OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

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.”

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Bryan Black, 541-867-0283

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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.

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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.

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Paul Komar, 541-737-5210

Fisheries prof works to improve groundfish assessments

NEWPORT - David Sampson likens the state of knowledge about Pacific groundfish stocks to driving an automobile in reverse with no rearview mirror.

"All you can see is where you've been," said Sampson, an associate professor of fisheries and wildlife stationed at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

And while historical knowledge is important, it doesn't tell fisheries managers much about what the future holds for what has become a multimillion dollar segment of the U.S. fishing industry, one which contributed $60 million in personal income last year to the Oregon economy alone.

That knowledge, or lack of knowledge, came home with a vengeance this fall when the Pacific Fisheries Management Council ordered cuts of between 19 percent and 66 percent in 1998 harvest limits for five groundfish species because of pessimistic forecasts of stock trends.

But Sampson, who is intimately familiar with the methods the council uses to establish harvest guidelines, isn't sure how much better the information will ever get.

Fishermen have long complained that stock assessments - the means of estimating how many fish are available for harvest in a given season - fail to accurately describe how many fish are actually in the ocean. Those same complaints arose during a November meeting of the Pacific Fisheries Management Council where industry representatives called for better, more frequent stock assessments in the future.

To a degree, fishermen have a point, Sampson says.

Stock assessment is a relatively young science in the Pacific, he pointed out. The first assessment survey was conducted in 1979, with updates every three years since then. By contrast, some Atlantic fisheries have been surveying groundfish stocks twice a year for nearly 30 years.

The most common source of assessment data, the survey, typically involves using trawl gear to sample randomly selected reaches of ocean, and counting and weighing the fish that are caught. Pot surveys, by contrast, set traps to catch the fish in various locations. And scientists also use hydroacoustic gear to bounce sound waves off schools of whiting and determine the fish population by measuring the echoes that bounce back.

Fishermen want to see better use made of the logbooks they are required by law to keep, recording information about their catch. The problem, says Sampson, is that the logbooks only record what's happening in areas where the fish are caught.

"The fleet is going to fish where there are fish to be caught," Sampson explained. "If they're catching plenty of fish, but the area containing fish shrinks over time, then the fishery could still be in trouble but we wouldn't know it from the books."

When properly analyzed, logbooks can be useful in providing a snapshot of whether the stocks are increasing or decreasing, he said.

While agencies and some lawmakers are calling for more money to support more frequent stock assessments, Sampson isn't sure the resulting information will reveal more than is known today.

"It's a very big ocean, and we have a very imperfect view of what's going on in it," he said. "We're being asked to forecast the future, but even the best stock assessment, alone, doesn't let us do that. We don't know whether there's another El Nino around the corner, or if there are other shifts in ocean conditions that may be affecting the fish. Even if we had annual data and more sampling, we still wouldn't be able to have great confidence in the numbers that result."

Sampson compares managing a fishery to managing a bank account: You need to know the balance, or how many fish there are, and you need to know the rate of return, or how fast the fish are replenishing themselves.

"Right now, it's as if we're living off the interest, but we don't know how big the balance is, nor do we know the interest rate."

Sampson will be asking fishermen how they think the process might be improved when he discusses stock assessment in Newport on Dec. 10 as part of a free, monthly seminar series sponsored by OSU's Extension Sea Grant. The seminars, targeted at the fishing community, start at 1 p.m. at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center. Each talk will be videotaped for future distribution through coastal Extension offices.

For more information or to register for the free series contact Lincoln County Extension Sea Grant agent Ginny Goblirsch at 541-265-3463.

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David Sampson, 541-867-0204

New extension position will focus on groundfish issues

CORVALLIS - The Oregon State University Extension Service and Oregon Sea Grant will establish a new marine extension position to focus on non-salmon marine fisheries, following state funding approved in November by the Legislative Emergency Board.

The new position was part of an emergency request by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in an effort to improve knowledge about, and management of, the groundfish industry.

The fishery, encompassing 83 species across a wide range of ocean habitats, is the largest, most valuable segment of the Pacific fishing industry. Harvested species include Pacific whiting, sablefish, dover and petrale sole, and rockfish caught by deep- and mid-water trawl, hook and line and other types of gear.

The Pacific Fisheries Management Council recently announced sharp restrictions on harvesting of several groundfish species. Required cuts in the allowable harvest for 1998 are expected to cost the industry up to 900 jobs, according to Jay Rasmussen, Oregon Sea Grant associate director and Extension Sea Grant program leader.

In making their case to the Emergency Board, ODFW officials noted a recent assessment by retired Sea Grant agent Bob Jacobson of Newport, who concluded among other things that the fishery suffers from a lack of reliable data about the size of groundfish stocks, habitat and other factors that affect fishing.

Oregon Sea Grant channels federal and state dollars into ocean and coastal research and education. The program also supports marine Extension agents and specialists who help bridge the information gap between academic researchers and coastal communities, industries and policy-makers. Extension Sea Grant agents are stationed in key coastal communities, while specialists in subjects ranging from seafood to coastal recreation and tourism are based on the Oregon State campus and at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

Rasmussen said the new Extension position will serve the industry, fisheries managers and fishing communities by providing access to research-based information about a wide range of fishery-management issues, helping set priorities for additional research into the fishery, and helping develop programs that set appropriate fishing levels while limiting the impact on the industry.

The position, expected to be filled by spring, also will focus on other non-salmon fisheries, including Dungeness crab and Pacific shrimp.

The position, an OSU faculty appointment, will be filled through a competitive search. Persons interested in being notified of the position opening should write to: Jay Rasmussen Extension Sea Grant Program Leader, Hatfield Marine Science Center, 2030 S. Marine Science Drive, Newport OR 97365-5296, or by e-mail to:Note to Editors: This story originally contained a World Wide Web address. The characters used in Web addresses will not telecommunicate in our system. Please call us at 541-737-0801 for the address.

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Jay Rasmussen, 541-867-0370

OSU Marine Science Center named regional learning center

NEWPORT - A coalition of private and government councils has designated the public wing at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center as a Regional Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center.

The selection criteria of the Coastal America partnership includes being within 10 miles of a coast and devoting 75 percent of public floor space to educational, interactive coastal habitat and ecosystem exhibits.

Other criteria include having outdoor education trails, permanent professional staff for education and outreach, a gift shop, classrooms for children, reference library, satellite receiving and broadcasting facilities, and affiliation with an institute of higher education.

The OSU science center's public wing, which reopened on May 17 after two years of renovations, is dedicated to helping people enjoy marine science by interactive discovery, said Bill Hanshumaker, OSU's marine public educator.

Research conducted by OSU scientists enhances the center and reveals how science creates knowledge used to understand, manage, and sustain marine resources. For additional information contact Vicki Osis, OSU Extension Sea Grant marine educator at 541-867-0257.

Virginia Tippie, Coastal America director, said a dedication ceremony will be held in the spring, with attendance by federal officials and legislators. Other ecosystem centers designated by Coastal America include the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Md., California's Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Florida Aquarium.

Coastal America was established as a partnership among federal, state, and local governments and private alliances to address coastal environmental problems. More than 20 federal agencies and 100 non-federal partners have become involved in Coastal America projects around the U.S. coastline, restoring wetland habitat and fish passage and protecting critical areas for endangered species and other wildlife.

The Coastal Learning Center program provides facilities and outreach educational capabilities to its partners. Partnership opportunities include films, exhibits and ecosystem education programming.

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Terri Nogler, 541-867-0271

$3.9 MILLION GRANT WILL SUPPORT INNOVATIVE MARINE PROGRAM

CORVALLIS - A pioneering coalition of four universities in Oregon and California that is changing marine research and trying to answer some of the "big questions" that have long eluded many marine scientists, has just received another $3.9 million from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation to continue its work in 2004.

The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO, was considered unconventional and risky when it first began in 1999, said Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor of zoology at Oregon State University.

"Luckily, the Packard Foundation was looking for bold ideas that would deliver new scientific knowledge and be useful to society," Lubchenco said. "PISCO is a commitment to large-scale research over a long period of time, and nothing like this really existed before."

Before PISCO, researchers could study an interesting ocean phenomenon in one site but would have no idea whether the same thing was happening even a few miles away, or what its larger implications were. That type of piecemeal approach was clearly inadequate to document or understand the large-scale patterns or the changes sweeping through the oceans, the researchers believed, so scientists from OSU, Stanford University, UC-Santa Cruz and UC-Santa Barbara formed a consortium to study a vast area of the near-shore portion of the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem.

The work concentrated largely on an area from 0-5 miles offshore, all along the West Coast of the U.S., which has been largely unexplored in most past oceanographic research.

"In focusing on the near-shore coastal waters and shorelines, PISCO complements the strong oceanographic programs offshore," said Jack Barth, an OSU professor of oceanography and co-principal investigator with PISCO. "The integrated understanding is providing new and exciting insights."

The potential of the project quickly became apparent, Lubchenco said, and it has attracted almost $40 million in funding during the past five years, especially with added support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Robert and Betty Lundeen Fund, and the National Science Foundation. The funding supports research and equipment, training, education and communication outreach efforts, and ultimately aims to provide the best science to inform policies and decision-making processes.

In this five-year period, PISCO's 13 principal investigators, 30 postdoctoral students and 64 graduate students have produced 144 publications, involved more than 200 undergraduate and even high school students, and helped employ 60 technicians.

This summer, OSU's research group by itself will involve the efforts of about 50 scientists, students and technicians. A long-term goal of the program is to train the next generation of students in interdisciplinary research concepts.

The broad nature of PISCO research brings together experts in oceanography, ecology, genetics, molecular biology, physiology, remote sensing, biomechanics, and many other fields. A new research vessel, the R/V Elakha, is uniquely designed to work in the near-shore marine environment and has greatly expanded the work that can be done.

"At any one time, we can now study a particular site with aerial photography, dives, instrumentation on both ship and shore, and we can track events as they happen, along with the associated currents, winds, upwelling, temperature, salinity and other factors," said Bruce Menge, who with Lubchenco shares the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professorship in Marine Biology at OSU. "This gives us the type of data we need to really unravel some of these mysteries."

The findings already produced have been invaluable, the researchers say:

  • A far better understanding is beginning to emerge of recruitment, the arrival of new young into a population of marine plants or animals, often from far away.

     

  • A comprehensive inventory of biodiversity in the near-shore Pacific Ocean is being developed up and down the West Coast, providing a good baseline for future research.

     

  • The impacts of the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a 20-30 year cycle of warming and cooling ocean conditions, is being analyzed and its effects on marine life are becoming better understood.

     

  • Sampling is being done at hundreds of sites, kelp forests are being explored, and ecological shifts are being tracked, producing useful knowledge to guide management and conservation decisions such as the design of marine reserves.

     

  • Advanced new technologies such as trace element chemistry, genetic studies and DNA fingerprinting are now being routinely used in marine research, offering new insights into plant and animal life.

     

  • Unusual events, such as a hypoxic "dead zone" that formed off the Oregon coast in 2002, can now be quickly identified, analyzed and explained.

"The research we were able to do on the hypoxic zone was a nice example of our ability to respond to an unanticipated but important event," Lubchenco said.

"In a fairly short time our oceanographic colleagues working farther offshore and the PISCO team working inshore were able to determine that a mass of sub-arctic, cold water that was low in oxygen but high in nutrients had become trapped at shallow depths inshore of Heceta Banks," she said. "High nutrients from upwelled water triggered algal growth whose decomposition further depleted the waters of oxygen, causing large fish and shellfish mortality. We explained the physical processes and gained a better understanding of how these complex systems can change quite rapidly when a certain 'tipping point' is reached. Before we had PISCO, those types of studies were impossible."

The success of the consortium has drawn inquiries from around the world, and researchers in Alaska, Maine, Chile and South Africa are studying the PISCO model. If funding can be sustained, the program should continue to provide discoveries and insights to aid management, the scientists said.

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Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337

COASTAL ATLAS ALLOWS PERSONALIZED "SMART MAPS"

SEATTLE- The "smart maps" made possible by geographic information systems, or GIS technology, are showing people the Oregon coast in a way they've never seen it before, scientists said today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The development of sophisticated technologies for data collection and subsequent mapping, particularly in the oceans, has allowed for the creation of interactive data portals such as the Oregon Coastal Atlas.

"People can now make their own maps of the Oregon coast with access to all of the data that is mainly under the purview of our state ocean coastal management program," said Dawn Wright, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University. "People who are interested in natural hazards and live on the coast can go to the site and map out existing hazards where they live."

The Oregon Coastal Atlas can be accessed online at http://www.coastalatlas.net.

GIS is called a smart map because there is a database attached to the map, Wright said. In other words, computer algorithms can be used to analyze the data that you already have, and to generate new maps and new data.

GIS was originally developed for practical terrestrial applications, such as mapping out sewer routes and other public utilities, said Wright. She is working on improving GIS so that it can be more readily used for ocean applications.

It is much more difficult to create a map of something that is fluid and changing, such as the oceans, than to map static features, such as the location of buildings or land use patterns, said Wright.

Mapping of the oceans means dealing with multiple data sets, one of the strengths of the GIS technology.

"If you are trying to figure out where fish species hang out, you need to know the water quality, the temperature, the weather patterns moving through the area, human effects, marine pollution, commercial fishing and shipping tracks," said Wright. "You then need to combine all of these data sets to fully understand what's going on, and GIS allows us to do just that."

One of the drawbacks of GIS is that it only provides a static map.

"Things are constantly moving and dynamic in the ocean, and all we're getting is a snapshot in time," said Wright. "You could string all of those snapshots together and try to make a movie out of it, but it's still not the same thing as being in the ocean."

One of Wright's recent projects involves mapping the ocean floor around American Samoa, during which she discovered nine new underwater volcanoes on the flanks of the main island of Tutuila. The report claiming that "80 percent of the Earth's surface" had been mapped by the NASA Shuttle Ray Topography Mission in 2000 was hard for Wright to swallow.

"People talk about the idea of exploration and discovery, and it's still a surprise whenever we find new features on the ocean floor, because we're still discovering things about this planet, let alone Mars," said Wright.

What most people don't realize, Wright said, is that 71 percent of the Earth's total surface is submerged beneath our oceans, and only 5 percent of the ocean floor is mapped at a high level of detail. We have far more detailed maps of other planets than we do for the majority of our own planet, the ocean floor.

"A lot of people still think that the ocean floor is fairly featureless and flat, when in reality we have these tremendous mountain ranges and trenches," Wright said. "You could fit Mount Everest in the Tonga Trench and it would disappear." Another misconception most people have about the oceans?

"Conservation-wise, people still look at the oceans as this vast sink," said Wright. "You can just throw stuff out there, pollute it, and it will just disappear, out of sight, out of mind. But we have found that is definitely not the case. I've seen trash on the deep ocean floor when I've dived in submersibles."

Wright's presentation was made at the annual meeting of the AAAS, one of the largest general science conferences in America.

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Dawn Wright, 541-737-1229

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deep ocean floor

The type of imagery of the deep ocean floor that is now available with geographic information systems is seen in this view of a volcano in the southwest Pacific Ocean, south of the Samoan Islands. Researchers at Oregon State University outlined advances in this technology at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

TRANSGENIC FISH PROVIDE GLOWING EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES

CORVALLIS - An undergraduate biology class at Oregon State University has attracted attention from around the country for its use of a genetically engineered fish that is getting students involved in original research, debating issues of science and public policy, and even learning a little about genetics along the way.

And it's all due, instructors say, to this unusual little fish that can literally glow.

This past term, about 720 biology students at OSU were among the first in the nation to use and study GloFish, a patented transgenic fish that was originally developed for research on the detection of toxins, but is now available for sale as an aquarium fish. These zebra danios, which are a small tropical fish, have had a gene inserted into them that makes the fish glow red under ultraviolet light - they are being called the world's first "genetically changed pet."

But at OSU, instructors of the university's general biology courses for non-science majors use this fish to teach not only about genetics, but about the ethics, politics, social issues and research processes relating to the biotechnology revolution.

"For many of the students in this class, this may be the last science course they will ever take," said Lesley Blair, an instructor of biology. "But soon they are citizens, consumers, and voters, and will be making decisions about science that affect not only their own lives but the world around us. So a key part of this course is not just to teach basic biological concepts, but to get students thinking about issues of science and to develop a better understanding of complex scientific processes."

The GloFish were made to order for that task. In one fell swoop they bring in topics such as fundamental genetics, evolution, genetic engineering, the regulation of science by government agencies, the ethics and morality of creating genetically modified organisms, the appropriate uses of these organisms, the concerns and risks, and other topics.

Past surveys of students, Blair said, have found that many students have a negative view of science and mistrust it - they see scientists as being "other people" who may make decisions without considering the public good. Also, some students have a poor understanding of scientific processes even though they look to science and technology to address many of the world's critical problems.

"We need to get students thinking about more than just basic biological concepts, they need to see how research is actually done and how science is managed and regulated," Blair said.

In this course, every student was part of a team that did original studies on the GloFish, including developing research questions and hypotheses, and reporting on the results of their observations. Individuals debated the ethics of genetic engineering, the regulations on biotechnology and many other issues. Some of the students even studied the reactions of other students in a social science survey.

"The use of GloFish in the classroom has been so intriguing that we've had inquiries from other universities, colleges and about 20 high schools from around the nation," Blair said. "Some high school teachers have visited us, and our students learned so much that they were able to explain aspects of the fish to the visiting teachers."

Even the purchase and sale of the GloFish has raised issues. The use of this gene for creating fluorescence in animals has been done for some time, but this company is patenting ornamental transgenic fluorescent fish. Some scientists object to that. And the regulatory issues are complex - right now, for instance, the use of GloFish in California is illegal because of various regulatory hurdles that are unique to that state.

If nothing else, the fish are pretty.

"With most transgenic plants or animals, it's not as apparent a change," Blair said. "You might be looking at a corn plant that has larger kernels. That's not as compelling for students as a moving animal, the experience becomes more personal. With GloFish you can easily see the difference between these and other zebra fish, study their behavior, do research. Some students became so fascinated by this they came in early, before class, to collect data."

The students in the class, she said, were clearly divided on the use of the fish. Some thought their creation was fine, others had concerns about the ethics of changing plant or animal species, or questioned the regulations set up for such uses.

"Most of the students appreciated the relevancy of the project because of the increased news coverage of genetic issues in recent years, and their enthusiasm was quite high," said Ryan Taylor, a doctoral student and graduate teaching assistant for the course.

"I was most impressed with the level of scientific thinking this project brought out of the students," Taylor said. "This project . . . gave many of them an increased appreciation for the scientific process, and will make them more critical thinkers about scientific information they will encounter the rest of their lives."

The fish may be used in a few more classes, Blair said, before the course moves on to other educational approaches. Information on the effectiveness of this curriculum will also be distributed to other schools, she said.

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Lesley Blair, 541-737-2690

PHYTOPLANKTON STIMULATE UPTAKE OF ATMOSPHERIC CO2

CORVALLIS - New research has revealed that phytoplankton may be one of the main historic controls on global warming, and that fertilizing the oceans with iron results in increased phytoplankton productivity - a hypothetical way to offset the effects of global warming.

Through photosynthesis, these tiny, free-floating aquatic plants can convert carbon dioxide to organic carbon, and there appears to be a prehistoric relationship between iron in the ocean and atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide.

Burke Hales, an assistant professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, is one of a number of scientists who collaborated on a new study that involved field research in the ocean near Antartica. The study will be published Friday in the journal Science.

He described the research as "tremendously successful" because it clearly shows an induced biological response in the oceans to fertilization with iron.

"During the glacial periods, atmospheric carbon dioxide, or CO2 levels decrease substantially, while during interglacial periods, such as we are now in, those levels increase," said Hales. "There is also a striking inverse relationship between implied, historical iron fluxes to the ocean and atmospheric CO2 concentrations.

These relationships suggest some sort of feedback system between iron and CO2 levels during glacial periods that keep the temperature low."

The carbon cycle is a complicated system of causes and effects that are not completely understood, but researchers have long suspected that the oceans are the main regulator of the Earth's atmosphere, said Hales. For example, during the ice ages more of the Earth's water is locked up in glaciers, creating arid, windy conditions and a lot of dust. This iron-rich dust is blown out to sea, stimulating productivity of phytoplankton throughout the world's oceans and reducing CO2 levels.

"In order for the phytoplankton to be a long-term sink for carbon, they somehow have to get deposited in the deep ocean, and that doesn't always happen," said Hales. "If the phytoplankton are just eaten at the surface, or don't sink to any great depth then the carbon is eventually released back into the atmosphere." Another complication in phytoplankton production is the availability of silicate, which is potentially a limiting factor in the growth of certain types of phytoplankton.

Diatoms are a large type of phytoplankton that have siliceous shells, and because of their relative bulkiness have a higher probability of sinking into the deep ocean for longer periods of time.

So it seems logical that iron-fertilized, low silicate waters might not be as efficient carbon sinks as iron-fertilized high silica waters, but the results of this study disproved that idea for the first time.

"This was the first experiment of this nature in low silicate waters where it didn't seem as though there would be enough silica for the diatoms to grow," Hales said. "However, our results showed an enhanced uptake of atmospheric CO2 in the fertilized region despite the low availability of silicate."

Since humans starting burning fossils fuels, CO2 levels have skyrocketed and there has been increasing concern over the role that has played in global warming. "The difference between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere today and during pre-industrial times is about the same as the difference between interglacial and glacial periods," said Hales. "There is definitely a correlation between the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere and global warming, but the relationship is hard to define."

Hales' role in the study involved developing apparatus to sample the ocean water and measure the concentrations of various chemicals, such as nitrate, phosphate, silicates and dissolved CO2 in order to determine the impact on levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

"We needed very high spatial resolution measurements of chemicals in the fertilized regions, so the technology we used allowed us to take fairly continuous samples," said Hales. "The sampler was something like a little underwater airplane that continuously pumped water up to the ship while soaring up and down in the water as we towed it."

Although Hales is excited about the scientific implications of the research, such as the insight it provides into the relationship between the glacial and interglacial cycles with the CO2 record, he is reluctant to make any claims that fertilizing the ocean with iron would realistically help control global warming.

"There are so many repercussions that we can't foresee," said Hales. "This is a very expensive and uncertain way of going after an issue that is not fully understood. For example, in the process of gathering up iron and steaming out to sea, you would burn up more fossil fuel than you would compensate for in the result. Besides that, there's also the issue of shifting an ecosystem structure that the food web is based upon by adding iron. We really have no idea what sort of positive or negative effects that would have."

Another huge unknown in the experiment are the effects of time, cautioned Hales. The time scale of the experiment, 42 days, is not at all comparable to the time scale of the glacial/interglacial cycle, which is thousands of years.

"We weren't even out there long enough to observe the season-to-season changes, so we don't know if the carbon was really being exported to the deep oceans or not," Hales said. "A longer term study would be necessary to draw more concrete conclusions."

Source: 

Burke Hales, 541-737-8121