marine science and the coast

National Geographic Channel Film on blue whales features OSU’s Mate, Pacific storm

NEWPORT, Ore. – A National Geographic Channel film, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale, premiers on Sunday, March 8, and offers some of the most revealing views of the largest animal on the planet through the work of Oregon State University’s Bruce Mate and colleague John Calambokidis of Cascadia Research Cooperative.

“Kingdom of the Blue Whale” airs at 8 p.m. (ET/PT) on the National Geographic Channel and is narrated by popular awarding-winning actor Tom Selleck.

Much of the activity takes place from aboard the R/V Pacific Storm, an OSU research vessel operated through the university’s Marine Mammal Institute, which Mate directs. Filming took place off the coasts of California and Costa Rica, following 15 blue whales that Mate tagged and followed via satellite – a technology that he helped pioneer during his 33-year career at Oregon State.

“It was quite an adventure,” Mate said of the project, “but the more we learn about these great animals the better chance we have to protect them.”

An adult blue whale can grow to the length of a basketball court and weigh as much as 25 large elephants combined. Its mouth could hold 100 people, though its diet is primarily krill; its heart is the size of a small automobile. Scientists say the blue whale is the largest creature to ever inhabit the Earth – and it is one of the loudest animals in the sea, capable of making sounds equivalent to those of a jet engine, though at frequencies below human hearing.

Yet despite its enormity and vocal strengths, the blue whale remains one of the most mysterious animals in the sea. It is rare, it spends most of its time beneath the water, and its dives are deep. There once were nearly 10,000 blues along the Pacific coastline, but a century of whaling took its toll and that number has been reduced by some 75 percent. Though daunting, that pales in comparison to the Antarctic, where the population is less than 1 percent of what it was a century ago, when 250,000 blue whales populated its waters.

The research trip documented by the National Geographic Channel crew began in September of 2007, when Mate and his colleagues first tagged the blue whales off the coast of California and tracked them by satellite. Three months later, they journeyed to the Costa Rica Dome to relocate them.

Their goals were to discover whether this area – which actually is closer to Acapulco, Mexico, than Costa Rica – served as a feeding, breeding and/or calving area, and whether the whales that congregate there come exclusively from the California population.

“We discovered that the Costa Rica Dome is a key location for calving, breeding and feeding,” Mate said. “Based on John Calambokidis’ photo identification studies, the whales that congregate there probably didn’t all come from California. That suggests that some migrate there from elsewhere and we would like to know where that is. These are incredibly important finds about blue whales, which we know so little about. As best we know, feeding during the winter is quite unusual for baleen whales.

“The technology is improving every year and the tags we have developed at Oregon State have been critical to our success in tracking these animals over great distances and long periods of time,” he added. “They have allowed us to describe their seasonal distributions and define their critical habitat.”

The documentary features captivating underwater video of blue whales feeding, diving and interacting, as well as computer-generated graphics that illustrate the whales’ biology, communication and migration. The special also employs the National Geographic “Crittercam,” an integrated video recorder and data logging system deployed by Calambokidas and his associate, Erin Oleson of Scripps, that offers a whale’s-eye view of their life, including rare footage of a blue whale gulping krill.



Media Contact: 

Bruce Mate,

Portland Summit to Discuss Harmful Algal Blooms; Public Session Set on Feb. 12

PORTLAND, Ore. – Scientists and policymakers are holding a three-day summit in Portland to analyze the effects of harmful algal blooms along the West Coast and to discuss ways to develop a more effective monitoring process for Oregon, Washington and California.

The West Coast Regional Harmful Algal Bloom Summit, which runs from Feb. 10-12 at the Marriott in downtown Portland, was instigated by the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health and sponsored by NOAA and other organizations.

A free public session will be held on Thursday, Feb. 12, from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Marriott, during which a panel of national experts will discuss with the public and news media the effects of harmful algal blooms on coastal communities and present their plans for a harmful algal bloom monitoring network and forecasting system for the West Coast.

Harmful algal blooms are increasing worldwide and are of significant concern to coastal communities, organizers say. Though phytoplankton blooms are critical for ocean production, some of them produce toxins that accumulate in razor clams and other shellfish, poisoning those who consume them and closing clam, oyster and mussel beds to commercial and recreational harvests.

These harmful blooms are not only a public health threat, they can have a significant economic impact, according to Peter Strutton, an Oregon State University oceanographer and one of the coordinators of the summit.

One such bloom in 2002-03 caused razor clam and Dungeness crab closures in Washington that resulted in losses of more than $10 million, and a closure of the razor clam fishery in Clatsop County cost local communities an estimated $4.8 million. Toxic algae also have been blamed for 14,000 sick or dead seals, sea lions, sea otters, dolphins, birds and gray whales along the West Coast.”

Phytoplankton blooms are normal ocean phenomena occurring along the West Coast after spring and summer winds bring to the surface cold, deep, nutrient-rich water in a process called “upwelling.” When that water is exposed to sunlight, it creates blooms of phytoplankton. These tiny plants are a source of food for zooplankton and other marine creatures, which in turn are feasted upon by larger animals.

But certain species of phytoplankton have the ability to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans, according to Strutton. One called Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, which bio-accumulates in the tissues of razor clams, mussels and oysters and causes a syndrome known as amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans. Another species, Alexandrium, produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning if ingested.

Of course, not all phytoplankton blooms are toxic, Strutton pointed out, and even the species that are potentially toxic don’t always produce toxins.

“We’re not sure what causes phytoplankton to suddenly become toxic,” Strutton said said. “Some scientists believe it may be stress from a lack of nutrients. But one thing that is critical is to develop a coordinated approach to monitoring, responding to, and forecast these blooms – and we hope that will result from this summit.”

Media Contact: 

Pete Strutton,

OSU Oceanographer, Forest Hydrologist Named AGU Fellows

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Clare Reimers, a professor of chemical oceanography at Oregon State University, and Jeffrey McDonnell, an OSU forest hydrologist, have been elected fellows of the American Geophysical Union.

The international scientific organization focuses on the understanding of the Earth and space, and promotes research, education and outreach in fields including geology, oceanography, atmospheric sciences, hydrology, seismology, and others.

Acceptance as AGU fellows is restricted to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the association’s members.

Reimers is on the faculty of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, and also works out of the university’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. Her research has focused on the biogeochemistry of ocean sediments and the development of chemical sensors for quantifying ocean chemical distribution and fluxes. Most recently she received attention for her efforts to develop long-term power sources for ocean sensors that harness energy from marine sediments and phytoplankton.

These power sources are similar to batteries but they are fueled with decaying plankton and catalyzed by bacteria. “The ocean is rich in microorganisms adept at shuttling electrons to fuel cell electrodes,” Reimers said.

Reimers also is leading a research program aimed at developing the capability to assess from ocean observatories how the benthic component of the coastal carbon cycle may vary over time and contribute or respond to human impacts and climate variability. Her studies have been funded by the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Department of Defense and other sources.

McDonnell is a professor of forest engineering and holder of the Richardson Chair in Watershed Science in OSU’s College of Forestry. He is an expert on watershed hydrology, runoff processes and modeling, isotope hydrology and watershed theory. He leads the hill slope and watershed hydrology group at OSU, which tries to gain a general understanding of runoff generation processes in diverse watersheds. It answers basic questions such as where water goes when it rains, or what path it takes to the stream channel.

An OSU faculty member since 1999, McDonnell has received many career awards and honors, and authored more than 150 professional journal articles. He has received the Dalton Medal from the European Geophysical Union, the Gordon Warwick Award from the British Geomorphological Research Group, the Nystrom Award from the Association of American Geographers and the DSc from the University of Canterbury.

Last year, three OSU faculty members were elected as AGU fellows – all from the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences – Dudley Chelton, Robert Duncan and Anne Trehu. Nick Pisias, a professor in the college, was named a fellow in 1999. Emeritus faculty John Allen, Brent Dalrymple and Bernd Simoneit also are members.

Reimers and McDonnell will be honored at the association’s general assembly May 24-27 in Toronto, Canada.

Media Contact: 

Clare Reimers,

Experts Explore Pathways to Salmon Resilience in New Journal Issue

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Is there anything really new to be said about the prospects for salmon in the Pacific Northwest? Yes, says a group of experts, including several from Oregon State University, in a series of perspectives collected in a special feature issue of the online journal Ecology and Society.

The special feature issue is titled “Pathways to Resilient Salmon Ecosystems”; access to the journal is free and open to the public (http://www.ecologyandsociety.org/).

Scientists, politicians, pundits and the public have been discussing the future of salmon since at least the 1870s, said Dan Bottom, an editor of the special issue and a research fisheries biologist for both NOAA Fisheries and courtesy faculty in the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.

“The special issue of Ecology and Society offers on the one hand a critique of traditional command-and-control management of natural resources and on the other a search for scientific, political, and institutional alternatives for salmon conservation,” said Bottom.

“Unlike previous assessments of the ‘salmon problem,’ our special feature proposes an alternative conceptual framework for understanding human and natural interactions with salmon and for designing conservation approaches that will strengthen salmon ecosystem resilience.”

Resilience – the ability of a system to absorb disturbance without losing its characteristic structure or function – is the key idea that links articles in the issue together. The articles arose from a 2007 Oregon Sea Grant conference that assembled a broad range of experts for an unprecedented exchange about social-ecological resilience.

Among the OSU co-editors and authors of the “Pathways” special feature, besides Bottom, is Courtland Smith, professor emeritus of anthropology. Susan Hanna, an OSU Professor of agricultural and resource economics, is a contributing author, as are Carmel Finley of the history department and Gordon Reeves, a research fish biologist with the U.S. Forest Service and courtesy faculty in the OSU fisheries and wildlife department.

Seven articles are online and several more papers will be added soon. The editors introduce the issue with an overview of key features of ecosystems that have been overlooked by conventional fishery management approaches but that become a focal point when resilience thinking is applied to salmon. Case studies in salmon ecosystem resilience and articles that synthesize a range of research and case studies follow.

Contemporary gillnetters on the Columbia River have adapted their own strategies for resilience, but as author Irene Martin explains, depleted salmon populations and recent listings under the Endangered Species Act have taken a severe toll on local communities and could threaten their continued advocacy on behalf of salmon.

Yet, as several of the papers discuss, an adequate accounting of social and ecological resilience has far-reaching implications for natural resource management. Historian Finley concludes that historical entrenchment of the maximum sustained yield concept in fisheries policy, science, and law has made it difficult for scientists and policy makers to implement new policies that enhance ecological resilience.

OSU economist Hanna discusses the challenge of designing institutions to promote ecosystem and human system resilience, emphasizing two critical elements of salmon ecosystem management that are missing from the existing institutional infrastructure – incentives and transaction costs.

For more news about science, marine education and related activities on the Oregon coast, subscribe to “Breaking Waves,” the Oregon Sea Grant news blog, at: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/blogs/.


Dan Bottom,

Marine Reserves Featured at New Google Ocean Site

SAN FRANCISCO – One part of a new Google Earth feature that was announced today, Ocean in Google Earth, will highlight marine reserves – one of the most promising approaches to conserving biodiversity, restoring decimated fish populations and other marine species, and bringing significant parts of the world’s oceans back to health.

The newest version of Google Earth, which enables users to dive beneath the surface of the sea and explore the world's oceans, was revealed today at an event in San Francisco and is available for download at http://earth.google.com/ocean/.

Through it, people around the world will now be able to see the locations of marine reserves, which are a type of marine area that is fully protected and classified as a “no-take” zone. Users can also follow links at these sites to easily learn more about the science of marine reserves and their value and limitations, obtain large amounts of data and see colorful animated illustrations of how marine reserves are protecting ocean ecosystems.

“This is an unparalleled opportunity to share this wealth of information about marine reserves with huge numbers of Google Earth users,” said Kirsten Grorud-Colvert, a faculty research assistant at Oregon State University and marine reserve science coordinator for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO. “To have all of this available to a diverse and global audience is what scientists dream of.”

Viewers will be able to take a trip beneath the sea, possibly at a marine reserve near them, and learn how fish, plant life and other marine species are doing, and easily compare the present to the past, before the reserve was established. The animations are based on sound science from peer-reviewed publications – many of which are recent, as research on this topic has exploded in the last few years.

“The number of peer-reviewed studies on marine reserves has doubled in the past decade,” Grorud-Colvert said. “We know so much more now than we did even a few years ago, and it’s very rewarding to be able to provide that information to the public in a novel, interesting and colorful format.”

The new Ocean in Google Earth feature also contains content from Protect Planet Ocean, a web site that is coordinated by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and found at http://www.protectplanetocean.org/.

Information about marine reserve success stories, and lessons learned, was provided by PISCO in a project led by researchers at OSU and the University of California/Santa Barbara, which compiled scientific information about reserves from around the world.

Ocean in Google Earth has animation and details on five marine reserves or reserve networks, located at the Channel Islands in California, the Dry Tortugas in Florida, Apo Island and Sumilon Island in the Philippines, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. To tour these sites, visit http://www.piscoweb.org/ocean_in_earth. Additional sites will be added in the next few months. When complete, they will have information on 124 reserves from around the world. Thirteen additional in-depth case studies are hosted on Protect Planet Ocean.

Much of the marine reserves content for Ocean in Google Earth reflects findings from a two-year project just completed by PISCO, done with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Fully protected marine reserves are permanently protected from any extractive or destructive activities such as fishing, aquaculture, dredging or mining, but usually allow recreational activities such as swimming, boating and scuba diving.

“There have historically been a lot of unknowns and wild assertions about marine reserves,” Grorud-Colvert said. “Some people argued they would solve every problem we have in our oceans, others suggested they were useless. Some insisted they might work in tropical waters but not temperate zones, or were needed only in places with no fisheries management. There were just a lot of questions.

“The new synthesis of studies from global oceans provides useful, credible information to clarify just what is known or not known.”

Among the findings about marine reserves that have emerged in recent years:

• The positive effects of reserves are similar in both temperate and tropical ocean zones;

• The marine species that respond the most to protection are often those that have been most heavily fished;

• In marine reserves, fish are growing older and much larger, and often as a result have a hugely higher reproductive potential;

• Not all species are responding at the same rate – some changes happen quickly and then level off, while other species are still changing after 35 years;

• Reserves help to re-establish normal interactions between species, including important predator and prey relationships;

• Marine reserves are much more effective in protecting or recovering key species than marine protected areas that provide only partial protection;

• On average, marine reserves around the world result in a large increase in marine populations, body size and density – a greater than 400 percent increase on average in biomass, average density increases of more than 150 percent, average body size more than 25 percent and average overall biodiversity more than 20 percent;

• Marine reserves alone cannot address such larger issues as pollution, climate change or overfishing.

“In one California reserve, for example, lobsters were heavily fished before the marine reserve was established,” Grorud-Colvert said. “But lobsters were part of what controlled populations of sea urchins. With less control on the sea urchins, they took over and were ravaging the kelp forests, with severe impacts on hundreds of other species that depend on the kelp, including lobsters.

“This is the type of thing you often get when a key predator is removed,” she said. “Following establishment of the marine reserve and increases in the number of lobsters, we’re now seeing strong recovery throughout the ecosystem.”

There are about 4,500 marine protected areas with varying protection levels around the world in 45 nations, providing some type of restrictions on about 0.6 percent of the world’s oceans. The fully protected marine reserves protect less than 0.01 percent of the oceans. Most reserves are quite small.

More information on marine reserves can also be found at the PISCO web site, at http://www.piscoweb.org/outreach/pubs/reserves. At that same site, people can also obtain either an electronic or printed copy, for free, of a new, 20-page booklet on the science of marine reserves, available in both English and Spanish.

Media Contact: 

Kirsten Grorud-Colvert,

Sea Grant Extension Veterinarian Helps Control Virus in Koi Ponds

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Call him the koi doctor. An ichthyologist a la koi. The koi keeper’s confidant.

His patients are living works of art – brilliantly painted Picassos that swim in elaborate ponds and fetch up to $70,000 apiece. When disease strikes, the fallout can be disastrous, costing koi keepers in Oregon and around the world hundreds of thousands of dollars.

One half of a two-man SWAT team called in to render medical support for ornamental fish, Oregon State University’s Tim Miller-Morgan is a Sea Grant Extension veterinarian for aquatic pets, based at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

His specialty is koi, brightly colored varieties of the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) originally developed in the mountainous Niigata region of Japan in the 1800s. Rice farmers who were raising carp for food noticed interesting color variations on certain fish and began breeding them for the unusual patterns.

Miller-Morgan’s success as a fish doctor is the result of a gamble taken by the OSU Extension Service and Oregon Sea Grant. They hired him six years ago to work alongside OSU professor Jerry Heidel, director and pathologist at the OSU Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory, and launch an ornamental pet fish health program in the state.

It was a gamble that’s paid off, putting OSU – and Miller-Morgan and Heidel – at the epicenter of ornamental fish health and disease prevention practices.

“Oregon Sea Grant took a chance to develop this program in a state where ornamental fish are not thought of much,” Miller-Morgan said. “The fact this has blossomed into a international program shows there was a real need. It’s been amazing.”

Through the program, Miller-Morgan has taught seminars in 25 states within the U.S., as well as in Indonesia, Israel and Japan – and next month he’s off to India.

The ornamental fish industry worldwide is estimated at $15 billion. In the Pacific Northwest, water gardening and koi keeping are major hobbies, particularly in the metro areas. One Portland couple, for instance, installed an elaborate koi pond then built their house around it.

What’s unique about the OSU program is that Miller-Morgan and Heidel are serving ornamental fish hobbyists, as well as the small business owners that sell fish to hobbyists.

“Nobody’s doing this,” he said. “Other extension programs primarily serve the fish farmers. We also serve the small dealers, helping them implement good health management practices, which keeps disease from spreading to hobbyist aquariums and ponds.”

Miller-Morgan spends about half his time working with koi keepers, retailers and importers, mainly trying to prevent the spread of a hard-to-detect koi herpes virus that can be fatal for the fish and devastating for hobbyists.

“When I was hired, I never imagined that koi would be such a big part of the job,” he said. “But this virus can kill off 90 percent of the population in a pond in about 14 days. And if any fish survive, they’re carriers for life, so you can’t ever show them again.”

Because many koi are so valuable, Miller-Morgan’s work has taken on a critical urgency. No vaccine is available yet in the U.S. to prevent the virus, which first appeared 10 years ago and has evolved into seven different strains.

The virus attacks the fish’s gills, destroying cells, and also affects the skin, kidneys and gastrointestinal tract, damaging the fish so severely that other disease agents move in.

That was part of the reason it took years to positively identify the virus. The secondary diseases mask the virus, and detecting it requires advanced diagnostic techniques. The virus was first identified in the United States by a fish veterinarian working in the Midwest.

Miller-Morgan said this shows the value of veterinarians being involved in the ornamental fish industry. Now that the virus can be identified, he and Heidel and their program are taking steps to prevent its spread.

“We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years educating people about the importance of quarantine on disease,” Miller-Morgan said. “Fish are often moved through the system so quickly the disease doesn’t develop until the fish are in the hobbyist’s pond.”

Although the United States has no quarantine requirements in place, Miller-Morgan and Heidel are developing a certification process for U.S. dealers who adhere to practices that reduce the risk of introducing the virus. Through a series of seminars and presentations, they hope koi dealers will eventually become certified – a change hobbyists will welcome.

What draws people to koi keeping? Miller-Morgan’s not sure. But for some, it appears to be akin to collecting art. “It’s like they’re buying a Picasso…a piece that will live 30 to 40 years and grow up to 36 inches long,” he said.

Most local hobbyists are not into the reproduction, breeding or developing lines. Fish farmers do that.

“Local hobbyists simply enjoy the fish as pets,” Miller-Morgan said. “You can almost think of koi as Labradors that live in water. They will eat out of your hand, and they eventually recognize the person who feeds them.”

Even amid the economic downturn, these hobbyists are very committed to keeping up their ponds, he said. Which means Miller-Morgan will continue making the rounds as the koi doctor, dispensing medical advice and helping ensure the ornamental fish industry stays healthy.

Visit Tim Miller-Morgan’s blog, “Words from a Wet Vet” at: http://seagrant.oregonstate.edu/blogs/wetvet


Tim Miller-Morgan

Northwest Teens to Compete in Annual Salmon Bowl Competition

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Sixteen teams from Northwest high schools will test their knowledge of marine sciences on Saturday, Feb. 21, during the annual Salmon Bowl competition at Oregon State University.

These four- and five-student teams will compete for a chance to represent the region at the 12th annual National Ocean Sciences Bowl April 25-27 in Washington, D.C. The national competition is a program developed by the Consortium for Ocean Leadership to raise student interest in ocean sciences as a potential field of study and a career choice. The national event will be held at the Smithsonian Museum.

Interest in the Salmon Bowl, which is sponsored by OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, is growing each year, according to Pete Strutton, a faculty member in the college and adviser for the event.

“Issues from global climate change to tsunamis have captured the attention of the public and made people look at the world’s oceans in a new, more comprehensive way,” Strutton said. “We’ve seen first-hand some of the impacts of climate change along the West Coast, including low-oxygen ‘hypoxia’ zones, harmful algal blooms, declining fish stocks and unpredictable weather patterns.

“The Salmon Bowl is a fun way to encourage student interest in the marine sciences, and to get students to think about what may happen in the future,” he added. About 100 volunteers, including faculty, staff and students in the OSU College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, will help host the event.

The public is invited to watch the Salmon Bowl, held on the OSU campus from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Burt Hall, Wilkinson Hall and Gilfillan Auditorium. All three facilities are located roughly at 26th Street and Monroe in Corvallis. Admission is free.

Neah-Kah-Nie High School, which has won the Salmon Bowl a record seven times, will return to defend its title.

Competing teams will tackle questions about the global carbon cycle, phytoplankton, ocean currents, tsunamis, undersea earthquakes, fisheries, climate and other issues.

Care to test your own knowledge? Here is one sample question: Coral islands that form in the open ocean and enclose circular lagoons are called? A) mid-ocean ridges; B) barrier islands; C) atolls; or D) pelagic islands.

Here’s another, slightly tougher: Of the following marine mammals, which has the greatest challenge conserving body heat? A) sea otter; B) walrus; C) sei whale; or D) blue whale.

And finally, a question Jacque Cousteau would appreciate: The only ocean zone that is deeper than the abyssopelagic zone is this zone which includes deep sea trenches and canyons. It is called what? A) hadal zone; B) epipelagic zone; C) bathypelagic zone; or D) mesopelagic zone.

The correct answers are (atolls, sea otter and hadal zone).

Competing teams include:
•Astoria High School (two teams)
•Benson Polytechnic, Portland (three teams)
•Clatskanie High School
•Crater High School, Central Point
•Crescent Valley High School, Corvallis
•Hidden Valley High School, Grants Pass
•Lebanon High School
•McMinnville High School
•Neah-Kah-Nie High School, Rockaway Beach (two teams)
•Oregon Coast Aquarium (a team from Newport-area high schools)
•Seaside High School
•Skyview High School, Vancouver, Wash.

For more information on OSU's College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, visit the college website at: http://www.coas.oregonstate.edu/

Media Contact: 

Joy Irby

New Studies Shed Light on World’s Most Active Undersea Volcano

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Like its terrestrial cousins, the world’s most active underwater volcano goes through periods of structural building and collapsing, but new studies show that the cycles of construction and destruction are extraordinarily compressed – in a matter of years instead of millennia.

These and other observations of the Monowai Cone, north of New Zealand, were reported recently in the journals Nature and Geochemistry, Geophysics and Geosystems.

William Chadwick, an Oregon State University volcanologist and principal investigator on the study, and his colleagues have been monitoring Monowai for the past decade. Between 1998 and 2004, there were nine swarms of “T-waves,” which are sound waves that indicate underwater explosive eruptive activity.

“This is the first time we have been able to document the cyclic buildup and collapse of an actively erupting submarine volcano,” said Chadwick, who works at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “On land, we see these cycles on the order of every 100 to 10,000 years, but at Monowai we have now seen this twice in nine years. It is extraordinary.”

Chadwick said shallow submarine volcanoes may go through these cycles more frequently than land-based volcanoes because they erupt explosively and create a lot of fragmental debris that is water-saturated and unstable, and thus more prone to sliding. Collapses on land tend to be larger and thus less frequent.

The findings are important, the researchers say, because volcanic eruptions and collapses can generate tsunamis.

“There is something mysterious about submarine volcanoes because it is hard to see what they are doing with all that water in the way,” Chadwick said, with a laugh. “When a volcano erupts on land, it’s obvious because everyone can see it. Because these underwater volcanoes are mostly hidden from our observation, we know a lot less about how active they are, how they behave, and how they are different from volcanoes on land.”

The scientists’ repeated sonar mapping of the Monowai Cone has allowed them to detect major changes in its shape over time. They learned that there was another large collapse of the volcano some time between 2004 and 2007, yet no anomalous T-waves were recorded – though that may be due to limitations of the monitoring system, Chadwick noted.

“The size of the events we have seen thus far at Monowai are relatively small and probably created tsunami waves no bigger than a few meters high, which dissipated over distance,” Chadwick said. “But we don’t know how big these collapses can get, or how large a resulting tsunami might be. I doubt that in nine years we’ve seen the full size range of eruptions and collapses.

“But that just underscores the importance of better monitoring of these undersea volcanoes, because the impacts could be significant,” he added.

Chadwick has published several studies in Nature and other journals on undersea volcanoes and was part of a scientific team that in 2004 became one of the first research efforts to observe the eruption of an underwater volcano. (http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/archives/2004/may/eruptions-volcanic-wonderland-found-deep-sea)

Media Contact: 

Bill Chadwick,

Multimedia Downloads

Monowai Volcanic Center

This three-dimensional view of Monowai Volcanic Center from the south shows the location of Monowai Cone (lower left) on the southern rim of Monowai Caldera (upper right). The colors in the image are a function of seafloor depth (reds are shallowest, blues are deepest). Figure created by Susan Merle, Oregon State University.