrate to breed and calve,” pointed out Finn Larsen, program officer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature. “It would be nice to have a full year of data, but it is these first 3-4 months that are probably the most critical.”

The project represents a major international collaboration between the International Whaling Commission, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the A.N. Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution with the Russian Academy of Sciences, and Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute.

Funding for the expedition was provided by Exxon Neftegas Ltd. (ENL) and Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, which have sponsored a western gray whale monitoring program off Sakhalin Island since 1997.

Story By: 

Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202

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Western Gray Whale - Sakhalin Island, Russia
"Flex" shown off Sakhalin Island.

Water issues, extreme weather among concerns in assessment report

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In the not-too-distant future, Oregon will face summer water shortages, an increase in wildfire risk, more extreme weather events, new environmental responses to climate change and myriad economic challenges – and opportunities, according to the first Oregon Climate Assessment Report, released today.

Written by some 70 authors from universities, state and federal agencies and other groups, the report was produced by the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, an Oregon University System entity housed at Oregon State University.

The legislatively mandated report was delivered today to Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Sen. President Peter Courtney, and House Speaker Dave Hunt. The 400-plus page report is available online at: www.occri.net/ocar.

“Oregon faces some significant challenges because of a changing climate and this report synthesizes some of the best available science to gain a glimpse of our future,” said Philip W. Mote, a professor of oceanic and atmospheric sciences at Oregon State who directs OCCRI. “Having said that, there are some clear gaps in our research knowledge that must be addressed – especially the economic impacts of climate change – if we are to help communities, businesses and organizations better prepare for the future.”

Kathie Dello, a research associate with the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute, coordinated production of the report with the help of nine lead authors and peer-review panels.

The report examines the potential social, physical and biological responses to an Oregon climate that may increase in average temperature from 0.2 to 1.0 degrees Fahrenheit per decade through the 21st century, the authors note. A key variable to these and other changes are global greenhouse gas emissions that will influence Oregon’s future climate.

“The key ‘drivers’ of emissions are population, consumption and the emission intensity of the economy,” Dello said.

Oregon’s supply of fresh water may be one of the most critical components of climate change. A compilation of different climate models suggests that the state’s average summer precipitation will decline by about 14 percent by the year 2080, but the impacts will vary over time and space, said Heejun Chang, a Portland State University geographer and hydrologist who led the section on freshwater resources.

“In terms of water supply, some lower Willamette River sub-basins – including the Tualatin, Clackamas and Molalla rivers, where population is growing – are more vulnerable to climate change,” Chang pointed out. “And with reduced summer precipitation, summer flow is projected to decline in the Western Cascade regions, which in turn will increase stream temperatures and further stress cold-water fish species.

“The warming by itself makes both floods and droughts likely to occur more frequently in the future,” Chang added. “If you couple hydroclimate and transportation models, it shows that winter floods might occur more frequently, which may damage regional transportation systems in urban areas and landslide-prone areas.”

The Oregon Climate Assessment Report is partly modeled on similar reports produced in Washington and California, but covers new ground, including greater emphasis on the marine environment, on fish and wildlife, and on human dimensions, Mote said.

Increases in ocean temperatures and acidification likely will further disrupt marine ecosystems and could lead to more near-shore hypoxia and so-called “dead zones,” harmful algal blooms, invasive species, and challenges for shellfish and other sea creatures, the report concluded. Oregon’s coastal region also will be subjected to more intense storms and higher waves, creating a greater risk of flooding.

“One unique aspect of this report is the contribution by OSU oceanographers who have led near-shore studies for more than 40 years that have resulted in a remarkably well-sampled coastal region,” Mote said. “There are few places in the world that have such a rich database on coastal oceans.”

Other conclusions in the report:

  • The global mean sea level is expected to rise an estimated one meter by the year 2100, but the rate of sea level rise will surpass the vertical land movement taking place through geological processes along the Oregon coast by the mid-21st century;
  • Also by the mid-21st century, Cascade snowpacks are projected to be less than half of what they were in the 20th century, with lower-elevation snowpacks most vulnerable;
  • Irrigation demands will increase as the climate warms, the authors say. However, warmer weather may created extended growing seasons and greater yields for some crops and opportunities for new crops or varietals;
  • Drawing on research from the University of Washington, the authors say that wildfire is projected to increase in all forest types in the coming decades because of warmer, drier summers and an increase in fuel. “Large fires could become more common in western Oregon forests,” the report concludes.

The authors say the largest data gap facing Oregon decision-makers is economic research. Some preliminary studies, based on individual sectors such as Oregon’s ski industry, have been started, Mote said, but large-scale “macro-economics” research is lacking.

“We know that Oregon’s low-elevation ski resorts will be affected first by changes in precipitation,” Mote said, “and economists could quantify how much they will lose with each week of a shorter ski season. What is missing is detailed analysis of the pros and cons of climate change for the whole of Oregon. If we manufacture fewer parkas, do we make more swimsuits? As we lose some crops, do we grow others?

“Oregon also needs a more detailed look at its infrastructure needs,” he added. “If we have more coastal flooding, for example, how many communities have adequate water and sewage treatment facilities? Adequate road systems?  Those are the kinds of questions that need to be asked next.”

The report includes lead and contributing authors from OSU, PSU, University of Oregon, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, Oregon Department of Agriculture and others.

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Philip Mote, 541-737-5694