marine science and the coast

OSU to offer summer courses at Hatfield Marine Science Center

NEWPORT, Ore. - Ocean lovers interested in spending time at the Oregon Coast and pursuing an intellectual challenge will have an opportunity to do both this summer when Oregon State University offers a series of special courses in marine biology and related sciences at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The program is a chance for full- or part-time students to take hands-on courses that explore marine mammals, fisheries, salt water invertebrates, aquaculture, aquarium science, invasive species, seaweeds, and marine conservation science and policy.

"Oregon State University has a world-class research and teaching facility in the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, and summer provides an ideal time to take advantage of field experiences and to learn from top researchers, while living for a month at the Oregon Coast," said George Boehlert, director of the center.

Four courses will be offered during the first four-week session, from June 20 to July 15. Three additional courses are on tap for the second session, July 18 to Aug. 12. A special short-course third session will run from Sept. 9-18.

The courses and their instructors include:

First Session: June 20 to July 15


  • "Marine and Estuarine Invertebrates," (Zoology 461/561), taught by Cynthia Trowbridge, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center;


  • "Biology of Marine Mammals," (Fisheries and Wildlife 499/599), by James Sumich, Grossmont College, San Diego;


  • "Marine Fisheries," (Fisheries and Wildlife 465/565), by David Sampson, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center;


  • "Introduction to Studies in Free-Choice Learning," (Science and Math Education 499/599), by Shawn Rowe, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center.

    Second Session: July 18 to Aug. 12


  • "Marine Aquaculture and Aquarium Sciences," (Fisheries and Wildlife 433X/533X), by Chris Langdon and Tim Miller-Morgan, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center;
  • "Aquatic Biological Invasions," (Fisheries and Wildlife 421/521), by John Chapman, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center;


  • "Marine Phycology: Seaweeds of the Oregon Coast," (Botany 499/599), by Gayle Hansen, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center.

    Third Session: Sept. 9-18


  • "Marine Conservation Science and Policy," (Zoology 565), by Jane Lubchenco, OSU Department of Zoology; Steve Gaines, University of California at Santa Barbara; David Festa, director of Ocean Program for Environmental Defense; and Andrew Rosenberg, University of New Hampshire.

    The courses will be based at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, located just south and east of the Yaquina Bay bridge. The 49-acre center is one of the nation's best-known marine research and teaching facilities, housing faculty from OSU and researchers and educators from numerous state and federal agencies, including the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and others.

    On-site housing and some scholarships may be available.

    For more information on registration and tuition, call OSU Summer Session at 541-737-1470, or visit the web at http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/classes/summer/index.html

  • Media Contact: 

    Lisa Templeton, 541-737-1279

    Earthquake swarm off coast prompts research cruise

    NEWPORT, Ore. - A large earthquake "swarm" that began last Saturday (Feb. 27) has resulted in thousands of small earthquakes off the Oregon coast during the last several days and prompted an investigation by a multi-agency research team that includes scientists from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

    The research team will leave Seattle Saturday morning aboard the R/V Thompson en route to a site on the Juan de Fuca Ridge northwest of Astoria called the Endeavor segment.

    "These earthquake swarms are associated with seafloor spreading," said Robert P. Dziak, an oceanographer with Oregon State University and NOAA stationed at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. "We suspect what happened was that magma pushed up into the crust and the lava may have broken the surface.

    "The swarm was strong enough that we decided to send out a ship to investigate," he added. "The quakes seem to have subsided, but we hope that a hydrothermal plume is still out there in the water over the ridge."

    Dziak said that these earthquakes are generally small and no threat to create a tsunami, although the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Northwest coast is similar to the Indian Ocean terrain that produced a powerful 9.0 quake and subsequent tsunami that devastated portions of southeast Asia in December.

    These are much smaller quakes that generally range from 2.0 to 4.0 in intensity and can occur in swarms during seafloor spreading events. A few larger quakes did occur this week that were measured in the 4.4 to 4.8 range, however, which also piqued the scientists' interest.

    Dziak is the lead researcher for a team operating the Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS, out of the OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center. This system of hydrophones located on the ocean floor - originally used during the Cold War to monitor submarine activity in the northern Pacific Ocean - began recording an intense earthquake swarm on Feb. 27.

    During the first 36 hours of the swarm, SOSUS detected nearly 1,500 small quakes. On Wednesday, the swarm continued with 10 to 30 events an hour. Earthquake activity continued Thursday at a "moderate pace," Dziak said, with between four and 45 events an hour.

    The swarm is similar to past seafloor spreading events that took place at Endeavor in 1999, and at the Middle Valley site of Juan de Fuca Ridge in 2001, said Dziak, who added that the movement of tectonic plates triggers the seismic activity.

    "In the last 10 years, we've recorded seven of these swarms," Dziak said. "The plate doesn't move in a continuous manner and some parts move faster than others. Generally, movement occurs when magma is injected into the ocean crust and pushes the plates apart. When it does, these swarms occur and sometimes lava breaks through onto the seafloor.

    "Usually, the plate moves at about the rate a fingernail might grow - say three centimeters a year," he added. "But when these swarms take place, the movement may be more like a meter in a two-week period."

    The research team aboard the R/V Thompson hopes to study and measure the plume that likely formed if lava broke through the crust, Dziak said. The measurements will help scientists learn more about seafloor spreading, the composition of the lava that came to the surface, and the effects on the surrounding environment.

    Researchers aboard the vessel include principal investigators Ed Baker, with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, and Jim Cowen, the University of Hawaii. Several other researchers will join them, including three scientists from the Hatfield Marine Science Center: Bill Chadwick and Joe Haxel, who have dual appointments with OSU and NOAA; and Shannon Ristau of NOAA.

    A website describing the earthquake activity is at: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/vents/acoustics/seismicity/nepac/endeav0205.html

    Media Contact: 

    Bob Dziak, 541-867-0175

    OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center to host SeaFest on June 27

    NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center will host its seventh annual SeaFest celebration on Saturday, June 27, in Newport.

    This annual festival combines hands-on activities, displays, tours and education revolving around the marine sciences. The event begins at 10 a.m. at the center’s waterfront campus on Yaquina Bay, adjacent to the Oregon Coast Aquarium just south of the Highway 101 bridge.

    The day-long event offers visitors a chance to go behind the scenes to see the labs and meet the scientists who study marine life, explore the bottom of the sea, and track whales across the world’s oceans, according to Ken Hall, program manager at the OSU center and coordinator for the community festival.

    “SeaFest is a great opportunity for the public to get a closer look at the amazing web of life that exists in the ocean and estuaries,” Hall said. “With all of the interactive, hands-on science exhibits, live animal displays, and demonstrations of what marine scientists do in their daily work, visitors leave SeaFest with a better understanding of a whole range of topics.”

    Organizers emphasize the appeal of the event to all ages, highlighting the wide range of exhibitors, food vendors, live music on the entertainment stage, and activities for kids including crafts, face painting, outdoor games and other attractions. Visitors can watch the Hatfield center’s resident giant Pacific octopus, “Amigo,”  devour a live crab during the noontime feeding, or get their hands wet inspecting sea stars, anemones, fish and sea urchins in the touch pools that simulate the rocky intertidal zone.

    Ocean-going research vessels will be on display at the dock between noon and 4 p.m., with public tours offered aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, flagship of the OSU Marine Mammal Institute, which was featured in the March issue of National Geographic magazine and the National Geographic Channel documentary, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale.”

    Participants at SeaFest may pick up an “Ocean Passport” and get it stamped at different science exhibits, and then return it to the information booth for a chance to win prizes, including two free round-trip tickets on SeaPort Airlines, and overnight lodging and golf package for two at the Salishan Spa and Golf Resort in Gleneden Beach. The drawing for prizes takes place at 3:50 p.m.

    Other highlights include:

    • Guided tours of the center’s seawater system, oyster aquaculture operation, aquatic animal husbandry facilities and Yaquina Bay estuary trail (tours offered throughout the day);
    • Science Zone exhibits demonstrating the tools and techniques scientists use to study a wide variety of marine life, including various species of salmon, flatfish, shellfish, and marine mammals;
    • Dockside exhibits: crab pots in the water, live shellfish displays and rare deep sea fish species on ice;
    • Outdoor exhibits highlighting research on sustainability and renewable energy technologies including solar power, wind, and wave energy;
    • Displays highlighting outdoor recreational gear and activities with “how-to” demonstrations on fishing, kayaking/canoeing, surfing, bicycling, kite flying and other fun things to do on the coast;
    • Giant birthday cake and historical display celebrating Oregon sesquicentennial and the 50th anniversary of OSU’s oceanography program;
    • A helicopter search and rescue demonstration by the U.S. Coast Guard on Yaquina Bay (2 p.m.);
    • Screening of the National Geographic Channel film, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale,” and an opportunity to meet the researchers featured in the film (3 p.m.).

    SeaFest has been maintained as a free event, Hall said, thanks in part to the financial and in-kind support of community sponsors including the City of Newport, Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, Georgia Pacific-Toledo and the Oregon Coast Aquarium.

    The theme of SeaFest 2009 is “Leadership through Science,” highlighting research conducted by OSU and its partner agencies at the Hatfield Marine Science Center, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

    SeaFest scheduled events and exhibits end at 4 p.m., but the Visitor Center remains open until 5 p.m. Accommodation requests related to a disability should be made to Seafest@oregonstate.edu. For more information, including photos from previous years’ events, visit: http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/seafest/.


    Media Contact: 

    Ken Hall, 541-867-0234


    CORVALLIS-Researchers at Oregon State University have developed a molecular method to detect and measure a salmon and trout parasite thought partially responsible for controversial salmon die-offs in the Klamath River.

    As many as 30 to 40 percent of fish captured in the lower Klamath River are infected with one particular myxozoan species, Ceratomyxa shasta, explained Jerri Bartholomew, a researcher in OSU's Department of Microbiology and the Center for Fish Disease Research.

    Until now, researchers had no quick, easy way to test for the parasite in water samples. Using the organism's own DNA, this newly developed assay can detect even 1/1000th of a parasite spore in a water sample.

    To detect Ceratomyxa shasta prior to this breakthrough, scientists had to maintain fish in cages along areas of the river suspected to be infectious, then return them to the laboratory and wait for months to see if clinical signs appeared. There was no way to quantify the number of infectious spores moving through the water.

    "This is a huge jump in what we're able to do," said Bartholomew. "We wanted to offer a tool that would be useful if managers were to test management options like altering flows at certain times of year, so that effects could be determined immediately."

    Natural resource managers welcome the new tool.

    "Jerri's doing cutting-edge research that provides us with an accurate tool to assess spore levels quickly," said Scott Foott, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service pathologist. "Without advances like this, all we can do is limp along and quantify dead fish, which doesn't allow us to do any innovative management."

    Bartholomew and her colleagues have discovered that Ceratomyxa shasta is not evenly distributed throughout the Klamath. "The parasite's life cycle is only established in the main stem of the Klamath, not the tributaries," said Bartholomew.

    The OSU researchers also have found that the dams on the Klamath appear to act as a partial barrier to Ceratomyxa shasta.

    "Above the dams, the parasite is still present, but the severity of infection drops off," she explained.

    The research group is using information from the new method to determine the unusual distribution pattern. An additional clue to its distribution may come from Ceratomyxa shasta's unique ecology. It has two hosts - salmonid fish and a type of aquatic worm.

    "We think the distribution is determined by habitat requirements of the worm host," Bartholomew said.

    So far, the scientists do not know how the various tributary salmon populations are affected by disease problems in the main stem Klamath River. They say that knowing the distribution pattern of the salmon parasite is critical for future management.

    Bartholomew and her colleagues are planning on investigating why the infection is localized in the main stem. They are also interested in testing management actions that might reduce parasite levels.

    One example might include a large-scale flow experiment, not unlike the flushing flow water releases researchers conducted from the Glen Canyon dam on the Colorado River a few years ago. This would allow them to better understand how the normal hydrology of the river system controls the number of worm hosts.

    Salmon from the tributaries of the Klamath River are distinct salmon populations and are important to maintain each species' genetic diversity, explained Foott. Unfortunately, the survival rate for Ceratomyxa shasta-infected salmonids is not good.

    "If it's infected in the main stem Klamath River," Foott said, "it's probably dead."


    Jerri Bartholomew, 541-737-1856


    TILLAMOOK - A state-of-the-art weather buoy deployed off the north Oregon coast promises improved weather predictions.

    "This new buoy increases the ability of the National Weather Service to forecast marine and coastal weather," said Patrick Corcoran, an Oregon State University Sea Grant Extension faculty member who serves as outreach coordinator for the Coastal Storms Initiative (CSI).

    The CSI is a federal-state partnership connecting residents and stakeholders in the coastal areas of Oregon and southwest Washington with new weather-and storm-related information tools. Corcoran said that the buoy specifically enhances surface marine data and the ability of the National Weather Service to issue heavy surf advisories and coastal flood warnings.

    "Since it's positioned between the 300-mile buoys and the 20-mile buoys, buoy 46089 fills an important gap in tracking the development of severe weather off the Oregon coast," he added.

    "The data from the new buoy has already been very useful in our forecast operations," agreed Bill Schneider of the National Weather Service in Portland. Indeed, in its first weekend of operation in November, "the buoy allowed us to separate our outer and inner waters forecast when the buoy showed stronger winds over the outer waters," said Schneider. "It also gave us a good heads-up when small craft advisory force winds moved into the waters and allowed us to issue an advisory. We did not expect winds to be that strong and would have otherwise not known until the front reached buoy 46029."

    The new buoy, located 70 miles off Tillamook Bay, is loaded with atmospheric and marine observation devices, according to Corcoran.

    "It's the first buoy of its type to be deployed with such an expanded sensor array," he said.

    Meteorological measurements on board buoy 46089 include air temperature, continuous wind speed, peak wind and gusts, atmospheric pressure, and dew point temperature. Oceanographic measurements include water temperature, wave height, significant wave height, directional wave spectra, non-directional wave spectra, and directional ocean currents.

    The ocean current data is measured by an experimental device called an Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler. The buoy reports real-time quality-controlled data to a ground receiving station and from there to other users including the National Weather Service.

    The buoy will bring new ability to calibrate and compare satellite wind and wave predictions with what's really happening at the surface, said OSU's Corcoran.

    In addition, he said, understanding offshore wind speed and direction improves the ability to predict how the wind will interact with the mountains, which is crucial for predicting how much rain will fall and the potential for flooding.

    This buoy is one of the first of its kind to use iridium satellite technology, rather than the Geostationary Earth Orbiting Satellite.

    The iridium satellite allows for both the transmission of more data and the ability to communicate with the buoy from shore. Data from the buoy are continually transmitted via iridium satellite to the National Data Buoy Center.

    The center updates its online buoy reports hourly. These can be found at http://seaboard.ndbc.noaa.gov/Maps/Northwest.shtml. Users can also telephone Dial-A-Buoy at (228) 688-1948 and key in 46089 (for the Tillamook buoy) when prompted for the station indicator.

    Funding for the buoy came from the Coastal Storms Initiative through NOAA - the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Oregon Sea Grant and Washington Sea Grant are partners with NOAA in the Coastal Storms Initiative, which is intended to improve storm prediction, preparation and recovery efforts.

    Faculty from OSU, University of Washington, and other institutions are working with NOAA researchers on several projects, including a near-shore wave prediction model, a toxicological assessment of storm runoff, and computer software for assessing local risk and vulnerability to hazards created by coastal storms. Sea Grant Extension is providing outreach and education about the initiative to stakeholders.


    Media Contact: 

    Patrick Corcoran, 503-325-8573

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    Succesful spawners are few and far between

    WASHINGTON, D.C. - The number of adult, female rockfish that successfully breed to help replenish the stocks of marine rockfish comprise less than 1 percent of the total fish population, new genetic studies have shown.

    These findings were presented over the weekend at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and suggest that even though many females may spawn, the fish that survive to adulthood apparently are descended from just a tiny number of individuals.

    "We already know that older fish are generally more prolific spawners, but even within this group, this research has found that the number of fish that actually breed successfully is much smaller than we thought," said Daniel Gomez-Uchida, a fisheries researcher at Oregon State University.

    In studies that examined the genetic heritage of darkblotched rockfish off the Oregon coast, the entire fish populations could be linked to as few as two fish per 1,000 adult female breeders, or as little as 0.2 percent of the total population of fish, the OSU scientists have concluded.

    Similar numbers have also been found in commercially important groundfish stocks ranging from red drum in the Gulf of Mexico to the New Zealand snapper and the Atlantic cod in British waters.

    "The fact that in every generation a very small minority of the spawners is responsible to replace the majority of the population has profound consequences for the management of harvested populations," Gomez-Uchida said. "We could potentially identify the portion of the population that successfully breed, and target these fish for management protection."

    There are many factors that can cause mortality among young fish, including predation, ocean conditions such as temperature and oxygen level, circulation patterns, starvation and other issues. But fishery managers in the past had assumed that all spawning fish had more or less an equal chance of producing young fish that would survive to adulthood. That apparently is not the case.

    This research was done with molecular techniques such as polymerase chain reaction, along with population genetics and demography theory.

    Many groundfish stocks on the West Coast of North America, and also in other places in the world, have been in serious decline in recent years, forcing closures or severe fishing restrictions in some cases.

    Media Contact: 

    Daniel Gomez-Uchida, 541-758-8379

    Marine seaweed can detoxify organic pollutants

    WASHINGTON, D.C. - Researchers have discovered that marine seaweeds have a remarkable and previously unknown capacity to detoxify serious organic pollutants such as TNT or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and they may therefore be able to play an important role in protecting the ecological health of marine life.

    The studies, conducted by scientists from the College of Engineering at Oregon State University and the Marine Science Center at Northeastern University, were presented today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

    The findings may have important implications for seafood safety, since some of the marine organisms most at risk from these toxins are marine invertebrates such as clams, shrimp, oysters or crab that tend to "bioaccumulate" them. One possibility, the researchers say, might be to plant appropriate seaweeds as a protective buffer around areas being used in aquaculture.

    "We found that certain red seaweeds had an intrinsic ability to detoxify TNT that was 5-10 times faster than any known terrestrial plant," said Greg Rorrer, a professor of chemical engineering at OSU. "Marine seaweeds have a more efficient uptake mechanism than even terrestrial aquatic plants to at least neutralize organic pollutants."

    The researchers call this process "phycoremediation," derived from phykos, a Greek word for seaweed.

    The studies, which are supported by the Office of Naval Research and the Oregon Sea Grant Program, are of particular interest in the case of trinitrotoluene, or TNT, because of unexploded bombs or military shells found in some places around the world's oceans. There is a general concern these shells could potentially corrode.

    "It's important to know how corals, fisheries and plant life might respond to exposure to TNT or other toxins," Rorrer said.

    The study is looking at not just TNT, which is commonly found in munitions, but at polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, such as naphthalene, benzopyrene and other PAHs that are sometimes associated with the use of motorcraft or other causes.

    Ongoing studies found that marine seaweeds processed toxins to a much less harmful form, and in a way that did not appear to harm the seaweed. The biochemistry involved, they say, is similar to that found in many land organisms, but more powerful and effective. Until now, the capability of marine seaweeds to deal with these toxins had never before been demonstrated.

    It's unclear yet whether similar plants can be identified, the researchers said, that will perform this function in terrestrial fresh waters, such as streams or lakes.

    These research outcomes should lead to the development of new bioremediation technologies that use seaweed in engineered systems to remove organic contaminants from the marine environment, the scientists said.

    Studies to create genetically engineered seaweeds that perform these functions even better are also promising, the researchers said.

    Media Contact: 

    Greg Rorrer, 541-737-3370

    "Invasion of the Habitat Snatchers" opens at OSU's HMSC

    NEWPORT - It sounds scary and surprising - like some B-movie - and that's part of the message of a new exhibit now open at the Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center.

    But unlike a B-movie, "Invasion of the Habitat Snatchers" is not science fiction.

    It's all about those sneaky and very real aquatic pests, from Asian clams to zebra mussels, which are emerging as a major environmental threat. These aquatic invaders permanently alter habitats, harm native fish and wildlife, and lead to billions of dollars in costs to society.

    The European green crab and Atlantic cordgrass have already arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and species such as the Chinese mitten crab pose a nearby threat.

    Given the many pathways of aquatic species introduction, public education is critical for limiting new invasions and rapidly detecting recent arrivals, said Jon Luke, exhibit developer at the HMSC Visitor Center.

    "The exhibit's primary goal is to foster an understanding of how invasive species enter and affect new environments, the factors that influence an invader's success, and how each of us can prevent future invasions," Luke said.

    Visitors to the exhibit will be engaged by a mix of live displays, video and hands-on activities. They will have a close-up view of ballast water "hitchhikers," learn about invasion risks at "The Wheel of Misfortune," or take on the role of an aquatic invader in an interactive survival game.

    The exhibit is the second new installation that the Visitor Center has opened in recent months. It joins the World of Wet Pets, where new displays and aquaria filled with ornamental fish deepen visitors' appreciation of this popular hobby.

    The Visitor Center is now open on its winter schedule, Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., through Memorial Day. It is managed by Oregon Sea Grant, a marine research, education, and outreach program based at OSU.


    Jon Luke, 541-867-0357


    CORVALLIS, Ore. - The type of devastating tsunami that struck the southern coast of Asia is entirely possible in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, but might not cause as much loss of life there because of better warning systems, according to experts at Oregon State University.

    OSU is home to the Tsunami Wave Basin at the Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory, one of the world's leading research facilities to study tsunamis and understand their behavior, catastrophic effects and possible ways to reduce the destruction they can cause.

    As the death tolls rises into the tens of thousands in Asia and the number of homeless above one million, OSU experts say many of the same forces that caused this disaster are at work elsewhere on the Pacific Ocean "ring of fire," one of the most active tectonic and volcanic regions of the world.

    This clearly includes the West Coast of the U.S. and particularly the Pacific Northwest, which sits near the Cascadia Subduction Zone.

    Experts believe, in fact, that it was a subduction zone earthquake of magnitude 9 - almost identical in power to the sub-sea earthquake that struck Asia on Monday - that caused a massive tsunami around the year 1700 that caused damage as far away as Japan. And the great Alaska earthquake in 1964 caused waves that swept down the Northwest coast, causing deaths in Oregon and northern California.

    "The loss of human lives from this latest tsunami is staggering," said Harry Yeh, an internationally recognized tsunami expert and the Edwards Professor of ocean engineering at OSU. "We have to ask, 'why?' Clearly, they didn't have the same kinds of warning systems that we have on the West Coast of the U.S. That is why the research that we do here is so important. As tragic as the event is, it also represents a learning opportunity and we have a responsibility to learn from it what we can.

    "We didn't learn what we could have from the Alaska event," Yeh added, "because we didn't have the instrumentation we have today, and we didn't have the knowledge base. The tsunami event this weekend also happened during the daytime, so there are a lot of pictures and video of the devastation, which will help the research effort. Most of the other recent major events happened at night."

    Robert Yeats, professor emeritus of geosciences at OSU, agrees that the reason for the great loss of life in Sri Lanka, India, and other Asian countries was the lack of a tsunami warning system.

    "That much loss of life wouldn't happen here for either a local or distant tsunami because of warning systems operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with laboratories in Newport and Seattle," Yeats said. "NOAA would record the earthquake on seismographs and issue bulletins about the progress of a tsunami. Deep-ocean buoys off the Aleutian Islands and Cascadia would also record the passage of tsunami waves in the open ocean."

    For a tsunami caused by a Cascadia earthquake, people on the coast would have about 15 minutes to get to high ground, Yeats said. Emergency managers of coastal counties have told residents about planning escape routes from a tsunami, and schools in Seaside, Ore. have had tsunami evacuation drills. Some coastal communities also give warnings through a siren for those vacationers who aren't keeping up with the news. Visitors to the coast should look for the blue and white tsunami warning signs on Highway 101 and some beach areas. Research on tsunamis is being greatly enhanced by the new Tsunami Wave Basin at OSU, a $4.8 million facility with advanced technology built with the support of the National Science Foundation. It allows scientists from anywhere in the world to conduct experiments and monitor results. It also helps them learn about how tsunamis behave in different types of ocean terrain and what effects they might have once they reach land, said Dan Cox, an associate professor of engineering who directs the facility.

    "The underlying goal of all we are doing is to ultimately reduce the loss of lives," Cox said. "We've had a number of scientists from Japan and throughout the United States checking in with us already, and we expect more from around the world.

    "We're not working alone," Cox added. "Much of our work is in collaboration with NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, and the support of the National Science Foundation has been critical. They've funded the construction of the facility during the past four years, and will support the operation and maintenance of it for the next 10 years."

    Is it possible that a tsunami will strike the U.S. during that time? Experts are not sure.

    "In the Pacific Northwest, there is no way to tell whether the next Cascadia earthquake will strike tomorrow or 100 years from now," Yeats said. "We must prepare for the worst case scenario, both in tsunami escape preparations and in not building in potential tsunami inundation zones."

    One of Yeats' colleagues is Chris Goldfinger, who has spent years studying the Cascadia subduction zone. Goldfinger says that in the last 10,000 years, there have been 19 major earthquakes in the zone that runs from northern California to Vancouver Island.

    "There are only a few places in the world with a pattern long enough that we can study," he said, "and one of them is Cascadia. We cannot accurately predict earthquakes, so we have to look to the past for patterns."

    Yeh said the weekend's earthquake and tsunami were grim reminders that our planet's natural forces are constantly at work - even if we forget about them.

    "There is such a long period between tsunamis that people tend to forget how dangerous they are, and how devastating their impacts can be," Yeh said. "People in this country forgot about hurricanes for several years before Hurricane Hugo, and this year's series of storms focused people's attention on them again. The lag time for tsunamis is even greater. But the threat is still very real, as we learned."

    Media Contact: 

    Harry Yeh, 541-737-8057

    New system can measure productivity of oceans

    CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon State University, NASA and other institutions announced today the discovery of a method to determine from outer space the productivity of marine phytoplankton - a breakthrough that may provide a new understanding of life in the world's oceans.

    Phytoplankton are the incredibly abundant microscopic plant forms that provide the basis for most of the marine food chain, half the oxygen in our atmosphere and ultimately much of the life on Earth. They have rapid growth rates and are constantly being produced and consumed in huge amounts - but until now, it was impossible to determine their rate of growth on any broad, useful scale.

    The new findings, which were developed with funding from NASA and the National Science Foundation, have been published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles, a professional journal. A group of scientists also explained the new study today in a national teleconference.

    "The new information on phytoplankton growth rates and biomass will greatly advance our understanding of the Earth's oceans," said Michael Behrenfeld, a research professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology at OSU.

    "We don't have the satellite technology available yet to fully take advantage of this new approach," he said. "But ultimately this system should have a great potential to effectively monitor phytoplankton productivity and understand the physical and chemical forces that drive it."

    Although too tiny to see, phytoplankton have a net annual production that's comparable to the total amount of terrestrial plant life on Earth, scientists say. They produce about 50-65 billion tons of organic matter each year, and in the process absorb carbon dioxide and pour oxygen into the atmosphere.

    Their abundance dictates the location and health of most marine fisheries. They play a critical role in marine water quality issues, can help regulate climate, are affected by climate, and are responsible for red tides and other harmful algal blooms. The very basis of sustainable ecological systems is almost impossible to understand without a good grasp of phytoplankton productivity, and its implications for global climate change.

    Behrenfeld is an expert on phytoplankton, and has studied them from their molecular and metabolic pathways to their measurement from outer space.

    "It was only in the late 1800s that we even realized these tiny plants formed the base of the marine food web," Behrenfeld said. "By the 1950s, we had figured out how to accurately measure their production and use observations of chlorophyll to determine their biomass. But until now, we've never been able to measure their rate of production over large areas."

    That production can be enormous, and highly variable. Phytoplankton biomass can double in as little as one day, and it's routine for the entire mass of phytoplankton in an area to either be consumed by other life forms or die and sink to the ocean bottom in less than a week.

    "Obviously, there's a very tight coupling between phytoplankton production and its consumption or death," said Emmanuel Boss at the University of Maine, a co-author on the paper. "So it's almost impossible to really understand what's going on in the oceans without understanding that rate of production. Now we have a way to do that."

    The researchers accomplished this by moving beyond the old standard for monitoring phytoplankton, the observation of chlorophyll.

    "The growth rate of phytoplankton can change dramatically based on such factors as water temperature, nutrients and light," Behrenfeld said. "And it's the growth rate of phytoplankton we have to know, to really take the pulse of the oceans. That's the missing piece of the puzzle."

    The new approach is based on the premise that the 'greenness' in phytoplankton - its level of pigmentation per cell - is a reflection of its growth rate, said David Siegel of the University of California, Santa Barbara, the third author on the paper. The researchers have discovered a means to measure phytoplankton biomass from ocean light scattering properties and infer growth rates from simultaneous measurements of how green the individual phytoplankton are, all from outer space.

    The mathematics behind this approach, the researchers say, is conceptually similar to technology that's used in a home supply or paint store when someone brings in a color chip and wants to "match" the paint color. A computer analysis is done that determines the final color of the paint, factors in the base colors used to produce it and then determines the original formula needed to reproduce the paint chip.

    To fully use this approach, new satellite systems will be necessary that can more accurately determine both the color and brightness of marine waters, Behrenfeld said. He and colleagues are already working on a satellite concept to do that called ORCA, or Ocean Radiometer for Carbon Assessment.

    However, in studies already done, the scientists have demonstrated that carbon-based values are considerably higher in tropical oceans, show greater seasonality at middle and high latitudes, and illustrate important differences in the formation and demise of regional algal blooms. Researchers anticipate a fundamental change in how they can model and observe carbon cycling in the global oceans.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: A national news media teleconference on these findings will take place Thursday, Feb. 10, at 10 a.m. PST. To participate, reporters can dial toll free to (888) 396-9926. The pass code is PLANKTON. For more information and digital images that can be used to illustrate this story, visit the NASA website at http://www.nasa.gov/vision/earth/lookingatearth/plankton.html .

    Media Contact: 

    Michael Behrenfeld, 541-737-5289