marine science and the coast


NEWPORT, Ore. - During the past 12 years, researchers at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center have recorded more than 30,000 earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean off the Northwest coast - few of which have ever shown up on land-based seismic equipment.

The earthquakes, most having a magnitude of 2.0 to 4.0, originate where the Juan de Fuca plate, which is creeping inland, is gradually is being subducted beneath the North American plate. Scientists from OSU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration utilize a network of underwater military hydrophones to listen to the sounds of seafloor earthquakes and other phenomena from their laboratories at the Newport center.

Robert Dziak, who has dual appointments with OSU and NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said the use of the U.S. Navy's hydrophones is providing critical data to scientists.

"It is the only real-time hydrophone system in the world - at least for civilians," Dziak said. "It allows us to listen to the earthquakes as they occur and when something unusual happens, we can send out a group of scientists to study the events as they unfold."

The hydrophone system - called the Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS - was used during the decades of the Cold War to monitor submarine activity in the northern Pacific Ocean. As the Cold War ebbed, these and other unique military assets were offered to civilian researchers performing environmental studies, Dziak said.

This past November, the Navy completed a series of repairs on the hydrophone arrays used to monitor the Juan de Fuca Ridge earthquakes. At the same time, the OSU/NOAA team installed a new data acquisition center at the naval air station on Whidbey Island near Seattle, where the hydrophone data is encrypted and sent to OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center for decoding and analysis.

The sharpened new system is up and working - and revealing that the earthquakes are ongoing.

The number of earthquakes offshore initially stunned researchers because they weren't being detected on land - even by the most sensitive seismometers. The scientists also discovered that these quakes occurred daily, but every so often there would be a "swarm" of as many as a thousand quakes in a three-week period.

"In the last 10 years, I've seen seven of these swarms," Dziak said. "The plate doesn't move in a continuous manner and some parts move faster than others. When it gets caught up and meets resistance, these swarms occur and when they do, 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."

Since the scientists began using the hydrophones to monitor quakes - and observe seafloor spreading - the research has paid unexpected dividends. While one swarm was taking place, a research vessel dispatched to the region began taking surveys of the water column and seafloor and discovered a large colony of micro-organisms that had been lying dormant within the shallow ocean crust and were "awakened" by the heat of the volcanic spreading.

"The heat from the lava was like activating yeast," Dziak said. "The bacteria could have been down there literally for centuries. It gives us another little clue to how life may have formed on Earth, and may be lying dormant on other planets."

The hydrophone research also has recorded vocalizations of marine mammals, and a research team led by David Mellinger, Kate Stafford and Sharon Nieukirk has been able to detect regional differences in the sounds made by blue whales and fin whales. Like humans, whales from different parts of the globe apparently have their own "accents."

One of the keys to the success of hydrophone use is the existence of a two-dimension underwater layer of certain water pressure, salinity and temperature that creates a "sound channel." Located about 1,000 feet below the surface, this layer focuses sound energy horizontally like a wire.

"During a test, we exploded a stick of dynamite below the surface and it didn't register on land at all," Dziak said. "Yet hydrophones recorded it as a magnitude 1 event 6,000 miles away. That's why the hydrophone array is so important to our research."

Now the OSU/NOAA researchers are working on a portable hydrophone system developed by Haru Matsumoto that they can deploy in hotspots around the globe. During the first tests, they attached the instruments - which are housed in a titanium casing that looks like a diving air tank - to upright moorings anchored on the ocean floor. The recording equipment was powered by 50 C-cell batteries.

"The limitation was that is was not in real time," Dziak said. "The portables weren't powerful enough to transmit data, so it has to be recorded. We'd have to haul them up every few months to see what happened and, if there was an earthquake swarm, we wouldn't know it until a year later."

A new prototype has been tested that is based on a buoyancy system. When the machine records an earthquake event, it ascends to the surface and transmits a satellite signal to alert the researchers to unusual seismic activity.

"The portable hydrophones will give us the ability to study and compare different areas around the world," Dziak said. "The East Pacific Rise off South America is the fastest seafloor spreading area in the world, but it is a lot quieter in terms of earthquakes. The crust is very thin and moves so fast that we don't get a lot of noise. The mid-Atlantic region, in comparison, has infrequent quakes, but they are bigger. Next year, we hope to set up a system near Antarctica.

"Most of the models on seafloor spreading and plate tectonics are based on magnetic anomalies that have been recorded every million years or so," he added. "Now, for the first time, we are able to determine exactly how these tectonic plates are moving."


Story By: 

Robert Dziak, 541-867-0175


CORVALLIS - An advisory committee of Oregon marine scientists has reviewed a recent report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy at the request of Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, and strongly endorsed some of the key findings of that study - the oceans are in serious trouble, major changes are needed and current ocean policies do not reflect existing science and sound management principles.

Major changes in federal and regional government structure are envisioned in that report, along with expanded public educational programs, doubling the federal ocean and coastal research budget in the next five years, training more experts to deal with these complex issues and improved ocean monitoring.

The review has been submitted to the Ocean-Coastal Management Program of the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development, and may be used to help inform the governor's response to the new federal study, which was one of the first major reviews of ocean policies in almost 40 years.

The work was done by researchers from Oregon State University, the University of Oregon and the Oregon Sea Grant program, and organized by OSU's Institute for Natural Resources. A full copy of the review can be found on the web at http://inr.oregonstate.edu/.

"Our work with the governor's office to support and enrich Oregon's response to the national oceans commission report illustrates why Oregon's legislature set up the Institute for Natural Resources," said Gail Achterman, director of the institute. "It gave the governor a place to call to tap into the incredible expertise of our Oregon University System faculty."

In their review, this Marine Science Advisory Panel recommended six key priorities for action:

  • A mechanism is needed to coordinate and implement ocean policy development at the federal level. This may entail major structural changes at high levels of government, including creation of a National Ocean Council.


  • Regional ocean governance should address ocean problems at ecological scales which can work and involve multiple governmental groups. This type of regional collaboration must tackle such issues as sustainable fisheries, ecosystem-based ocean management, protection of human health, seafood safety, conserving and restoring coastal habitat, development of marine protected areas, management of offshore energy and mineral resources, preventing the spread of invasive species, and moving towards sustainable aquaculture.


  • Americans must be educated and informed about marine issues and the connections between oceans, land and the atmosphere. This lifelong effort should include contributions by the Sea Grant College Program, other educational outreach efforts at every age level, and creation in Oregon of a Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence. Interdisciplinary graduate programs should also be expanded in the Oregon University System.


  • Additional research is needed to inform these approaches to policy and management. Within five years the federal budget for ocean and coastal research should be doubled, a national ocean research strategy should be developed, Sea Grant should be expanded, socioeconomic research should receive more emphasis, and ocean exploration expanded. Several initiatives could be of special importance to Oregon, such as studies of coasts and their watersheds, managing shoreline erosion and improvement of coastal navigation.


  • An integrated ocean observation system is needed to improve the information base. Regional efforts to achieve programs of this type are already underway in the Pacific Northwest, but they can be improved and expanded, with multiple benefits for fisheries management, tsunami warning, protection of coastal habitat, water quality monitoring, climate studies and other issues.


  • Investments should be expanded in scientific, technical and human infrastructure. Universities must play a key role in this, more technical experts will be required, funding mechanisms should be identified for new ocean research vessels, and better information technology is needed.

In their report, the Oregon scientists said that current ocean policies focus too much on short-term benefits and lack the long-term, ecosystem-wide perspective that would create healthy, resilient ocean systems which provide multiple benefits.

In many areas, they say, some of the more progressive research, monitoring and educational efforts already under way in Oregon could help serve as national models for more effective and enlightened ocean management. But the problems, both here and across the nation, are still critical.

"In recent years scientists have increasingly come to recognize the interconnectedness among the physical, chemical, geological and biological aspects of the ocean, and their interactions with human society," the researchers wrote in their report. "Yet, a long-term focus has been inadequately represented in the development and implementation of ocean policy."

The many recommendations of the federal report "mesh well" with Oregon's goals for managing its natural resources, the scientists said. Issues such as depleted fisheries, habitat degradation, marine protected areas, shoreline erosion and invasive species are all addressed by parts of the federal study, and much of the work being done in Oregon could be integrated into new national plans.

Story By: 

Gail Achterman, 503-725-3099

OSU receives grant to fund biomedical center

CORVALLIS - Oregon State University has received a five-year, $2.1 million grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences that will fund the university's Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center through March of 2009.

The center is one of only four biomedical centers in the U.S. focusing on aquatic research, and it is instrumental in fundamental studies of cancer and other diseases.

"The funding is welcome news because we were up against stiff competition, including Harvard, Yale, MIT, Duke and others," said David Williams, director of the OSU center. "But we're involved in some exciting things and our researchers bring in an additional $5 million annually in research grants, so the quality of the center's work was apparent."

The NIEHS is a branch of the National Institutes of Health.

The Marine and Freshwater Biomedical Sciences Center was established in 1985, focusing on the use of rainbow trout as a model to study cancer tumors. Those studies remain a critical part of the center's mission, Williams said, and it also has branched into studies of neurotoxicology.

William Gerwick, associate director of the center, has become a world leader in the investigation of marine organisms for their anti-cancer and anti-viral properties. Gerwick's research team recently discovered a compound from a blue-green alga in Panama that causes nerve regeneration activity.

"It is an exciting find, but it is very, very preliminary," Gerwick cautioned. "We were collecting specimens in early June and one of the compounds we extracted in our bio-screening showed neuron regeneration activity that was very strong - it was as active as some of our positive controls."

Another neurotoxicology researcher affiliated with the center is Phil McFadden, who studies how certain fish change color when exposed to toxicants. Such behavior likely developed as a defense mechanism for the fish, but could be invaluable in serving as an early detection indicator for humans in a wide range of areas, including toxic chemicals.

McFadden's research is funded by the Department of Defense.

Another scientist, Robert Tanguay, has brought a major research project to the university with his study of zebrafish, a species that is an excellent model for developmental toxicology because they reach sexual maturity in a matter of weeks, instead of two years as in trout. The zebrafish genome also has been sequenced. Tanguay uses zebrafish as a model for his studies of fetal alcohol syndrome.

Donald Buhler also uses zebrafish for his basic studies on cancer tumors. Buhler received national attention five years ago when his study of flavonoids determined that hops - a key ingredient in beer - had anti-cancer properties.

Larry Curtis, head of the Department of Molecular and Environmental Toxicology at OSU, also works with the center. A well-known toxicologist, he is close to completing a study on the effects of pollutants in the Newberg pool of the Willamette River outside of Salem. He and his research team are scheduled to present the findings of those efforts to the legislature next spring.

Rainbow trout are still an important part of the center's work and researcher George Bailey, the first director of the center, is completing a major study on cancer that should be published in 2004.

"It could have major implications in a regulatory sense," Williams said, "but it is premature to talk about the findings right now."

Bailey also recently completed a clinical study in collaboration with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in which the researchers discovered that inexpensive daily supplements of chlorophyllin can reduce DNA damage caused by aflatoxin contamination. Aflatoxins are known carcinogens produced by a fungus that contaminates corn, peanuts and soybeans, and are a major cause of liver cancer in China and other countries.

The first benefits of chlorophyllin were discovered by Bailey in his work with rainbow trout. His study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Bailey, Williams and Rod Dashwood, a researcher at OSU's Linus Pauling Institute, are collaborating on a three-pronged study funded by the National Cancer Institute. While Bailey continues to study the use of chlorophyllin in reducing DNA damage, Williams is seeing if similar proactive measures can help in the protection of fetuses in pregnant animals. Dashwood is evaluating the effect of green and white teas in the prevention of colon cancer.

"While research is the primary thrust of the center's work, we also are heavily involved in community outreach and education," Williams said. "We partner with the Environmental Health Sciences Center at OSU, which also is funded by NIEHS."

Among their efforts is a K-12 education initiative called the Hydroville project, directed by Kendra Mingo, in which students in the fictional town of Hydroville tackle real life environmental and health issues. The center also works closely with the Science and Math Investigative Learning Experience (SMILE) program for minority and rural youths.

OSU is the only university in the nation with two fully funded NIEHS centers, Williams said.

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David Williams, 541-737-3277


CORVALLIS - The port of Astoria in Oregon will be the site of the inaugural cruise of the new Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, in which the R/V JOIDES Resolution will begin a new era of international scientific ocean drilling for Earth system studies.

The ship will spend eight days in Astoria prior to its launch, including a June 25 open house.

This will be the largest international program studying ocean processes, and builds on the explorations of the Ocean Drilling Program through enhanced collaborations with Japan and a consortium of European countries. Researchers will try to better understand and predict future climate change, geologic hazards such as major earthquakes, the extent of the marine biosphere in the Earth, potential new energy sources, and data on the Earth's environment.

Nick Pisias, a professor of oceanography at OSU and former interim director of the Ocean Drilling Program, said that OSU has been a lead player in ocean drilling programs since its inception.

"OSU has played a key role in ocean drilling through its involvement with science planning, expedition development, and participation in the largest sea-going oceanographic program in the world," said Pisias.

From 1988 to 2004, OSU ranked fifth in direct National Science Foundation funding to support preparations for Ocean Drilling Program expeditions. OSU scientists initiated the planning and execution of six expeditions, and OSU has sailed more co-chief scientists than most other U.S. institutions.

The 469-foot long R/V JOIDES Resolution is 70 feet wide, and uses 12 computer-controlled thrusters and the main propulsion system to position the ship over a drilling site. The vessel can suspend as much as 30,020 feet of drill pipe to an ocean depth of 27,000 feet.

IODP will replace the Ocean Drilling Program. That was a 20-year partnership of scientists and research institutions funded principally by the National Science Foundation and 22 international partners that conducted basic research into the history of the ocean basins and the overall nature of the crust beneath the ocean floor. Joint Oceanographic Institutions, Inc., a group of 18 U.S. institutions which included OSU, administered the program.

The Integrated Ocean Drilling Program is funded by the National Science Foundation; the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports and Technology of Japan; and the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling. Additional information about ODP and IODP may be found on these websites: http://www.oceandrilling.org/ or http://www.ig.utexas.edu/imi/.


Nick Pisias, 541-737-5213


NEWPORT, Ore. - Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center has formed a partnership with marine research laboratories in Hawaii and Japan for a program of cooperative research, as well as student and faculty exchange.

George Boehlert, director of OSU's Newport-based center, traveled to Ehime University in Matsuyama, Japan, to sign the agreement along with a representative of the University of Hawaii.

The agreement will create a new partnership focusing on marine sciences between OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center, Ehime University's Center for Marine Environmental Studies, and the University of Hawaii's Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.

"Each of our institutions has strengths in teaching, research and facilities that complement those of the others," said Boehlert. "We anticipate that this agreement will create opportunities for students and faculty at all three institutions."

Ehime University center has received a major Japanese award as a "21st Century Center of Excellence" and has expanded marine research in several areas. It has strengths in coastal oceanography, marine microbiology and pollutant stressors in marine ecosystems.

The University of Hawaii center has strengths in coral reef and tropical ecology, and a new director - JoAnn Leong - who formerly was on the OSU faculty as a professor of microbiology.

The first tangible results of the partnership should come soon, when Ehime University students journey to Newport, and possibly to OSU's main campus in Corvallis, for research internships and coursework in topics not available at Ehime.

Initial collaborative research may include work on the role of viruses in fish disease and on pollutant levels in tissues of marine mammals and seabirds.

"Many of the issues we face in marine science are Pacific-wide," said Boehlert, "and agreements of this kind allow us to address the science in a broader fashion. We are looking forward to further collaboration with the Japanese and Hawaiian scientists."


George Boehlert, 541-867-0211


CORVALLIS - When network engineers flip the switch this Monday (June 28) on a new fiber-optic connection, Oregon State University will have increased its bandwidth capability - especially for critical research - by a quantum leap.

But the story-within-a-story is even more impressive: To make that connection work, the university literally went out and created its own 20-mile stretch of fiber, which it now owns and can lease out to others. Ownership also allows OSU to significantly expand its own capacity for the future.

"Expanding our bandwidth capability is absolutely critical to attracting major national and international research projects," said OSU President Ed Ray, who saw the benefits of increased capacity at The Ohio State University, where he served as provost until 2003.

"What makes the accomplishment so exceptional here is that our people used their entrepreneurial spirit to get things done," he added.

OSU's bandwidth to the Internet and Internet 2 is limited, and several years ago Oregon State began investigating the cost of using a traditional telecommunications company to connect with the Pittock Internet Exchange in Portland, which would give OSU greater bandwidth and international connectivity.

"For a circuit that would give us speeds in excess of a gigabit per second, we were told it would cost us about $564,000 a month, or $6 million-plus a year," said Jon Dolan, associate director of Network Services at OSU. "That's more than half of our budget for Information Services."

Then one spring day in 2002, Curt Pederson, OSU's vice provost for Information Services got a visit from an old colleague named Ben Doty, who was heading a new nonprofit cooperative called NoaNet Oregon, which was established to build and operate "public purpose" data networks. NoaNet uses Bonneville Power Administration fiber to build connectivity to rural Oregon and Washington.

"As it turns out, the nearest BPA access was 20 miles to the east, along the I-5 corridor," Pederson said. "NoaNet was looking to expand to Corvallis at the same time we were looking to hook into a major network. Thus began a beautiful friendship."

OSU paid for the infrastructure development of building the 20-mile connection at a cost of about $504,000 - or less than one month's estimate with a commercial carrier. NoaNet constructed the fiber plant, and will manage the plant and provide any necessary maintenance.

NoaNet also has agreed to lease any extra capacity from OSU, and a portion of those profits will pay for right-of-way access fees to the City of Corvallis. Others will benefit from the new connectivity, too, OSU officials say.

"The path of the fiber goes right by the new research facility at Hewlett Packard that houses the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute, as well as OSU's Hyslop Farm," Dolan said, "so we were able to connect those facilities. "This will also increase the capacity for the City of Corvallis, Benton County, and the Education Service District, and possibly others in the future."

Initially, OSU will "light" the fiber to a speed of 2.5 gigabits per second, which is about 2,500 times the capacity of the fastest connection a resident may have at home. But the capacity is much greater, says Dolan, who points out that the fiber-optic system can be broken down into 16 or 32 different wavelengths, each with the capacity for speeds of up to 10 gigabits a second.

"The equipment to do that is expensive, but the price goes down significantly every month," he said. "We have the infrastructure in place for the next generation of Internet2. We'll just have to work out the politics and the money." One of the first beneficiaries of the new system may be international researchers who will be able to perform real-time experiments at OSU's Tsunami Wave Basin, the largest tsunami research facility in the world. That kind of virtual connectivity was a critical component of the university's $4.8 million grant from the National Science Foundation to create the research facility.

OSU's Open Source Lab also will benefit from the increased bandwidth, according to Pederson. OSU has developed one of the most sophisticated, well-used distribution sites in the world for Open Source products, which are shared, modified, and improved by developers who create reliable software based on certain open standards.

"The use of Open Source guarantees that data ownership and access are not restricted to a single provider," Pederson said. "There is a thriving Open Source community out there that relies on our ability to distribute Open Source products, and we are becoming known around the world for that service. "And now it's about to get better," he added.

Story By: 

Jon Dolan, 541-737-5402

Red sea urchins discovered to be one of the Earth's oldest animals

CORVALLIS, Ore. - A new study has concluded that the red sea urchin, a small spiny invertebrate that lives in shallow coastal waters, is among the longest living animals on Earth - they can live to be 100 years old, and some may reach 200 years or more in good health with few signs of age.

In other words, an individual red sea urchin that hatched on the day in 1805 that Lewis and Clark arrived in Oregon may still be thriving - and even breeding. The research was just published in a professional journal, the U.S. Fishery Bulletin, by scientists from Oregon State University and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It may have important implications for management of a commercial fishery and our understanding of marine biology, as well as challenge some erroneous assumptions about the life cycle of this never-say-die marine species.

It used to be believed that red sea urchins lived to be only seven to 15 years of age, experts say. But the newest findings are based on the use of two completely different techniques of determining sea urchin ages - one biochemical and the other nuclear - that produced the same results. The studies show red sea urchins can have a vast lifespan surpassing that of virtually all terrestrial and most marine animal species, and seem to show almost no signs of senescence, or age-related dysfunction, right up until the day that something kills them.

"No animal lives forever, but these red sea urchins appear to be practically immortal," said Thomas Ebert, a marine zoologist at OSU. "They can die from attacks by predators, specific diseases or being harvested by fishermen. But even then they show very few signs of age. The evidence suggests that a 100-year-old red sea urchin is just as apt to live another year, or reproduce, as a 10-year-old sea urchin."

The more mature red sea urchins, in fact, appear to be the most prolific producers of sperm and eggs, and are perfectly capable of breeding even when incredibly old. There is no sea urchin version of menopause.

Some of the new studies on this species were done with funding support from the Pacific States Fishery Commission to gain more information about the species, its life cycle, biology, survival rate, growth patterns, and perhaps shed light on why the red sea urchin resource was declining in some areas.

This small marine animal, which is found in shallow Pacific Ocean coastal waters from Alaska to Baja California and also elsewhere in the world's oceans, lives by grazing quietly on marine plants and deterring most predators with its pointy spines. Historically, it had been considered a nuisance.

"In the U.S. in the 1960s, sea urchins were considered the scourge of the sea, a real menace," Ebert said. "They ate plants in kelp forests and people believed they were at least partly responsible for the decline of that marine ecosystem, so they tried to poison them, get rid of them however possible."

But in the 1970s a commercial fishery developed in the U.S. based on sea urchins, which were sold primarily to Japan where their sex organs were considered a delicacy. They brought high prices, and at one point in the 1990s were one of the most valuable marine resources in California.

Ebert did some early work on the red sea urchin, along with colleagues Steve Schroeter at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and John Dixon, of the California Coastal Commission. It quickly became apparent that sea urchins, among other things, grew a lot more slowly and lived a lot longer than had been believed. "Sea urchins live as male and females, and fertilization of eggs takes place while they float in the ocean," Ebert said. "The larvae then feed for a month or more before turning into tiny sea urchins."

The red sea urchin, in fact, does grow fairly quickly when it's young - at the age of two years, it can grow from two centimeters to four centimeters in one year, doubling its size. But even at that, it still takes at least 6-7 years before the sea urchin is of harvestable size, the scientists say, compared to the two years that had previously been believed.

By the time the sea urchin is a teenager, its growth slows dramatically. And at the age of 22, researchers found it grew each year from about 12 centimeters to only 12.1 centimeters. But somewhat remarkably, it appears to never really stop growing. It's just very, very slow.

"Some of the largest and we believe oldest red sea urchins up to 19 centimeters in size have been found in waters off British Columbia, between Vancouver Island and the mainland," Ebert said. "By our calculations they are probably 200 or more years old."

The first studies indicating these ages was done with tagging of individual sea urchins and injection with tetracycline, which becomes incorporated into the sea urchin skeleton and can be used to track the growth rates. The latest work, which was just published, used measures of carbon-14, which has increased in all living organisms following the atmospheric testing of atomic weapons in the 1950s.

"Radiocarbon testing in this type of situation provided a very strong and independent test of growth rates and ages," Ebert said. "Among other things, it confirmed that in older sea urchins there is a very steady, very consistent growth that's quite independent of ocean conditions or other variables, and once they near adult size our research indicates they do not have growth spurts. With this species, it's pretty simple. The bigger they are, the older they are."

The research was done with red sea urchins, Ebert said, but may be at least partly relevant to other sea urchin species.

The study suggests, among other things, that this invertebrate species has a fairly poor ability to survive various threats during the first year of life and reach reproductive age. Otherwise there would be a great many more sea urchins.

Older sea urchins can help provide more young and therefore may play a key role in creating a sustainable fishery, so a return to harvest policies that limits harvest above a certain size might be prudent, the researchers said.

Story By: 

Thomas Ebert, 541- 487-4876

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CORVALLIS, Ore. - The gradual subduction of the Juan de Fuca plate beneath the North American plate puts tremendous stress on the seafloor, creating cracks and fissures, hydrothermal vents, seafloor spreading, and literally hundreds of small earthquakes on a near-daily basis.

Now a North American team of scientists has documented for the first time a new phenomenon - the creation of a void in the seafloor that draws in - rather than expels - surrounding seawater.

They report their discovery in the July 15 issue of the journal Nature.

Oregon State University oceanographer Robert Dziak said the discovery is important because it adds a new wrinkle to scientific understanding of seafloor spreading, the fundamental process of plate tectonics and the creation of ocean crust. Dziak has a dual appointment with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

"Just when you think you're beginning to understand how the process works, there's a new twist," Dziak said. "There was an episode of seafloor spreading on a portion of the Juan de Fuca Ridge that was covered with about a hundred meters of sediment and what usually happens in that case is that lava erupts onto the ocean floor and hot fluid is expelled into the water.

"In this case, though, it actually drew water down into the subsurface, which is something scientists have never before observed," he said.

The research team included Earl Davis, of the Geological Survey of Canada's Pacific Geoscience Centre; Keir Becker, from the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Florida; Dziak; and John Cassidy, Kelin Wang and Marvin Lilley of the University of Washington.

Dziak said the researchers think the seafloor spreading caused the ocean crust to dilate, increasing the pore space much like a sponge. "It's like an anti-plume," he said. "Instead of sending materials from within the Earth to the ocean floor, it simply sucks down the surrounding seawater."

The researchers aren't sure exactly what causes the dilation, but it has multiple implications. First, it changes how scientists view seafloor spreading since there isn't an automatic outpouring of lava, or hot liquid via hydrothermal vents previously associated with tectonic plate theory.

The size of these potential "voids" also intrigues scientists, who wonder how much seawater can be subsumed. If large, or frequent, they could affect surrounding water temperatures and chemical composition, Dziak said.

Finally, water migrating downward through the Earth may be enough to trigger the growth of bacteria at startling depths. Last year, in an unrelated study, OSU oceanographer Martin Fisk and a team of researchers found bacteria in a hole drilled 4,000 feet through volcanic rock. Basalt rocks have all of the elements required for life, Fisk pointed out, including carbon, phosphorous and nitrogen. Only water is needed to complete the formula.

Dziak is able to monitor offshore activities from his laboratory at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, where he uses an array of undersea hydrophones through a unique arrangement with the U.S. Navy. During the past dozen years, Dziak and his research team have recorded more than 30,000 earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean off the Northwest coast - few of which have ever shown up on land-based seismic equipment.

The earthquakes, most having a magnitude of 2.0 to 4.0, originate along the Juan de Fuca Ridge, a submarine mountain range 300 miles west of the Oregon coast that was formed by seafloor spreading or the movement of oceanic plates away from one another.

"It is the only real-time hydrophone system in the world available for civilian research," Dziak said. "It allows us to listen to the earthquakes as they occur and when something unusual happens, we can send out a group of scientists to study the events as they unfold."

The hydrophone system - called the Sound Surveillance System, or SOSUS - was used during the decades of the Cold War to monitor submarine activity in the northern Pacific Ocean. As the Cold War ebbed, these and other unique military assets were offered to civilian researchers performing environmental studies, Dziak said.

SOSUS also pointed the researchers to the activities leading to the "anti-plume" discovery outlined in Nature.

The number of earthquakes offshore initially stunned researchers because they weren't being detected on land - even by the most sensitive seismometers. The scientists also discovered that these quakes occurred daily, but every so often there would be a "swarm" of as many as a thousand quakes in a three-week period.

"In the last 10 years, I've seen seven of these swarms," Dziak said. "The plate doesn't move in a continuous manner and some parts move faster than others. Every four years or so, a section of the Juan de Fuca Ridge exhibits a large earthquake swarm and lava breaks through onto the seafloor.

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

On Monday, July 12, the region was jolted by a 4.9 magnitude quake just offshore from Dziak's Newport lab - one that was felt more than 50 miles inland at the main OSU campus.

"There's a lot of activity going on out there," Dziak said of the offshore quakes. "That was one of the few that did show up on conventional seismic equipment and drew the attention of the public. There are hundreds, even thousands more that do not."

Story By: 

Robert Dziak, 541-867-0175


NEWPORT, Ore. - During the past two years, scientists have successfully tapped the chemical reactions from decomposing organic matter on the ocean floor to create fuel cells that can provide low levels of electrical power for many months.

This week, Oregon State University researchers announced that they have taken that development one step farther by harnessing the same power-producing decomposition activity from plankton taken from the upper water column.

"We've only had the experiments running for about four weeks," said Clare E. Reimers, a professor in the College of Oceanographic and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU, "but it is clear that we can use plankton as a fuel source and that the water column is rich in microorganisms adept at shuttling electrons to fuel cell electrodes. The seafloor fuel cells that we've developed in the past are stationary and designed to provide power for equipment that doesn't move - like the hydrophones used by the U.S. Navy or by OSU researchers for listening for earthquakes.

"But by harnessing plankton power, we potentially could fuel autonomous, mobile instruments that would glide through the water scooping up plankton like a basking shark, and converting that to electricity," she added. "Such instruments carry sensors and are used today to map the changing chemical and physical properties of the ocean."

Reimers is director of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies, a program designed to foster collaborative research between OSU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 2001, she was the lead author of a publication in the journal Environmental Science and Technology that outlined some of the pioneering work that has led to the harnessing of microbially generated power from the seafloor and further publications.

In three seafloor experiments to date, researchers from OSU, the Naval Research Laboratory, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have tested prototype fuel cells in Newport's Yaquina Bay, in a salt marsh in Tuckerton, N.J., and at chemical seeps in a deep-sea canyon off Monterey, Calif. These devices consisted of graphite anodes shallowly imbedded in marine sediments connected to graphite cathodes in the overlying seawater.

They found that power was generated both by the direct oxidation of dissolved sulfide - which is a byproduct of microbial decomposition - and by the respiration processes of microorganisms that attached themselves to the anode.

"Once we realized we could harness power from the microbes that grow on the anode surface, we began asking ourselves if certain microbes were better at shuttling electrons than others," Reimers said. "The next step was to see what electricity-loving microbes might be enriched from plankton and if we could get to the energy in plankton before it degrades.

"The plankton detritus that reaches the seafloor is usually only the dregs of material made energy-rich because of sunlight and photosynthesis." In March, Reimers and her colleagues received funding from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, administered by the Department of Defense, to try harnessing power from plankton.

In her lab at OSU's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Reimers has spent the last four weeks testing the fuel capacity of plankton strained out of the nearby ocean. Using the same principal as the seafloor fuel cells, the researchers thus far are able to direct about 10 percent of the energy associated with plankton decomposition into a usable power source.

The power generated is not large-scale, Reimers quickly points out. But if a free-gliding ocean instrument strained out plankton in its path, it could extend its survey mission for a period of months - or eventually, years - without having to replace a battery. Though it sounds modest, in terms of energy production, the ocean does have a very large capacity for fuel generation.

"Organic matter is the basic fuel of the ocean," Reimers said. "Plankton debris is raining down to the seafloor constantly. Quickly most is degraded naturally, producing carbon dioxide, and a small amount eventually becomes petroleum, natural gas, methane chunks or some other source of fuel. The fuel is there - in the mud, or in the plankton. Our focus is on developing power for oceanographic equipment. Who knows what spin-offs will develop beyond that?"

Reimers did say that the same technology could work if fed other organic substrates, such as sewage sludge.

"You are simply extracting energy by accelerating decomposition," she said.

The process isn't yet perfected. The researchers have to deal with the corrosive nature of seawater on electrical contacts and in the case of the plankton fuel cell, develop an energy efficient means of collection and concentration.

During the next several months, Reimer and her research team will continue to work with their plankton fuel cells in an effort to boost their efficiency.

This October, Reimers will lead a cruise off the Oregon coast where the researchers will deploy eight of the seafloor fuel cell prototypes along the Oregon shelf. These instrumentation packages will be imbedded into the sediment about 20 kilometers offshore for a year and then recovered.

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Clare Reimers, 541-867-0220

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Prototype plankton fuel cells

Catch some big surf at OSU Wave Lab

CORVALLIS - A three-day open house from Oct. 16-18 at the O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Lab on the Oregon State University Campus will provide a unique opportunity for the general public to see the largest and most-wired tsunami wave basin in the world, the longest wave channel in North America, and 20-ton concrete bridge girders being tested to the breaking point on a unique strong floor.

The hangar-sized Hinsdale lab, located at the southwest corner of 35th Street and Jefferson, is part of the OSU College of Engineering's Kiewit Center for Infrastructure and Transportation. The open house will showcase the facility, including the new $4.8-million Tsunami Wave Basin that was just completed this fall, as well as the two other wave tanks and the strong floor.

"Many people drive by this building all the time but have no idea about what happens inside," said Dan Cox, director of the Hinsdale lab and a professor of ocean engineering at OSU. "Engineering students and faculty are doing world-class research here, which is helping mitigate beach erosion, improve tsunami warning systems, and design safer bridges, piers, breakwaters and more.

"We see education and outreach as an important part of what we do," Cox added, "so we want to give the general public a chance to see the lab in action."

The free open house will coincide with Dad's Weekend at OSU, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. All ages are welcome, and reservations are not required for groups smaller than 20.

For more information, visit http://wave.oregonstate.edu.


Daniel Cox, 541-737-3631