OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

marine science and the coast

New study questions the role of kinship in mass strandings of pilot whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Pilot whales that have died in mass strandings in New Zealand and Australia included many unrelated individuals at each event, a new study concludes, challenging a popular assumption that whales follow each other onto the beach and to almost certain death because of familial ties.

Using genetic samples from individuals in large strandings, scientists have determined that both related and unrelated individuals were scattered along the beaches – and that the bodies of mothers and young calves were often separated by large distances.

Results of the study are being published this week in the Journal of Heredity.

Scott Baker, associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University, said genetic identification showed that, in many cases, the mothers of calves were missing entirely from groups of whales that died in the stranding. This separation of mothers and calves suggests that strong kinship bonds are being disrupted prior to the actual stranding – potentially playing a role in causing the event.

“Observations of unusual social behavior by groups of whales prior to stranding support this explanation,” said Baker, who frequently advises the International Whaling Commission and is co-author of the Journal of Heredity article. The OSU cetacean expert is a professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

The mass stranding of pilot whales is common in New Zealand and Australia, involving several thousand deaths over the last few decades, according to Marc Oremus of the University of Auckland, who is lead author on the study. The researchers say their genetic analysis of 490 individual pilot whales from 12 different stranding events showed multiple maternal lineages among the victims in each stranding, and thus no correlation between kinship and the grouping of whales on the beach.

This challenges another popular hypothesis – that “care-giving behavior” directed at close maternal relatives may be responsible for the stranding of otherwise healthy whales, Oremus said.

“If kinship-based behavior was playing a causal role in strandings, we would expect that whales in a stranding event would be related to one another through descent from a common maternal ancestor, such as a grandmother or great-grandmother – and that close kin would be clustered on the beach,” Oremus said. “Neither of these was the case.”

Because of the separation of mothers and calves, or in some cases, the outright absence of mothers among the victims, the study has important implications for agencies and volunteers who work to save the stranded whales, Baker said.

“Rescue efforts aimed at ‘refloating’ stranded whales often focus on placing stranded calves with the nearest mature females, on the assumption that the closest adult female is the mother,” Baker pointed out.  “Our results suggest that rescuers should be cautious when making difficult welfare decisions – such as the choice to rescue or euthanize a calf – based on this assumption alone.”

Long-finned pilot whales are the most common species to strand en masse worldwide, the researchers noted, and most of their beaching events are thought to be unrelated to human activity – unlike strandings of some other species. Both naval sonar and the noise of seismic exploration have been linked to the stranding of other species.

The phenomenon is not new. In fact, mass strandings of whales or dolphins were described by Aristotle more than 2,000 years ago and were thought to have some kind of natural cause, Baker said, although it is unclear what that may be.

“It is usually assumed that environmental factors, such as weather or the pursuit of prey, brings pilot whales into shallow water where they become disoriented,” Baker said. “Our results suggest that some form of social disruption also contributes to the tendency to strand.”

“It could be mating interaction or competition with other pods of whales,” Baker said. “We just don’t know. But it is certainly something that warrants further investigation.”

The researchers hope their study will lead to better genetic sampling of more pilot whales and other stranded whale species, as well as the use of satellite tags to monitor the survival and behavior of whales that are helped back into the ocean.

“The causal mechanisms of these strandings remain an enigma,” Oremus said, “so the more avenues of research we can pursue before and after the whales beach themselves, the more likely we are to discover why it happens.”

The study was funded by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand and the Australian Marine Mammal Centre, with support from the New Zealand Department of Conservation and the Australian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment. Baker’s work is supported by a Pew Marine Conservation Fellowship for the study of dolphins around islands of the South Pacific.

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Scott Baker, 541-272-0560

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Invasive species danger from tsunami may not be known for years

NEWPORT, Ore. – Scientists from Oregon State University, who have examined more than three dozen pieces of debris from the 2011 Japanese tsunami that have washed ashore on the Northwest coast, say the potential damage from invasive species may not be known for years.

The researchers say some of the pieces of debris they’ve examined have included algae, barnacles, mussels, starfish, snails and other organisms that are found only in Asia. While few species on the floating debris are native exclusively to the West Coast of the United States, several of the species they examined can be found in both locations.

Which of the species originating in Asia, if any, gains a toehold in the Pacific Northwest – and what potential damage there may be ecologically and economically – is nearly impossible to anticipate, they say.

“Ecologists have a terrible track record of predicting what introduced species will survive and where,” acknowledged John Chapman, a marine invasive species specialist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “The real question for scientists who study these species is the big picture view – how do things get introduced into a new location and move around the world?

“The Japanese tsunami was a terrible tragedy and the debris that is arriving is certainly an unintended consequence,” he added. “But it is providing us with an unprecedented experiment on species introduction.”

Chapman and OSU colleague Jessica Miller were among the first scientists to examine the huge dock that washed ashore in June of 2012 near Newport. Ripped from its moorings in Misawa, Japan, it floated across the Pacific Ocean for 15 months, arriving near Agate Beach covered in seaweed, barnacles, mussels and other organisms.

Since then, they have examined another Misawa dock that beached in northwest Washington, as well as numerous boats and other large pieces of debris. Models produced by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration suggest that another peak of debris will arrive on the West Coast between now and June, as favorable winds and currents drive floating objects ashore.

It should subside during the late spring and summer, Miller noted, but some debris is projected to arrive over the next five years.

“We’re observing more ‘settlement’ on these debris items that appears to have occurred soon after the tsunami,” said Miller, an OSU marine ecologist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “Recently, we have sampled several boats that were clearly colonized by animals, such as the blue mussel, after the tsunami.

“We are trying to improve our understanding of the mechanisms that allow organisms to disperse across the ocean,” she added.

The researchers say that some of the Asian aquatic species that “hitchhiked” aboard the tsunami debris may have reproduced during their trans-Pacific journey, and it is possible they could have released gametes into local coastal waters. This increases the chance that these non-native organisms may become established and turn into invasive species.

Once established, these species also have the potential to breed with similar local species and create hybrid organisms, the researchers noted. “Certainly there is precedent for that in the invasive species world,” Chapman pointed out. “Just look at kudzu, Himalayan blackberry and English ivy – they’re all hybrids. So the potential exists.”

The OSU scientists and three other researchers have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to quantify the species arriving on tsunami debris, assess their abundance, and characterize the organisms morphologically and genetically. They also are examining the species’ reproductive state and looking for parasites on host organisms.

Other researchers involved in the project include Jim Carlton of Williams College, who is one of the leading experts in the world on marine invasive species; Gregory Ruiz of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center and Portland State University (who studies parasites and pathogens); and Jon Geller of Moss Landing Marine Laboratories (who studies genetics).

As the two-year anniversary of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami approaches, the OSU scientists say the risk of non-native species aboard the debris becoming invasive is still very real.

“From day one, we’ve been asked which species we should be worried about,” Chapman said, “and the answer is just not that simple. We cannot predict which starfish or algae species poses the biggest threat – but we know that invasions in general are bad. We just don’t know which of them, if any, will turn out to be a problem five, 10 or 20 years down the road.

“And we do know that the rate of new, introduced species discoveries has increased exponentially over the last hundred years,” Chapman added. “More are coming.”

Miller concurs, saying the threat from the tsunami debris may not be known for years.

“I think it is safe to say that we are still concerned that some of these non-native species could establish themselves along our West Coast,” she said. “And the potential ecological impacts could be significant.”

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John Chapman, 541-867-0235

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at Gleneden Beach

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Buoy from Astoria

Survey: Climate change a concern, not a priority to coastal leaders

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Many Oregon coast public officials and community leaders believe their local climate is changing and that the change will affect their communities. But overall, they say, addressing the changing climate is not an urgent concern.

These are among the findings of a survey by Oregon Sea Grant at Oregon State University.

During 2012, Sea Grant surveyed coastal professionals such as city managers and planners, elected officials such as city council members and county commissioners, and other leaders including those with nongovernmental organizations. Approximately 60 percent of the 140 survey respondents believe the local climate is changing. By contrast, 18 percent think it is not, and 22 percent don't know.

While most believe that their professional efforts toward addressing climate change would benefit the community, both elected officials and other coastal professionals also believe that a combination of governments and other organizations should initiate a local response to the likely effects of climate change.

Overall, actions appear to be lagging behind beliefs and concerns, according to the research leader, Joseph Cone, the Sea Grant assistant director.

“As of last May, many coastal professionals – about 44 percent of the survey respondents -- were not currently involved in planning to adapt to its effects,” said Cone.

The survey results placed climate change effects next to the bottom on a list of seven significant “potential stressors on your community during the next 10 years.” Coastal professionals scored climate change effects considerably lower (46 percent of respondents said they were moderately to extremely concerned) than the top-ranked stressors – a weak economy, and the impacts of a tsunami or earthquake (approximately 70 percent moderately to extremely concerned for each). 

The hurdles to planning most often encountered were a lack of agreement over the importance of climate change effects and a lack of urgency regarding them. Where planning for effects has begun, it has mainly been in an early fact-finding stage, the survey showed. Anticipating this, questions asked what specific information needs coastal professionals had. Most needed was information about diverse environmental and social considerations.

Highly rated needs included information about flooding or saltwater intrusion, species and habitat vulnerability, and predictions of ecosystem impacts; and also social and economic vulnerabilities, the cost of climate adaptation, and how to communicate climate risks rated as important information needs.

The survey was administered online to 348 individuals. Some coastal participants for the survey came from a list of respondents from a similar climate change study conducted by Oregon Sea Grant in 2008, which sampled Oregon coastal managers and practitioners.

Not all coastal communities or officials in them could be, or were, included in the 2012 study. The sample is what statisticians call a “purposive sample” rather than a random sample of all coastal professionals, and provided timely and targeted insights that can help guide further climate planning and assistance, said Cone.

A report of the findings, Coastal Climate Change: Survey Results for Oregon 2012, prepared by OSU doctoral candidate Kirsten Winters, is available for download at http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/sgpubs/coastal-climate-change-survey-results

The Oregon survey was based in large part on a California coastal assessment conducted by California Sea Grant and its partners, and is part of a national Sea Grant study on coastal communities and climate change adaptation, led by Cone.

Source: 

Joseph Cone, 541-737-0756

NSF selects OSU to lead project rejuvenating U.S. research fleet

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The National Science Foundation has notified Oregon State University that it will be the lead institution on a project to finalize the design and coordinate the construction of as many as three new coastal research vessels to bolster the marine science research capabilities of the United States.

OSU initially will receive nearly $3 million to coordinate the design phase of the project – and if funds are appropriated for all three vessels, the total grant is projected to reach $290 million over 10 years. The final number constructed, and the geographic positioning of these vessels, will be determined by the National Science Foundation based on geographic scientific requirements and availability of funding.

If all three vessels are built, it is likely that one would be positioned on the East Coast, West Coast and Gulf Coast, officials say.

A project team led by Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences will finalize the design for the 175-foot long, technically enhanced Regional Class ships, select a shipyard, oversee construction, and coordinate the system integration, testing, commissioning and acceptance, and transition to operations.

“These will be floating, multi-use laboratories that are flexible and can be adapted for different scientific purposes, yet are more seaworthy and environmentally ‘green’ than previous research vessels,” said Mark Abbott, dean of the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “These ships will be used to address critical issues related to climate change, ocean circulation, natural hazards, human health, and marine ecosystems.”

OSU vice president for research Rick Spinrad, who previously directed research programs for the U.S. Navy and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said the new vessels would “revitalize and transform” coastal ocean science in the United States.

“Many of the most pressing issues facing our oceans are in these coastal regions, including acidification, hypoxia, tsunami prediction, declining fisheries, and harmful algal blooms,” Spinrad said. “Because of their flexibility, these new vessels will attract a broad range of users and will become ideal platforms to training early-career scientists and mariners.”

The project had the support of Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Office, noted OSU President Ed Ray, who said the university will benefit from the process long before the first ship hits the water in 2019 or 2020.

“What is really unique about this project is that it will involve faculty from engineering and business, who will join their oceanography colleagues on the design and construction elements – and provide unbelievable training opportunities for OSU undergraduate and graduate students interested in project management, marine technology and marine science,” Ray pointed out.

The successful OSU proposal was submitted to the National Science Foundation by Clare Reimers, an oceanography professor, and Demian Bailey, the university’s marine superintendent. As part of that submission, OSU proposed to be the operator of the first vessel. Additional operating institutions will be determined once the total number of vessels to be built is known.

The university now operates the R/V Oceanus, an older research vessel scheduled for retirement about the time the new research vessels will become available.

“The National Science Foundation hasn’t authorized a multi-ship project since the 1970s,” Bailey said, “and these are likely the only ships scheduled by NSF to be built during the next decade – so this is a big deal. The endurance and size of the new ships will be similar to that of Oceanus and (former OSU vessel) Wecoma but they will be much more efficient and have far greater scientific capacity and flexibility.”

Bailey said the new vessels will have advanced dynamic positioning that will help them stay in place in the rugged Pacific Ocean. That is a benefit for launching and retrieving gliders and other autonomous or remotely operated vehicles, conducting precise seafloor mapping, and retrieving moorings and other instrumentation. They also will be much quieter, which will help researchers who use acoustics to study everything from endangered whales to undersea earthquakes and volcanoes.

Reimers said the first phase of the 10-year project will begin in early 2013 with the finalization of the vessel design. A concept design is already in place and the OSU project team will partner with two regional firms – The Glosten Associates in Seattle, Wash., and Science Applications International Corporation in Oregon City – to meet naval architecture, marine design and systems engineering requirements.

“These new vessels will allow scientists at sea to conduct state-of-the-art scientific research from the atmosphere above into the seafloor below our coastal oceans,” Reimers said. “Broader impacts will also be possible because these ships will be equipped with modern telecommunications technologies and sensors to be able to transmit a rich variety of observations to scientists, educators and the public ashore.”

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) praised the project and selection of OSU.

“These research ships will keep the United States in the forefront of coastal ocean science,” Wyden said. “The selection of Oregon State University to design these vessels represents an important investment in our nation’s research infrastructure and adds to the state’s already-growing reputation as a center for marine research and the place that will train the next generation of ocean scientists.”

Fellow Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) described the announcement as “great news for both Oregon State University and the state of Oregon.”

“Oregon State is on the cutting edge for marine research and it is only fitting that they have received the honor of designing these new research ships,” Merkley said. “I am excited that we will be developing top-notch research into the health of our oceans and the effects of climate change through this targeted investment right here in Oregon.”

History of OSU Research Vessels

1964 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 180-foot Yaquina

1968 – The Department of Oceanography commissions the 80-foot Cayuse

1975 – The School of Oceanography commissions the 184-foot Wecoma

2000 – The 54-foot Elakha was funded by a Packard Foundation grant to College of Science researchers, and after construction operated by the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

2012 – The College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences takes over operation of the 177-foot Oceanus, formerly operated by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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Mark Abbott, 541-737-5195

Study finds prey density more important to predators than biomass

Note: The journal article this release is based on can be found at: http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0053348

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Marine resource managers often gauge the health of species based on overall biomass, but a new study of predator-prey relationships in the Bering Sea found that it isn’t the total number of individuals that predators care about – it’s how densely they are aggregated.

It’s more than searching for an easy meal, the researchers say. Predators need to balance how much energy they expend in searching for food with the caloric and nutrient value of that which they consume. When prey doesn’t aggregate, however, the search for food becomes much more difficult – affecting the health of the predators’ offspring and the vitality of their overall population.

Results of the study were published this week in the journal PLOS ONE. The study was part of the Bering Sea Integrated Ecosystem Research Project, which was funded by the North Pacific Research Board and the National Science Foundation.

“We had to think very differently about these interactions, trying to see the world from the predators’ point of view,” said Kelly Benoit-Bird, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and lead author on the study. “When we first tried to identify good foraging locations for predator species we looked at areas of high prey numbers because it makes sense that they’d be where the food is. But the results didn’t match what we might have expected.

“Predator populations that should have been doing well, based on prey numbers or biomass, were in fact not doing well,” added Benoit-Bird, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “What we discovered is that smaller aggregations of prey are more attractive to predators if they are sufficiently dense.”

The findings are particularly important, scientists say, because almost all fisheries management is based on biomass – tons of fish – and not how those fish may be distributed in the sea.

In their study, the researchers looked at the feeding behaviors of three co-occurring species in the Bering Sea, all of which consume juvenile pollock or krill – black-legged kittiwakes, thick-billed murres and northern fur seals. When they attempted to find a spatial relationship between these predators and the pollock using areal biomass and numerical abundance, they found little correlation.

However, when they began finding small patches of prey at certain depths and of sufficient density, the predators were there. And though the scientists know why – feeding efficiency – they aren’t sure how.

“To be honest, we aren’t really sure how these predators – which may travel many miles – locate the densest aggregations at depths well below the surface – and often at night,” said Scott Heppell, a fisheries ecologist at Oregon State University and co-author on the PLOS ONE paper. “You wouldn’t think murres and fur seals would have that much in common, but in this case they do.”

“In a way, they’re looking for the same thing that commercial fishing fleets look for – high-quality prey in aggregations dense enough to be economical,” added Heppell, an assistant professor of fisheries and wildlife at OSU.

Benoit-Bird likened the predator-prey link to locating a box of popcorn in a darkened movie theater. You may have to search for it, she noted, but if you find the popcorn box, the payoff will be much more significant than what you might get by stumbling upon individual kernels in the dark that are spread throughout the theater – even though the number of kernels is the same.

That payoff is particularly meaningful for nurturing young, the researchers point out. During their two-year study, the research group tagged and observed female fur seals from St. Paul Island and Bogoslof Island as they swam hundreds of kilometers over a period of 1-2 weeks to gorge on nutrient-rich pollock then return to their homes to nurse pups.

They also tagged and observed adult murres and kittiwakes at St. Paul, St. George and Bogoslof Islands. The birds would capture local prey to feed their chicks during the day, but make numerous long flights at night to gorge on energy-rich, deep-water prey before returning to their nests to feed their chicks.

“It is a trade-off strategy,” said Benoit-Bird, a 2010 recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship. “They feed themselves in one place and nourish their offspring from another.”

This concept of prey “patchiness” can change rapidly, the researchers noted. Pollock aggregated only when the number of individuals in an area reached a certain threshold; below that threshold, they swam as individuals.

“If the population is sufficiently diffuse, the pollock don’t aggregate and that could spell trouble for species that prey upon them,” Heppell said. “A 10 percent shift in the number of fish could change how the entire stock behaves – and have a major impact on the birds, seals and other predators.”

Other authors on the PLOS ONE paper include Brian Battaile, Chad Nordstrom and Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia; Brian Hoover and Nathan Jones, University of California’s Moss Landing Marine Laboratories; David Irons and Kathy Kuletz of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage; and Rosana Paredes, Robert Suryan and Chad Waluk of Oregon State University.

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Kelly Benoit-Bird, 541-737-2063

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2012 weather: Bookend wet spells sandwich summer drought

CORVALLIS, Ore. – 2012 will likely go down as the warmest year on record for the lower 48 states, but it may be remembered just as much for its extreme events – and Oregon was no exception.

Though the state didn’t experience anything like super-storm Sandy or major blizzards that paralyzed communities, it did experience a pronounced summer drought, sandwiched by “atmospheric river events” that drenched Oregonians in January and late November.

Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University, said the impacts from the three phenomena were significant.

“The state was really dry during the July to September period and it really extended into October,” Dello said. “In fact, it was the second driest summer period on record, which made it a big year for wildfires. Oregon (1.26 million acres) was second in the nation to Idaho (1.54 million acres) for most acres burned and many private woodland owners had to close their lands to hunters until mid-October because of fire danger. That doesn’t happen often.”

“The two wet weather events affected western Oregon to a great extent, and caused some fairly serious flooding,” added Dello, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “There were also some rather damaging windstorms.”

One series of storms in January caused major flooding in the Willamette Valley and another series in late November soaked the southwestern portion of the state. These bookend wet spells made the year wetter than normal in western Oregon, though eastern Oregon ended up drier than average. Statewide records go back 118 years.

With a couple of days left in the year, Corvallis is likely to close 2012 with the fourth wettest year on record, with 58.72 inches of precipitation through Dec. 27. The average over the past 30 years has been 42.71 inches. Totals of other Oregon cities, with data gathered in part from the National Weather Service in Portland, include:

  • Medford has received 26.67 inches through Dec. 27, well above its average of 18.35 inches. On November 29, the town received its first rainfall of more than two inches since 2005.
  • Portland has logged 50.43 inches in 2012, fourth highest on record, and well above its average of 36.1 inches.
  • Salem is in the midst of the seventh wettest year on record with 54.38 inches; its average over the past 30 years is 39.67 inches.
  • Astoria has received 91.01 inches, eighth most on record, and more than 23 inches above its average of 67.53 inches.

“Almost all of the wet weather records are from 1996, when the state experienced some rather spectacular flooding,” Dello said. “That was a ‘100-year flood event’ and the records back it up.”

Corvallis had 73.21 inches in 1996; Portland was at 63.20, Salem at 66.96, and Medford at 31.41. Astoria was one of the few places that didn’t peak that year. Its record year was 1950, when it got 113.34 inches.

The chaotic weather in 2012 was fitting in a way – this coming winter is the first time since 2003 that the western United States wasn’t affected by either El Niño or a La Niña conditions. El Niños typically result in warmer and drier winter weather; La Niñas are usually wetter, as it was in January, which was on the tail end of last winter’s La Niña.

“We are neither, for the first time in almost a decade,” Dello said. “Officially we are ENSO-neutral, or what some people call ‘La Nada.’”

Weather-lovers can learn more about Oregon weather by following Dello on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/orclimatesvc. The state is also looking for volunteers to collect precipitation data. For more information, go to http://www.cocorahs.org/.

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Kathie Dello, 541-737-8927

New study finds major differences in motions of volcanic “hotspots”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The movement of tectonic plates over a volcanic hotspot typically results in a narrow chain of seamounts, such as the Hawaiian-Emperor Seamount Trail. This hotspot trail is fed by a deep-mantle plume, which scientists believe drifted 15 degrees southward over millions of years because of a Pacific Ocean-wide “mantle wind.”

But a new study that analyzes the Louisville hotspot in the southern Pacific Ocean found very little drift of its mantle plume, suggesting it is moving independently of its Hawaiian counterpart, and not as part of a large-scale mantle wind.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation through the International Ocean Drilling Program, were published today in Nature Geoscience.

“This is only the second major hotspot system that has been fully analyzed and it finally gives us something to compare to the Hawaiian hotspot,” said Anthony Koppers, an Oregon State University marine geologist and lead author on the study. “It appears that there is no global mantle wind, which means the whole of the Pacific mantle doesn’t move in a synchronous way.”

“The Earth is a unique planet because of its plate tectonics and there is much we still do not understand about the dynamic processes happening in its deep interior,” added Koppers, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We’re just starting to document how some of these major volcanic chains formed, and how their mantle sources moved over geological time.”

In 2003, a study by Robert Duncan of OSU and John Tarduno of the University of Rochester concluded that the Hawaiian Islands had drifted 1,600 to 1,800 kilometers from north to south – in a direction and at a speed that wasn’t consistent with the movement of the tectonic plate. Most of the drift occurred 50 million to 80 million years ago. They attributed it to the mantle wind or the influence of a nearby mid-ocean spreading center that can capture a plume and divert it from its track.

It has taken nearly a decade for scientists to analyze a second volcanic hotspot, Koppers said, because the logistics of such a study are daunting. To analyze and date the volcanoes, the researchers had to drill through as much as 1,400 meters of hard basement rock located some 1-2 kilometers beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean in the Southern Hemisphere.

“It was,” said Koppers, “a record for the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.”

What the researchers found was that the Louisville hotspot between 50 million to 70 million years ago drifted very little from its original location – perhaps only 3 degrees from north to south. The reason, Koppers speculates, is that there were no adjacent mid-ocean spreading centers located to the north of the Louisville hotspot to pull its mantle plume off course.

Koppers specializes in the study of how the inner Earth moves. He was able to date the volcanoes’ ages by looking at the argon isotope ratios of gas trapped within the rocks. He and his colleagues found that the Louisville and Hawaiian chains formed new volcanoes every one million to three million years.

“What is interesting is after a time, the mantle wind more or less disappeared for Hawaii,” Koppers said. “Most of the drift took place during the first 30 million years then it looks like the hotspot moved far enough away from the spreading center to lose that influence. When we looked at the Louisville movement over the last 50 million years, it seems very similar to that of Hawaii during the same period.”

Koppers said the researchers hope to next study the Walvis Ridge volcanic chain in the Atlantic Ocean off South Africa – another long-lived seamount trail, but in another ocean.

“This is fundamental yet important research because it is becoming apparent that no one theory explains the formation of all of Earth’s 125,000 or so seamounts,” Koppers said.

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Anthony Koppers, 541-737-5425

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1. November, 2012 Anthony Koppers interview: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ncs/media/Anthony-Koppers-Interview.mov

2. B-roll from Louisville expedition: http://oregonstate.edu/dept/ncs/media/Anthony-Koppers-B-Roll.mov

Oregon volunteers needed to gather precipitation data

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A statewide network that uses Oregon citizens to collect local data on rain, snow and even hail is seeking a new wave of volunteers.

Coordinated by the Oregon Climate Service at Oregon State University, the program is part of the national Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network, or CoCoRaHS. This national initiative has volunteers in every state who collect and report precipitation data, providing scientists with important data that supplements that which comes from existing weather stations.

Kathie Dello, deputy director of the Oregon Climate Service at OSU, works with the Oregon volunteers, who number about 300. She would like to greatly expand that number.

“The national organization was begun in 1997 in Fort Collins, Colo., after they had a major localized storm there, but other areas in the city only received modest amounts of rain,” Dello said. “People thought, ‘how can that happen?’ It illustrates how fickle weather data can be. It can rain an inch in one location, and be completely dry a couple of miles away.

“That’s why we need more volunteers to report on local events,” Dello pointed out. “It will provide us much more accurate data, which leads to better precipitation maps and over the long haul, more accurate forecasting.”

CoCoRaHS volunteers must buy a rain gauge for about $27 plus shipping, watch a short training video, and report as frequently as possible the amount of rainfall and snowfall in their area. Interested persons should go to the CoCoRaHS website at http://www.cocorahs.org/ to sign up.

Dello said Oregon needs more volunteers throughout the state, but especially in eastern and southern Oregon, along the Oregon coast, in the foothills of the Coast Range and Cascades, and in areas just outside of cities that have a bit of elevation change.

“Elevation change is important because that can be a factor in how much precipitation falls,” Dello said. “We are trying to work out an arrangement with Oregon wineries, because many vineyards are in those exact locations and people are working there every day. They would be a great resource.”

Ironically, Dello said, one area of the greatest need is in and around Corvallis.

Dello said the work is easy, the rain gauges provide accurate information, and it can be a good family or educational activity.

“I think it would be a great activity for middle school or high school kids, with a bit of supervision from parents,” Dello said. “We’d also love to have retirees, or anyone who cares about the weather. The data will really be useful in better understanding Oregon weather.”

Weather-lovers can learn more about Oregon’s fickle weather by following Dello on Twitter at: www.twitter.com/orclimatesvc

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Kathie Dello, 541-737-8927

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Origin of life expert to present Condon Lecture at OSU

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Robert Hazen, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Geophysical Laboratory, will present the 2012 Thomas Condon Lecture on Thursday, Nov. 1, at Oregon State University.

The free public lecture, which is designed for a non-specialist audience, is titled "Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life’s Origins." It begins at 7:30 p.m. in Austin Auditorium of the LaSells Stewart Center on campus, located at 26th Street and Western Boulevard in Corvallis.

Hazen also is the Clarence Robinson Professor of Earth Science at George Mason University. His research encompasses the origins of life and emergence of pre-biotic chemical complexity. Topics of particular interest include the interactions between minerals and organic molecules and how the living and non-living parts of Earth have co-evolved through time.

After receiving bachelor and master’s degrees at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, Hazen earned a Ph.D. in mineralogy and crystallography from Harvard University in 1975.

Hazen will also give a more technical presentation on the topic “Mineral Evolution: The Co-Evolution of the Geosphere and Biosphere” in the George Moore Lecture. That event will begin at noon on Friday, Nov. 2, in Gilbert Hall Room 124. It is sponsored by the OSU College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, and the OSU Research Office.

The Thomas Condon Lecture, named after a pioneer of Oregon geology, helps to interpret significant scientific research for non-scientists.

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Rick Colwell, 541-737-5220

Pacific albacore carry barely detectable fingerprints of Fukushima disaster

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Samples of albacore tuna caught off the West Coast of the United States show minute traces of radiation that can be traced to the Fukushima reactor disaster, according to an interdisciplinary team of scientists from Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The radiation levels in fish analyzed to date are far below anything that would pose a risk to humans who consume the fish, the research team emphasized. The findings are preliminary; additional fish remain to be tested.

But the findings could reveal new information about where Pacific albacore travel during their migratory lives – and how what happens in one part of the ocean can affect the food web thousands of miles away.

The team has collected and tested fish caught off the U.S. West Coast both before and after the devastating March 2011 Japanese tsunami and subsequent release of radioactive material into the ocean by the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor.

“We're still processing new fish, but so far the radiation we're detecting is far below the level of   concern for human safety,” said Delvan Neville, a graduate researcher with OSU's Radiation Health Physics program and a co-investigator on the project.

People are constantly exposed to radiation from the natural environment, Neville pointed out. “To increase their normal annual dosage of radiation by just 1 percent, a person would have to eat more than 4,000 pounds of the highest (radiation) level albacore we've seen.”

Neville will present the team's preliminary findings on Oct. 27 at the Heceta Head Coastal Conference in Florence. Richard Brodeur, the NOAA Northwest Fisheries Science Center biologist who serves as lead investigator on the project, reported the same findings to the recent annual meeting of  PICES, the North Pacific Marine Science Organization, in Japan. The researchers also plan scientific journal articles.

The OSU team's findings are consistent with those of California researchers who announced in May that they had found traces of Fukushima-linked radionuclides in bluefin tuna caught off the California coast. The bluefin news came as a surprise to the scientific and regulatory community. Shortly after the March 2011 Japanese tsunami and reactor disaster, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and NOAA jointly expressed “high confidence” in the safety of U.S. seafood products, suggesting it was unlikely that migratory fish such as tuna would be contaminated to “significantly elevated radiation levels.”

Relying on agency statements, fisheries organizations such as the Oregon Albacore Commission predicted that 2-to-5-year-old albacore, a mainstay of the U.S. troll and pole fishery, would be unaffected because their migration patterns do not take them through the waters where the radiation leak occurred.

But scientists differ on the details of albacore migration and behavior. Some suggest that not all albacore follow the same migration routes between western Pacific waters and feeding grounds off the U.S. West Coast. Some believe North Pacific albacore may even comprise two separate sub-stocks with different migratory paths.

That's one of the questions Jason Phillips, then a graduate fisheries researcher in OSU's College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, was investigating with support from Oregon Sea Grant, when the 2011 disaster struck Japan. He wondered whether the radiation released by the Fukushima nuclear plant could be used as a “natural tag” to help unravel some of the questions about fish migration. He put together a pilot study, but soon found he needed more fish samples – and access to additional equipment for detecting and measuring extremely low levels of radiation.

Brodeur, the NOAA biologist overseeing Phillips' research, introduced him to Neville, a graduate student in OSU's Radiation Health Physics program who was looking for Ph.D. research topics – and who had access to the specialized instruments needed to analyze the albacore samples for the type of radionuclides released by the Japanese reactor. He also obtained a modest NOAA grant to support the research.

The researchers first identified two Fukushima-linked isotopes – Cesium-137 (Cs-137) and Cesium-134 (Cs-134) – this July, in samples of fish caught and frozen in 2011.

This particular combination of radioactive isotopes is produced by fission in nuclear reactors, and less commonly, nuclear weapons. Cs-134, in particular, is considered key to the Fukushima nuclear “fingerprint” because it decays very rapidly, with a half-life of just more than two years. While Cs-137, which persists for decades in the environment, could come from other possible sources, scientists say, the Cs-134 could only have come from the Fukushima reactors.

But the team needed more evidence to support the radioactivity findings. Phillips spent this summer collecting more fish at sea, off Oregon and Washington, as well as from scientists, fishermen and other sources along the West Coast. Neville ran more tests, validating his methods against freeze-dried fish standards tested by dozens of labs – and got the same results. They also shared fish samples with the Washington state Office of Radiation Protection, where radiation health physicist Lynn Albin is analyzing them as an additional check. 

As more fish were tested, the results were consistent with the initial findings: No Cs-134 in fish caught before the disaster, but traces of the isotope in a significant number of fish caught since.

“This is what we've seen after testing about 70 pounds of tuna,” Neville said. “When you've run one or two samples, you can't really say much about the population you're testing yet. When you've run five or six, you could make some guesses. When you're up to, at this time, 18 samples and everything has fallen fairly neatly into two groups of results, you can start to make some predictions about that population.

“What we can say is that we have detected Cs-134 in fish thousands of miles from where that Cs-134 came from, and over a year since it was released,” Neville added. “It's very interesting scientifically, and it can tell us more about tuna migration and what happens to radioactive releases, but it's nowhere near enough to be concerned about food safety.”

Jason Phillips, whose fisheries research launched the investigation, says it will take more work to unravel the mysteries of albacore migration.

“We are finding evidence that the albacore caught in Oregon and Washington in the summer have spent the winter in different locations in the North Pacific,” he said. “But other researchers have been trying to figure out how albacore migrate for decades. We need to increase the number of fish and locations we test before we can start getting at the bigger questions.”

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Delvan Neville, 480-907-8629

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Researcher Delvan Neville labels containers of albacore tuna

Delvan Neville