OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Faster method to spay cats found to be safe, effective

PORTLAND, Ore. – A new type of procedure to spay female cats has been shown to be safe, effective, and saves a little bit of time – which can be important in some high-volume programs such as those operated by animal shelters.

A study on the procedure has been published in the Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, by Kirk Miller, a clinical instructor with the College of Veterinary Medicine at Oregon State University, and practicing veterinarian with the Oregon Humane Society in Portland.

It found that a procedure called a “pedicle tie” is effective at stopping blood flow through two vessels that that go to a cat’s ovary, a preliminary step to removing the ovary and uterus. It’s essentially tying the vessels in a knot – and works just as well, and is about 30 percent faster, than a procedure used for decades that required multiple ligatures to accomplish the same purpose.

There had been no prior study on this approach, and some concern it might cause additional bleeding. But in a survey of 2,136 kittens and adult cats that were neutered using the new technique, it was found to safe with no significant increase in hemorrhagic complications, and slightly reduced the time the animal needed to be under anesthesia.

And, for an average procedure, it saves a couple of minutes out of an overall operation that can take from six to 20 minutes, depending on the skill and experience of the practitioner.

“Saving two minutes may not sound like much, but when you do thousands of these procedures every year, like we do, it can add up in savings of both time and money,” Miller said. “Over the course of a year this may free up about two weeks of time for both the surgeon and anesthetist. That increased efficiency means we can serve more animals, provide the care they need and make them eligible to find new homes.”

The procedure can be taught fairly easily and expertise in it gained within a week or two, Miller said. With its safety and efficacy now verified, it’s anticipated that the procedure may soon be used much more broadly, he said.

Aggressive spay and neuter programs are needed to help address broader concerns about unwanted and homeless companion animals. The American Society for Prevention to Cruelty to Animals estimates there may be as many as 70 million stray cats in the United States. Neutering of dogs and cats helps to address this critical problem, while improving both their behavior and their health.

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OSU innovation boosts Wi-Fi bandwidth tenfold

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Researchers at Oregon State University have invented a new technology that can increase the bandwidth of WiFi systems by 10 times, using LED lights to transmit information.

The technology could be integrated with existing WiFi systems to reduce bandwidth problems in crowded locations, such as airport terminals or coffee shops, and in homes where several people have multiple WiFi devices.

Experts say that recent advances in LED technology have made it possible to modulate the LED light more rapidly, opening the possibility of using light for wireless transmission in a “free space” optical communication system.

“In addition to improving the experience for users, the two big advantages of this system are that it uses inexpensive components, and it integrates with existing WiFi systems,” said Thinh Nguyen, an OSU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. Nguyen worked with Alan Wang, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, to build the first prototype.

The prototype, called WiFO, uses LEDs that are beyond the visual spectrum for humans and creates an invisible cone of light about one meter square in which the data can be received. To address the issue of a small area of usability, the researchers created a hybrid system that can switch between several LED transmitters installed on a ceiling, and the existing WiFi system.

“I believe the WiFO system could be easily transformed into a marketable product, and we are currently looking for a company that is interested in further developing and licensing the technology,” Nguyen said.

The system can potentially send data at up to 100 megabits per second. Although some current WiFi systems have similar bandwidth, it has to be divided by the number of devices, so each user might be receiving just 5 to 10 megabits per second, whereas the hybrid system could deliver 50-100 megabits to each user.

In a home where telephones, tablets, computers, gaming systems, and televisions may all be connected to the internet, increased bandwidth would eliminate problems like video streaming that stalls and buffers.

The receivers are small photodiodes that cost less than a dollar each and could be connected through a USB port for current systems, or incorporated into the next generation of laptops, tablets, and smartphones.

A provisional patent has been secured on the technology, and a paper was published in the 17th ACM International Conference on Modeling, Analysis and Simulation of Wireless and Mobile Systems. The research has been supported by the National Science Foundation.

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Rachel Robertson, 541-737-7098

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Thinh Nguyen, 541-737-3470

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Improved WiFi bandwidth

LED transmission system

Longest mammal migration raises questions about distinct species

NEWPORT, Ore. – A team of scientists from the United States and Russia has documented the longest migration of a mammal ever recorded – a round-trip trek of nearly 14,000 miles by a whale identified as a critically endangered species that raises questions about its status.

The researchers used satellite-monitored tags to track three western North Pacific gray whales from their primary feeding ground off Russia’s Sakhalin Island across the Pacific Ocean and down the West Coast of the United States to Baja, Mexico. One of the tagged whales, dubbed Varvara (which is Russian for Barbara), visited the three major breeding areas for eastern gray whales, which are found off North America and are not endangered.

Results of their study are being published this week by the Royal Society in the journal Biology Letters.

“The fact that endangered western gray whales have such a long range and interact with eastern gray whales was a surprise and leaves a lot of questions up in the air,” said Bruce Mate, director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “Past studies have indicated genetic differentiation between the species, but this suggests we may need to take a closer look.”

Western gray whales were thought to have gone extinct by the 1970s before a small aggregation was discovered in Russia off Sakhalin Island – with a present estimated population of 150 individuals that has been monitored by scientists from Russia and the U.S. since the 1990s.

Like their western cousins, eastern gray whales were decimated by whaling and listed as endangered, but conservation efforts led to their recovery. They were delisted in 1996 and today have a population estimated at more than 18,000 animals.

Not all scientists believe that western gray whales are a separate, distinct species. Valentin Ilyashenko of the A.N Severtsov Institute for Ecology and Evolution, who is the Russian representative to the International Whaling Commission, has proposed since 2009 that recent western and eastern gray whale populations are not isolated and that the gray whales found in Russian waters are a part of an eastern population that is restoring its former historical range. He is a co-author on the study.

“The ability of the whales to navigate across open water over tremendously long distances is impressive and suggests that some western gray whales might actually be eastern grays,” Mate said. “But that doesn’t mean that there may not be some true western gray whales remaining.

“If so, then the number of true western gray whales is even smaller than we previously thought.”

Since the discovery that western and eastern gray whales interact, other researchers have compared photo catalogues of both groups and identified dozens of western gray whales from Russia matching whale photographs taken in British Columbia and San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California, Mexico.

Protecting the endangered western gray whales has been difficult – five whales have died in Japanese fishing nets within the last decade. Their feeding areas off Japan and Russia include fishing areas, shipping lanes, and oil and gas production – as well as future sites oil sites. Their largely unknown migration routes may include additional hazards.

The study was coordinated by the International Whaling Commission, with funding provided by Exxon Neftegas Limited, the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, and OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute.

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 Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202, bruce.mate@oregonstate.edu; Ladd Irvine, 541-867-0394, ladd.irvine@oregonstate.edu

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Western Gray Whale - Sakhalin Island, Russia

 

whale1

 

Photos by Craig Hayslip, OSU Marine Mammal Institute

Mechanism outlined by which inadequate vitamin E can cause brain damage

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1DtAIyU

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered how vitamin E deficiency may cause neurological damage by interrupting a supply line of specific nutrients and robbing the brain of the “building blocks” it needs to maintain neuronal health.

The findings – in work done with zebrafish – were just published in the Journal of Lipid Research. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

The research showed that zebrafish fed a diet deficient in vitamin E throughout their life had about 30 percent lower levels of DHA-PC, which is a part of the cellular membrane in every brain cell, or neuron. Other recent studies have also concluded that low levels of DHA-PC in the blood plasma of humans are a biomarker than can predict a higher risk of Alzheimer’s disease.

Just as important, the new research studied the level of compounds called “lyso PLs,” which are nutrients needed for getting DHA into the brain, and serve as building blocks that aid in membrane repair. It showed the lyso PLs are an average of 60 percent lower in fish with a vitamin E deficient diet.

The year-old zebrafish used in this study, and the deficient levels of vitamin E they were given, are equivalent to humans eating a low vitamin E diet for a lifetime. In the United States, 96 percent of adult women and 90 percent of men do not receive adequate levels of vitamin E in their diet.

DHA is a polyunsaturated fatty acid, or PUFA, increasingly recognized as one of the most important nutrients found in omega-3 fatty acids, such as those provided by fish oils and some other foods.

“This research showed that vitamin E is needed to prevent a dramatic loss of a critically important molecule in the brain, and helps explain why vitamin E is needed for brain health,” said Maret Traber, the Helen P. Rumbel Professor for Micronutrient Research in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU and lead author on this research.

“Human brains are very enriched in DHA but they can’t make it,” said Traber, who also is a principal investigator in the Linus Pauling Institute at OSU. “They get it from the liver. The particular molecules that help carry it there are these lyso PLs, and the amount of those compounds is being greatly reduced when vitamin E intake is insufficient. This sets the stage for cellular membrane damage and neuronal death.”

DHA is the needed nutrient, Traber said, but it’s lyso PLs which help get it into the brain. It’s the building block.

“You can’t build a house without the necessary materials,” Traber said. “In a sense, if vitamin E is inadequate, we’re cutting by more than half the amount of materials with which we can build and maintain the brain.”

Some other research, Traber said, has shown that the progression of Alzheimer’s disease can be slowed by increased intake of vitamin E, including one study published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But that disease is probably a reflection of years of neurological damage that has already been done, she said. The zebrafish diet used in this study was deficient in vitamin E for the whole life of the fish – as is vitamin E deficiency in some humans.

Vitamin E in human diets is most often provided by dietary oils, such as olive oil. But many of the highest levels are in foods not routinely considered dietary staples – almonds, sunflower seeds or avocados.

“There’s increasingly clear evidence that vitamin E is associated with brain protection, and now we’re starting to better understand some of the underlying mechanisms,” Traber said.

Other collaborators on this research included Jan Stevens from the OSU College of Pharmacy and Robert Tanguay from the College of Agricultural Sciences.

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Maret Traber, 541-737-7977

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Sunflowers
Vitamin E source

Optics, nanotechnology combined to create low-cost sensor for gases

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers have combined innovative optical technology with nanocomposite thin-films to create a new type of sensor that is inexpensive, fast, highly sensitive and able to detect and analyze a wide range of gases.

The technology might find applications in everything from environmental monitoring to airport security or testing blood alcohol levels. The sensor is particularly suited to detecting carbon dioxide, and may be useful in industrial applications or systems designed to store carbon dioxide underground, as one approach to greenhouse gas reduction.

Oregon State University has filed for a patent on the invention, developed in collaboration with scientists at the National Energy Technology Lab or the U.S. Department of Energy, and with support from that agency. The findings were just reported in the Journal of Materials Chemistry C.

University researchers are now seeking industrial collaborators to further perfect and help commercialize the system.

“Optical sensing is very effective in sensing and identifying trace-level gases, but often uses large laboratory devices that are terribly expensive and can’t be transported into the field,” said Alan Wang, a photonics expert and an assistant professor in the OSU School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

“By contrast, we use optical approaches that can be small, portable and inexpensive,” Wang said. “This system used plasmonic nanocrystals that act somewhat like a tiny lens, to concentrate a light wave and increase sensitivity.”

This approach is combined with a metal-organic framework of thin films, which can rapidly adsorb gases within material pores, and be recycled by simple vacuum processes. After the thin film captures the gas molecules near the surface, the plasmonic materials act at a near-infrared range, help magnify the signal and precisely analyze the presence and amounts of different gases.

“By working at the near-infrared range and using these plasmonic nanocrystals, there’s an order of magnitude increase in sensitivity,” said Chih-hung Chang, an OSU professor of chemical engineering. “This type of sensor should be able to quickly tell exactly what gases are present and in what amount.”

That speed, precision, portability and low cost, the researchers said, should allow instruments that can be used in the field for many purposes. The food industry, for industry, uses carbon dioxide in storage of fruits and vegetables, and the gas has to be kept at certain levels.

Gas detection can be valuable in finding explosives, and new technologies such as this might find application in airport or border security. Various gases need to be monitored in environmental research, and there may be other uses in health care, optimal function of automobile engines, and prevention of natural gas leakage.

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Alan Wang, 541-737-4247

Publication bias and ‘spin’ raise questions about drugs for anxiety disorders

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new analysis reported in JAMA Psychiatry raises serious questions about the increasingly common use of second-generation antidepressant drugs to treat anxiety disorders.

It concludes that studies supporting the value of these medications for that purpose have been distorted by publication bias, outcome reporting bias and “spin.” Even though they may still play a role in treating these disorders, the effectiveness of the drugs has been overestimated.

In some cases the medications, which are among the most widely prescribed drugs in the world, are not significantly more useful than a placebo.

The findings were made by researchers from Oregon State University, Oregon Health & Science University, and the University of Groningen in The Netherlands. The work was supported by a grant from the Dutch Brain Foundation.

Publication bias was one of the most serious problems, the researchers concluded, as it related to double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that had been reviewed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. If the FDA determined the study was positive, it was five times more likely to be published than if it was not determined to be positive.

Bias in “outcome reporting” was also observed, in which the positive outcomes from drug use were emphasized over those found to be negative. And simple spin was also reported. Some investigators concluded that treatments were beneficial, when their own published results for primary outcomes were actually insignificant.

“These findings mirror what we found previously with the same drugs when used to treat major depression, and with antipsychotics,” said Erick Turner, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry in the OHSU School of Medicine, and the study’s senior author. “When their studies don’t turn out well, you usually won’t know it from the peer-reviewed literature.”

This points to a flaw in the way doctors learn about the drugs they prescribe, the researchers said.

“The peer review process of publication allows, perhaps even encourages, this kind of thing to happen,” Turner said. “And this isn’t restricted to psychiatry – reporting bias has been found throughout the medical and scientific literature.”

Craig Williams, a professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy, and co-author of the study, said that “most of these drugs are fairly safe and well-tolerated, but if a medication is less effective than believed, this still raises serious questions about its use.

“The level of bias we found did not change the fact that some antidepressants can have value in treating anxiety disorders,” Williams said. “However, there is less evidence for value of these drugs than published studies would have you believe. And these concerns are increased when such medications are frequently prescribed by general practitioners with less training in psychiatry.”

In this study, the researchers examined a broad body of the evidence and scientific research that had been presented to the Food and Drug Administration, including studies that had been done but were not published in open scientific literature. They found that negative data on drug efficacy tended not to get published, or was de-emphasized when it was published.

Conclusions might have been manipulated or exaggerated because positive results receive more scientific attention, are published sooner, and lead to higher sales of a drug, said Annelieke Roest, the lead author of the publication at the University of Groningen.

“Lots of research is funded eventually by the taxpayer, and that’s reason enough to say that scientists should publish all their results,” Roest said.

The study reiterated this point, and the need to more routinely publish nonsignificant results.

“There is strong evidence that significant results from randomized controlled trials are more likely to be published than nonsignificant results,” the researchers wrote in their study. “As a consequence, the published literature . . . may overestimate the benefits of treatment while underestimating their harms, thus misinforming clinicians, policy makers and patients.”

Antidepressants are now widely prescribed for conditions other than depression, the study noted. They are being used for generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and other uses. In both the U.S. and Europe, use of antidepressant drugs has significantly increased in the past two decades, the researchers said, with much of that use driven by non-specialists in primary care settings.

The level of reporting bias in the scientific literature, the researchers wrote, “likely impacts clinicians’ perceptions of the efficacy of these drugs, which could reasonably be expected to affect prescription behavior.”

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Craig Williams, 503-494-1598

A mile deep, ocean fish facing health impacts from human pollution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Deep-water marine fish living on the continental slopes at depths from 2,000 feet to one mile have liver pathologies, tumors and other health problems that may be linked to human-caused  pollution, one of the first studies of its type has found.

The research, conducted in the Bay of Biscay west of France, also discovered the first case of a deep water fish species with an “intersex” condition, a blend of male and female sex organs. The sampling was done in an area with no apparent point-source pollution, and appears to reflect general ocean conditions.

The findings have been published in Marine Environmental Research, by scientists from Oregon State University; the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in the United Kingdom; and other agencies. It was supported by the European Union.

The research is of particular interest, OSU researchers said, when contrasted to other studies done several years ago in national parks of the American West, which also found significant pollution and fish health impacts, including male fish that had been “feminized” and developed eggs.

“In areas ranging from pristine, high mountain lakes of the United States to ocean waters off the coasts of France and Spain, we’ve now found evidence of possible human-caused pollution that’s bad enough to have pathological impacts on fish,” said Michael Kent, a professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science, co-author on both these research projects and an international expert on fish disease.

“Deep in the ocean one might have thought that the level of contamination and its biological impact would be less,” Kent said. “That may not be the case. The pathological changes we’re seeing are clearly the type associated with exposure to toxins and carcinogens.”

However, linking these changes in the deep water fish to pollution is preliminary at this time, the researchers said, because these same changes may also be caused by naturally-occurring compounds. Follow up chemical analyses would provide more conclusive links with the pathological changes and man’s activity, they said.

Few, if any health surveys of this type have been done on the fish living on the continental slopes, the researchers said. Most past studies have looked only at their parasite fauna, not more internal biological problems such as liver damage. The issues are important, however, since there’s growing interest in these areas as a fisheries resource, as other fisheries on the shallower continental shelf become depleted.

As the sea deepens along these continental slopes, it’s been known that it can act as a sink for heavy metal contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and lead, and organic contaminants such as PCBs and pesticides. Some of the “intersex” fish that have been discovered elsewhere are also believed to have mutated sex organs caused by “endocrine disrupting chemicals” that can mimic estrogens.

In this study, the health concerns identified were found in black scabbardfish, orange roughy, greater forkbeard and other less-well-known species, and included a wide range of degenerative and inflammatory lesions that indicate a host response to pathogens, as well as natural cell turnover. The fish that live in these deep water, sloping regions usually grow slowly, live near the seafloor, and mature at a relatively old age. Some can live to be 100 years old.

Partly because of that longevity, the fish have the capacity to bioaccumulate toxicants, which the researchers said in their report “may be a significant human health issue if those species are destined for human consumption.” Organic pollutants in such species may be 10-17 times higher than those found in fish from the continental shelf, the study noted, with the highest level of contaminants in the deepest-dwelling fish.

However, most of those contaminants migrate to the liver and gonads of such fish, which would make their muscle tissue comparatively less toxic, and “generally not high enough for human health concern,” the researchers wrote.

The corresponding author on this study was Stephen Feist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Weymouth, England.

In the previous research done in the American West, scientists found toxic contamination from pesticides, the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, industrial operations and other sources, which primarily found their way into high mountain lakes through air pollution. Pesticide pollution, in particular, was pervasive.

Together, the two studies suggest that fish from some of the most remote parts of the planet, from high mountains to deep ocean, may be impacted by toxicants, Kent said.

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Michael Kent, 541-737-8652

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Testicle with egg
Trout testicle with egg

Genetic discovery may offer new avenue of attack against schistosomiasis

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered a group of genes in one species of snail that provide a natural resistance to the flatworm parasite that causes schistosomiasis, and opens the door to possible new drugs or ways to break the transmission cycle of this debilitating disease.

Schistosomiasis infects more than 200 million people in more than 70 countries, and is most common in areas with poor sanitation. It can cause chronic, lifelong disability, beginning with gastrointestinal problems and sometimes leading to liver damage, kidney failure, infertility and bladder cancer.

Schistosomisasis, which is native to Africa but has now spread around the world, has been called a neglected global pandemic. Its impact on human health rivals that of malaria.

However, the circular transmission of this complex disease depends upon spending some time as an infection in aquatic snails, where the number of parasites is greatly magnified. Snails may therefore offer a key opportunity to break the cycle of transmission.

The findings about this genetic discovery were just published in PLOS Genetics, by researchers from OSU and the Universite de Perpignan Via Domitia in France. The work was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

“We’ve found a new class of previously unknown genes that appear to control the ability to resist schistosomes,” said Michael Blouin, a professor of integrative biology in the OSU College of Science. “It was found that a dominant genetic allele in this region conveys an eight-fold decrease in the risk of schistosomiasis infection.

“These genes are the type that, in other animal species, help to recognize pathogens and trigger an immune response,” Blouin said. “This is important new information. With further research we’ll learn more about the exact genetics and molecules that are involved as the parasite interacts with the host.”

There are two possible applications of these results that could be pursued in an effort to treat or control this disease, the researchers said. One would be development of new drugs, which could be important - right now only a single medication, praziquantel, exists to help treat the disease. With its increasingly widespread use, resistance to that drug is possible.

Alternatively, researchers might attempt to insert these parasite-resistant genes into the species of snails that most commonly transmit schistosomiasis.

“There are ways to drive new genes into a population,” said Jacob Tennessen, an OSU postdoctoral research associate and lead author on this study.

This is already being tried for some other diseases, the scientists noted, such as in mosquitos that transmit malaria. Modifying snail populations to be resistant is currently not practical, they said, but identifying new genes that control resistance to the parasite is a critical first step.

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Michael Blouin, 541-737-2362

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Resisting schistosomiasis
Schistosomiasis resistance

Trematode eggs
Trematode eggs

Massive amounts of fresh water, glacial melt pouring into Gulf of Alaska

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Incessant mountain rain, snow and melting glaciers in a comparatively small region of land that hugs the southern Alaska coast and empties fresh water into the Gulf of Alaska would create the sixth largest coastal river in the world if it emerged as a single stream, a recent study shows.

Since it’s broken into literally thousands of small drainages pouring off mountains that rise quickly from sea level over a short distance, the totality of this runoff has received less attention, scientists say. But research that’s more precise than ever before is making clear the magnitude and importance of the runoff, which can affect everything from marine life to global sea level.

The collective fresh water discharge of this region is more than four times greater than the mighty Yukon River of Alaska and Canada, and half again as much as the Mississippi River, which drains all or part of 31 states and a land mass more than six times as large.

“Freshwater runoff of this magnitude can influence marine biology, nearshore oceanographic studies of temperature and salinity, ocean currents, sea level and other issues,” said David Hill, lead author of the research and an associate professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University.

“This is an area of considerable interest, with its many retreating glaciers,” Hill added, “and with this data as a baseline we’ll now be able to better monitor how it changes in the future.”

The findings were reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans, by Hill and Anthony Arendt at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. It was supported by the North Pacific Research Board.

This is one of the first studies to accurately document the amount of water being contributed by melting glaciers, which add about 57 cubic kilometers of water a year to the estimated 792 cubic kilometers produced by annual precipitation in this region. The combination of glacial melt and precipitation produce an amount of water that’s larger than many of the world’s great rivers, such as the Ganges, Nile, Volga, Niger, Columbia, Danube or Yellow River.

“By combining satellite technology with on-the-ground hydraulic measurements and modeling, we’re able to develop much more precise information over a wider area than ever before possible,” Hill said.

The data were acquired as an average of precipitation, glacial melting and runoff over a six-year period, from 2003 to 2009. Knocked down in many places by steep mountains, the extraordinary precipitation that sets the stage for this runoff averages about 6 feet per year for the entire area, Hill said, and more than 30 feet in some areas.

The study does not predict future trends in runoff, Hill said. Global warming is expected in the future, but precipitation predictions are more variable. Glacial melt is also a variable. A warmer climate would at first be expected to speed the retreat of existing glaciers, but the amount of water produced at some point may decrease as the glaciers dwindle or disappear.

Additional precision in this study was provided by NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment, or GRACE satellites, which can make detailed measurements of gravity and, as one result, estimate the mass of glaciers they are flying over. As the glacial mass decreases over time, the amount of melted water that was produced can be calculated.

The close agreement of land-based measurements also help confirm the accuracy of those made from space, a point that will be important for better global understanding of water stored in a high-altitude environment.

Some of the processes at work are vividly illustrated at Glacier Bay National Park, where some of the most rapidly retreating glaciers in the world are visited each year by hundreds of thousands of tourists, many on cruise ships.

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David Hill, 541-737-4939

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Exit Glacier
Exit Glacier


Glacial melt
Melt into sea

“Distracted driving” at an all-time high; new approaches needed

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Young, inexperienced drivers have always gotten into more automobile accidents, but if you add in a lot of distractions, it’s a recipe for disaster – and a new Pacific Northwest research program is learning more about these risks while identifying approaches that may help reduce them.

Distractions have been an issue since the age of the Model T, whether a driver was eating a sandwich or talking to a passenger. But the advent of cell phones, text messaging and heavy urban traffic has taken those distractions to a historic level, say researchers, who emphasize that there appears to be value in educating young drivers about these special risks.

A new study of 3,000 teenage drivers in Alaska, Washington, Idaho and Oregon has found that interactive presentations administered to young drivers in a classroom or auditorium – more than passive listening – can have some ability to raise their awareness of this problem. Experts conclude that more work of this type should be pursued nationally.

“Based on recent studies, anything that takes your attention away, any glance away from the road for two seconds or longer can increase the risk of an accident from four to 24 times,” said David Hurwitz, an assistant professor of transportation engineering in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, and corresponding author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Transportation Safety and Security.

“This is a dramatic increase in risk, with inexperienced drivers who are least able to handle it,” he said. “The absolute worst is texting on a cell phone, which is a whole group of distractions. With texting, you’re doing something besides driving, thinking about something besides driving, and looking at the wrong thing.”

One study has equated texting on a cell phone equivalent to driving drunk.

While many young drivers understand the risks of texting, Hurwitz said, they are much less aware of other concerns that can be real – eating, drinking, talking on a cell phone, smoking, adjusting the radio, changing a CD, using a digital map or other controls.

“Automobile manufacturers have made cars significantly safer, but in the interests of passenger comfort they also continue to add more pleasant distractions within the vehicle,” Hurwitz said. “More experienced drivers learn how to control these distractions, but we’re finding the most problems with the very young driver, within six months of getting a license.”

Aside from lack of experience, he said, young drivers also have a higher risk tolerance, use seat belts less, and choose higher speeds. The recent research found that 27 percent of respondents changed clothes or shoes while driving, and some worked on homework. Adding more distractions doesn’t help.

What researchers found that can help is “interactive” driver training that focuses on the issue of distractions, which can be done with driving simulators or simple computers, and can involve writing, discussion and tactile problem-solving.

“Young people learn better when they are involved in the process, not just sitting and listening to a lecture,” Hurwitz said. “We think an increase in active learning will help with this problem and can improve driver education. Students doing this can see how much better their awareness and reaction time are when they aren’t distracted.”

The research is finding some surprises, as well.

Studies are showing that “hands-free” cell phones are really no safer than a hand-held cell phone. The real distraction appears to be the driver talking to someone who is not in the car, a distant voice who’s oblivious to the freeway traffic jam.

“The evidence suggests that it may be reasonably safe to have passengers that you talk to in the car,” Hurwitz said. “For one thing, if an incident happens that requires a quick reaction, everyone in the car may see it, stop talking and pay immediate attention. And you literally have more sets of eyes on the road to see upcoming problems.”

There are some gender differences among young drivers. Females are more likely to use a cell phone while driving, and males are more likely to look away from the road while talking to others in the car.

A large increase in this type of training will be necessary for it to become more widely integrated, the researchers said.

This project was funded by the Pacific Northwest Transportation Consortium, an initiative supported by OSU, the University of Washington, University of Idaho, Washington State University and the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.

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David Hurwitz, 541-737-9242

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A YouTube video about

this “distracted driver”

program is available online:

http://bit.ly/1MuqpNC