scientific research and advances

Study: Global sea levels have risen six meters or more with just slight global warming

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new review analyzing three decades of research on the historic effects of melting polar ice sheets found that global sea levels have risen at least six meters, or about 20 feet, above present levels on multiple occasions over the past three million years.

What is most concerning, scientists say, is that amount of melting was caused by an increase of only 1-2 degrees (Celsius) in global mean temperatures.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Science.

“Studies have shown that both the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets contributed significantly to this sea level rise above modern levels,” said Anders Carlson, an Oregon State University glacial geologist and paleoclimatologist, and co-author on the study. “Modern atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are today equivalent to those about three million years ago, when sea level was at least six meters higher because the ice sheets were greatly reduced.

“It takes time for the warming to whittle down the ice sheets,” added Carlson, who is in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, “but it doesn’t take forever. There is evidence that we are likely seeing that transformation begin to take place now.”

Co-author Peter Clark, an OSU paleoclimatologist, said that because current carbon dioxide, or CO2, levels are as high as they were 3 million years ago, “we are already committed to a certain amount of sea level rise.”

“The ominous aspect to this is that CO2 levels are continuing to rise, so we are entering uncharted territory,” Clark said. “What is not as certain is the time frame, which is less well-constrained. We could be talking many centuries to a few millennia to see the full impact of melting ice sheets.”

The review, which was led by Andrea Dutton of the University of Florida, summarized more than 30 years of research on past changes in ice sheets and sea level. It shows that changes in Earth’s climate and sea level are closely linked, with only small amounts of warming needed to have a significant effect on seal levels. Those impacts can be significant.

Six meters (or about 20 feet) of sea level rise does not sound like a lot. However, coastal cities worldwide have experienced enormous growth in population and infrastructure over the past couple of centuries – and a global mean sea level rise of 10 to 20 feet could be catastrophic to the hundreds of millions of people living in these coastal zones.

Much of the state of Florida, for example, has an elevation of 50 feet or less, and the city of Miami has an average elevation of six feet. Parts of New Orleans and other areas of Louisiana were overcome by Hurricane Katrina – by a surging Gulf of Mexico that could be 10 to 20 feet higher in the future. Dhaka in Bangladesh is one of the world’s 10 most populous cities with 14.4 million inhabitants, all living in low-lying areas. Tokyo and Singapore also have been singled out as extremely vulnerable to sea level rise.

“The influence of rising oceans is even greater than the overall amount of sea level rise because of storm surge, erosion and inundation,” said Carlson, who studies the interaction of ice sheets, oceans and the climate system on centennial time scales. “The impact could be enormous.”

The Science review is part of the larger Past Global Changes, or PAGES, international science team. A working group known as PALSEA2 (Paleo constraints on sea level rise) used past records of local change in sea level and converted them to a global mean sea level by predicting how the surface of the Earth deforms due to changes in ice-ocean loading of the crust, along with changes in gravitational attraction on the ocean surface.

Independently, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet volumes were estimated by observations from adjacent ocean sediment records and by ice sheet models.

“The two approaches are independent of one another, giving us high confidence in the estimates of past changes in sea level,” Carlson said.  The past climates that forced these changes in ice volume and sea level were reconstructed mainly from temperature-sensitive measurements in ocean cores from around the globe, and from ice cores.

The National Science Foundation supported the research.

Media Contact: 

Anders Carlson, 541-737-3625, acarlson@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Peter Clark, 541-737-1247, clarkp@geo.oregonstate.edu

Legislature approves bonding for the Oregon Forest Science Complex

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Legislature has approved $29.7 million in state bonding to help fund the Oregon Forest Science Complex at Oregon State University in Corvallis.

The project includes construction of a new classroom and laboratory building and a state-of-the-art advanced wood products laboratory designed to support Oregon’s manufactured wood products industry and wood building design companies. Public funds will be matched by private donations to support the $60 million initiative to modernize and expand research and teaching facilities for the OSU College of Forestry.

The centerpiece is a new 85,000 square-foot classroom and research center to support professional forestry, wood science, renewable materials and interdisciplinary natural-resource education programs. The building will replace Peavy Hall on the Corvallis campus.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will need to sign the legislation before it becomes official.

The complex also encompasses a new 20,000 square-foot research facility dedicated to developing and testing new wood building products that could be manufactured in Oregon. The Advanced Wood Building Products Laboratory will feature a high-bay lab, computer-controlled and robotic manufacturing systems and a unique strong floor for full-scale product testing.

The project will demonstrate innovative uses of engineered wood products, such as cross-laminated timber panels that can be up to 80 feet long and a foot thick and are part of a world-wide trend in building design.

“We are transforming the educational experience for undergraduate and graduate students,” said Thomas Maness, the Cheryl Ramberg Ford and Allyn C. Ford Dean of the College of Forestry. “Our expanded research and degree programs will give students and our partners a real-life glimpse into the future of forestry and the wood products industry. We are educating a workforce to advance the competitiveness of innovative wood products manufactured in Oregon.”

Through strategic partnerships, the complex will boost applied research efforts by combining the expertise necessary to develop new wood products and materials from initial concept to design, testing and commercial application.

Students and faculty at the Oregon State College of Forestry and College of Engineering and the University of Oregon’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts will use the new facilities.

“With this project investment, the State of Oregon is doubling down to lead a new national effort to advance the science and technology of environmentally friendly wood construction,” Maness said. “We are partnering with companies in our forest products industry to bring new jobs to rural communities.”

Among the innovations already under development at Oregon State are cross-laminated timber panels, environmentally friendly adhesives, innovative connection systems that shorten construction time, and new applications of wood-based composites.

In addition to benefits for sustainability and economic development, new wood construction techniques are attracting attention from engineers and architects.

“The spaces being designed with next-generation wood building products are beautiful, inviting, and healthy places to live and work,” Maness said. “Our new home for the College of Forestry will show what can be done with wood, while creating a place that will be exciting and inspiring to our students and all Oregonians who care deeply for the future of our working forest landscapes.”

Media Contact: 

Thomas Maness, 541-737-1585, thomas.maness@oregonstate.edu;

Geoff Huntington, 503-881-6225, geoff.huntington@oregonstate.edu

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The new building will replace the College of Forestry's Peavy Hall

OSU makes plans for expansion at Hatfield Marine Science Center

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The Oregon Legislature has approved $24.8 million in state bonding to help fund a new building at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport that will be a centerpiece for research and education on critical issues facing coastal communities.

The $50 million, 100,000-square-foot facility is an integral part of OSU’s ambitious Marine Studies Initiative, designed to educate students and conduct research on marine-related issues, from rising sea levels and ocean acidification to sustainable fisheries and economic stability.

Oregon State officials plan to begin construction on the new building in 2016/17 and open as early as 2018. The OSU Foundation will raise an additional $40 million in private funding for the Marine Studies Initiative – $25 million to match state funds for the new building and another $15 million to support related programs. Donors have pledged more than 75 percent of the total to date.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown will need to sign the legislation before it becomes official.

“This is an investment that will benefit not only higher education, but the research needs and the economic vitality for the entire coast,” said OSU President Ed Ray. “The support and leadership of the coastal legislators has been invaluable.”

Coastal legislators include senators Betsy Johnson, Arnie Roblan, and Jeff Kruse; and representatives Wayne Krieger, Caddy McKeown, Deborah Boone and David Gomberg.

“This new building is essential to the university’s goals of expanding education and research on marine-related issues,” said Bob Cowen, director of the Hatfield Marine Science Center. “There are so many critical issues facing coastal communities today – from economic stress tied to variable fish stocks to concerns over tsunamis, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, erosion and others.”

“The expansion is long overdue,” added Cowen, who is co-leader of the Marine Studies Initiative. “Although we’ve added a couple of buildings earmarked for state or federal agencies, it’s been decades since Oregon State has added capacity at the Hatfield Marine Science Center campus.”

Cowen said one area of focus for expansion will the overarching theme of coastal resilience.

“Geology students may come here to study coastal erosion, oceanography students may explore sea level rise, engineers might look at options for coastal buildings that are resistant to tsunamis or tidal surge, and sociologists could lead the way on how communities respond to a disaster,” Cowen said.

The new facility will be located adjacent to the Guin Library on the HMSC campus, which is just east of the Highway 101 bridge over Yaquina Bay in Newport. The location places the facility in close proximity to critically important saltwater laboratories and other HMSC research facilities. It is within the tsunami inundation zone, OSU officials say, though careful consideration went into the siting.

“We are very much aware of the various geological hazards the Pacific Ocean presents and we choose to use the siting as an educational and design opportunity,” Cowen said. “Our focus is on life safety. We believe we can be a model for anticipating a seismic event, and for how to live safely and productively in a tsunami zone. We want to be a showcase for earthquake and tsunami preparedness.”

OSU’s Marine Studies Initiative has set a goal to teach 500 students at the Hatfield center by 2025, and expand research at the facility, which is run by Oregon State and shared by several agencies, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Geological Survey.

The multiple agencies, along with Hatfield’s saltwater research laboratories and ship operations, make it one of the most important marine science facilities in the country – and the combination provides unique opportunities for OSU students.

“One of the goals of the Marine Studies Initiative is to really broaden various disciplines across the university,” said Jack Barth, associate dean of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-leader of the Marine Studies Initiative. “We’ll still focus on fisheries, marine biology, ocean processes and other science-related issues, but we see some exciting areas into which we could expand including economics, social and public policies, ocean engineering and others.

“In fact, the new marine studies degree will be housed in the College of Liberal Arts,” Barth added.

Cowen said the new facility will enable OSU to expand its teaching and research capacity at Hatfield by 20-25 faculty members. On the research side, principal investigators will work with graduate students, post-doctoral researchers and technicians, further expanding the center’s capacity. “Right now, OSU has about 12-14 research faculty on-site,” Cowen said, “so we’re talking about a significant increase.”

The new building will have several large spaces that will accommodate scientific talks and community workshops focused on marine issues.

The Hatfield Marine Science Center celebrates its 50th anniversary in August. More information on the event is available at http://hmsc.oregonstate.edu/main/50th-anniversary-hmsc

Media Contact: 

Bob Cowen, 541-867-0211, robert.cowen@oregonstate.edu;

Jack Barth, 541-737-1607, barth@coas.oregonstate.edu

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OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. (click to open)

Tough tail of a seahorse may provide robotic solutions

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the ocean’s oddest little creatures, the seahorse, is providing inspiration for robotics researchers as they learn from nature how to build robots that have capabilities sometimes at odds with one another – flexible, but also tough and strong.

Their findings, published today in the journal Science, outline the virtues of the seahorse’s unusual skeletal structure, including a tail in which a vertebral column is surrounded by square bony plates. These systems may soon help create technology that offers new approaches to surgery, search and rescue missions or industrial applications.

Although technically a fish, the seahorse has a tail that through millions of years of evolution has largely lost the ability to assist the animal in swimming. Instead, it provides a strong, energy-efficient grasping mechanism to cling to things such as seaweed or coral reefs, waiting for food to float by that it can suck into its mouth.

At the same time, the square structure of its tail provides flexibility; it can bend and twist, and naturally returns to its former shape better than animals with cylindrical tails. This helps the seahorse hide, easily bide its time while food floats to it, and it provides excellent crushing resistance - making the animal difficult for predators to eat.

“Human engineers tend to build things that are stiff so they can be controlled easily,” said Ross Hatton, an assistant professor in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University, and a co-author on the study. “But nature makes things just strong enough not to break, and then flexible enough to do a wide range of tasks. That’s why we can learn a lot from animals that will inspire the next generations of robotics.”

Hatton said biological systems can combine both control and flexibility, and researchers gravitated to the seahorse simply because it was so unusual. They theorized that the square structure of its tail, so rare in nature, must serve a purpose.

“We found that this square architecture provides adequate dexterity and a tough resistance to predators, but also that it tends to snap naturally back into place once it’s been twisted and deformed,” Hatton said. “This could be very useful for robotics applications that need to be strong, but also energy-efficient and able to bend and twist in tight spaces.”

Such applications, he said, might include laparoscopic surgery, in which a robotic device could offer enhanced control and flexibility as it enters a body, moves around organs and bones, and then has the strength to accomplish a surgical task. It could find uses in industrial system, search and rescue robots, or anything that needs to be both resilient and flexible.

The researchers were able to study the comparative merits of cylindrical and square structures by using computer models and three-dimensional printed prototypes. They found that when a seahorse tail is crushed, the bony plates tend to slide past one another, act as an energy absorbing mechanism, and resist fracture of the vertebral column. They can then snap back to their normal position with little use of energy.

The square system also proved to be stiffer, stronger and more resilient than circular ones.

“Understanding the role of mechanics in these biologically inspired designs may help engineers to develop seahorse-inspired technologies for a wide variety of applications in robotics, defense systems or biomedicine,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

Collaborators on this study included corresponding author Michael Porter from Clemson University; Ghent University in Belgium; and the University of California at San Diego. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, and the Agency for Innovation by Science and Technology.

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Seahorse skeleton
Seahorse skeleton

Square structure
Square tail structure

Clinging to grass

Scientists recruit public to help study “The Blob”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A huge mass of unusually warm water that scientists have dubbed “The Blob” has lurked off the West Coast for much of the past two years and speculation is growing that it may be connected in some way with the drought plaguing West Coast states.

So researchers are planning a new study to see what role The Blob – as well as human-induced climate change – may have played in creating the parched conditions in California, Oregon and Washington.

And they are looking for your help.

The research team plans to run hundreds of variations of computer models to disentangle these causes. The amount of data such a process creates is staggering and could require as many as three supercomputers to generate. Instead, the team will rely on thousands of citizen science volunteers that will let the researchers run simulations during idle times on their personal computers.

This study is part of an umbrella project, climateprediction.net, originally launched by Oxford University in 2003, and joined by researchers at Oregon State University in 2010 to use the combined power of thousands of individual computers to run climate modeling simulations. This latest project is supported by Climate Central, a non-profit climate research and journalism organization.

Anyone interested in participating in the project – or just following the analysis in real-time – can go to http://www.climateprediction.net/weatherathome/western-us-drought

 “It’s a great way for the general public to help the scientific community investigate some of the climate variations we’re seeing,” said Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute at Oregon State University. “It takes about a week to run a year-long unit of climate data and the program is set up to automatically feed the results back to the scientists.”

Scientists don’t yet know “what the answer will be at this point,” said Friederike Otto, who leads the study at Oxford University. “But anyone can go online and watch as the causes of the drought emerge.”

The West Coast drought has ranged from pesky to severe. In California, it has lasted four years and this is the most severe dry spell during the instrumental record, dating back to the late 1800s. Much of the state has suffered a double-whammy of near-record high temperatures and extremely low precipitation. Gov. Jerry Brown declared a drought state of emergency in January.

Oregon is in its second year of drought, and in both years, the issue has been very low snowpack because of warm, mild winters. Almost every county in the state has had a governor-declared drought at some time during the two years.

“It’s been a one-two-three punch here,” Mote said. “We’re getting warm winters, followed by a dry February through April period, and fairly warm but unusually dry summers. In the past, when we’ve had droughts, things look bad initially from a snowpack standpoint, but cool, wet March and April months bailed us out. We’re haven’t gotten those the past two years.”

Washington is in its first year of drought – a result almost exclusively tied to warmer winter temperatures. Just last month, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide drought.

This past period of December 2014 through February 2015 was the warmest on record in western Oregon and Washington. Mountain snowpack was at record low levels throughout much of the past six months in all three states.

“Scientists sometimes call this a ‘wet drought’ because the extremely low snowpack in the Northwest has been caused by unusually high temperatures, not abnormally low precipitation,” said Heidi Cullen, chief scientist with Climate Central and a former climate expert with the Weather Channel. “Winter rain has replaced snow during much of the past two winters.”

Is “The Blob” the culprit in the West Coast drought? No one seems to know for sure whether this warm-water mass, which is hundreds of miles long, is to blame. The Blob, which is about 4 degrees (F) warmer than normal, has appeared during the last two late winters/early springs and lingered for months.

“Four degrees may not sound like much, but that kind of anomaly in the ocean is huge,” said Mote, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “It has many implications, from physical processes in the ocean to biological impacts.”

In mid-June, for example, thousands of red crabs washed ashore in southern California – a phenomenon attributed to The Blob. Oregon and Washington are in the throes of a shutdown on shellfish harvesting, due to domoic acid accumulation. Caused by toxic algal blooms, the spike in domoic acid is thought to be caused by some kind of physical stress to the plankton, though it is uncertain if it is related to The Blob.

To test the connection between climate change, The Blob, and the drought, the research team will compare computer simulations of possible weather from an 18-month stretch (Dec. 1, 2013 to May 31, 2015) – including observed sea surface temperatures – with other 18-month stretches from 1981 to 2010. By running hundreds of computer models with slight variations, they hope to be able to determine what impacts The Blob and its swath of warm water have had on West Coast climate.

“Since we began involving citizen science volunteers, we’ve been able to address a wide range of climate-related issues throughout the world,” noted Myles Allen of Oxford University. “The public has a great opportunity to help researchers find out if there is a connection between The Blob and the West Coast drought, to what extent climate change may have contributed, and whether other factors are behind it.”

Media Contact: 

Phil Mote, 541-737-5694, (cell 541-913-2274)  pmote@coas.oregonstate.edu

Fat, sugar cause bacterial changes that may relate to loss of cognitive function

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study at Oregon State University indicates that both a high-fat and a high-sugar diet, compared to a normal diet, cause changes in gut bacteria that appear related to a significant loss of “cognitive flexibility,” or the power to adapt and adjust to changing situations.

This effect was most serious on the high-sugar diet, which also showed an impairment of early learning for both long-term and short-term memory.

The findings are consistent with some other studies about the impact of fat and sugar on cognitive function and behavior, and suggest that some of these problems may be linked to alteration of the microbiome – a complex mixture in the digestive system of about 100 trillion microorganisms.

The research was done with laboratory mice that consumed different diets and then faced a variety of tests, such as water maze testing, to monitor changes in their mental and physical function, and associated impacts on various types of bacteria. The findings were published in the journal Neuroscience, in work supported by the Microbiology Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

“It’s increasingly clear that our gut bacteria, or microbiota, can communicate with the human brain,” said Kathy Magnusson, a professor in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine and principal investigator with the Linus Pauling Institute.

“Bacteria can release compounds that act as neurotransmitters, stimulate sensory nerves or the immune system, and affect a wide range of biological functions,” she said. “We’re not sure just what messages are being sent, but we are tracking down the pathways and the effects.”

Mice have proven to be a particularly good model for studies relevant to humans, Magnusson said, on such topics as aging, spatial memory, obesity and other issues.

In this research, after just four weeks on a high-fat or a high-sugar diet, the performance of mice on various tests of mental and physical function began to drop, compared to animals on a normal diet. One of the most pronounced changes was in what researchers call cognitive flexibility.

“The impairment of cognitive flexibility in this study was pretty strong,” Magnusson said. “Think about driving home on a route that’s very familiar to you, something you’re used to doing. Then one day that road is closed and you suddenly have to find a new way home.”

A person with high levels of cognitive flexibility would immediately adapt to the change, determine the next best route home, and remember to use the same route the following morning, all with little problem. With impaired flexibility, it might be a long, slow, and stressful way home.

This study was done with young animals, Magnusson said, which ordinarily would have a healthier biological system that’s better able to resist pathological influences from their microbiota. The findings might be even more pronounced with older animals or humans with compromised intestinal systems, she said.

What’s often referred to as the “Western diet,” or foods that are high in fat, sugars and simple carbohydrates, has been linked to a range of chronic illnesses in the United States, including the obesity epidemic and an increased incidence of Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’ve known for a while that too much fat and sugar are not good for you,” Magnusson said. “This work suggests that fat and sugar are altering your healthy bacterial systems, and that’s one of the reasons those foods aren’t good for you. It’s not just the food that could be influencing your brain, but an interaction between the food and microbial changes.”

Media Contact: 

Kathy Magnusson, 541-737-6923

Toxic algal blooms behind Klamath River dams create health risks far downstream

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that toxic algal blooms in reservoirs on the Klamath River can travel more than 180 miles downriver in a few days, survive passage through hydroelectric turbines and create unsafe water conditions on lower parts of the river in northern California.

Water-borne algal blooms can accumulate to concentrations that can pose health risks to people, pets and wildlife, and improved monitoring and public health outreach is needed to address this issue, researchers said.

The frequency, duration and magnitude of harmful algal blooms appear to be increasing.

The findings were made by researchers from Oregon State University, based on data from an extensive survey of the Klamath River in 2012, and just published in Harmful Algae, a professional journal.

The toxins may be a special concern if they are bioaccumulated in some animal species, such as freshwater mussels in which the level of the toxin can be more than 100 times higher than ambient concentrations.

“It’s clear that these harmful algal blooms can travel long distances on the river, delivering toxins to areas that are presently underappreciated, such as coastal margins,” said Timothy Otten, an OSU postdoctoral scholar in the OSU College of Science and College of Agricultural Sciences.

“And the blooms are dynamic, since they can move up and down in the water column and are physically distributed throughout the reservoir,” he said. “This means you can’t just measure water in one place and at one time and adequately estimate the public health risk.”

Microcystis is a seasonal blue-green cyanobacterium found around the world, preferring warm waters in lakes and reservoirs. Some strains are toxic, others are not. Its magnitude and persistence may increase with global climate change, researchers say, and it can cause a range of health issues, including liver damage, rashes, gastrointestinal illness, and other concerns. The toxin is not destroyed by boiling, making it unique from many other biological drinking water contaminants.

Improved awareness of the ability of blooms to travel significant distances downstream, and communication based on that, would help better inform the public, the OSU scientists said. But individual knowledge and awareness would also help.

“On a lake or river, if you see a green band along the shore or green scum on the surface, the water may not be safe to recreate in,” Otten said. “Because this problem is so diffuse, it's often not possible to put up posters or signs everywhere that there’s a problem in real-time, so people need to learn what to watch for.  Just as with poison ivy or oak, the general public needs to learn to recognize what these hazards look like, and know to avoid them in order to safeguard their own health.”

In this and other recent research, the OSU scientists have also developed genetic tools that can help identify problems with Microcystis, more quickly and at lower cost than some older methods. But those tools have not yet been widely adopted by the monitoring community.

“Right now, some lakes are not sampled at all for algal blooms, so we don’t really know if there’s a problem or not,” said Theo Dreher, the Pernot Professor and former chair of the Department of Microbiology in the OSU College of Science and College of Agricultural Sciences. “There’s no doubt we could use improved monitoring in highly used lakes and reservoirs, or in rivers downstream of them when toxic blooms are found.”

In this study, researchers found that intensive blooms of Microcystis in Iron Gate Reservoir on the Klamath River were the primary source of toxic algae observed downstream. They used genetic tracking technology to establish what many may have suspected when observing Microcystis in the lower reaches of the Klamath River. This transport of algae has been very little studied, even though it’s likely common.

The possible removal of dams on the Klamath River after 2020 may ultimately help mitigate this problem, the researchers said. Their study found no evidence of endemic Microcystis populations in the flowing regions of the Klamath River, both upstream and downstream of the Copco and Iron Gate reservoirs.

The problem with these bacteria is national and global in scope, especially in summer.

There are more than 123,000 lakes greater than 10 acres in size across the United States, and based on an EPA National Lakes Assessment, at least one-third may contain toxin-producing cyanobacteria. Dams, rising temperatures and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, extreme weather and increased runoff of nutrients from urban and agricultural lands are all compounding the problem.

Many large, eutrophic lakes such as Lake Erie are plagued each year by algal blooms so massive that they are visible from outer space. Dogs have died from drinking contaminated water, and sea otter deaths in Monterey Bay have been attributed to eating shellfish contaminated with toxin produced by Microsystis.

This study was supported by Pacificorp, the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station and the Mabel E. Pernot Trust.

Media Contact: 

Tim Otten, 541-737-1796

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Toxic algal bloom
Toxic algal bloom

View of “nature as capital” uses economic value to help achieve a sustainable future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers today outlined in a series of reports how governments, organizations and corporations are successfully moving away from short-term exploitation of the natural world and embracing a long-term vision of “nature as capital” – the ultimate world bank upon which the health and prosperity of humans and the planet depend.

The reports, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that significant progress has been made in the past decade, and that people, policy-makers and leaders around the world are beginning to understand ecosystem services as far more than a tree to cut or fish to harvest.

“Valuing nature means understanding the myriad ways in which our communities, health and economies depend on ecosystems,” said Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor at Oregon State University, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and co-leader of this group of studies.

“There is now broad appreciation of nature’s values and we are learning how to incorporate that knowledge into policy and management decisions by governments, financial institutions and businesses,” she said. “In 10 years we’ve gone from very little specific understanding to powerful examples, where working with nature is benefitting people now and in the future.”

The stakes are high. The world’s gross domestic product has increased nearly 60 times since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the researchers point out, allowing a dramatic increase in the standard of living even as Earth’s population surged.

But with global environmental threats in the future and a world population that may approach 10 billion by 2100, the health of nature will literally become a life-support system that no longer can tolerate short-term production and consumption at the expense of natural stewardship. Disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill are being evaluated not just based on the immediate damage, but also the long-term costs such as lost water filtration, hunting and fishing.

Scientists say that just in recent years, we may be turning the corner toward approaches that could help the planet and all its natural inhabitants to live long and prosper.

In the U.S., some coastal restoration practices gained support as more people understood their additional value for carbon sequestration and storage. In Denver, a water board provided $32 million for forest restoration work to avoid damage to water quality caused by large wildfires.

Costa Rica has transformed itself from having the world’s highest deforestation rate to one of the few countries with net reforestation. South Africa has linked development and ecosystem service planning to better allocate water, reduce poverty and avoid disasters. China is creating a network of “ecosystem function conservation areas” that focus conservation in areas with a high return on investment. In the Brazilian Amazon, environmental protection has helped reduce the incidence of malaria, acute respiratory infection and diarrhea.

The researchers said that sometimes, but not always, it can help to literally translate ecosystem services into a dollar value – what something is worth, and what would it cost if we lost it. Such approaches have helped set the stage for cap-and-trade of carbon emissions, taxes on activities with negative ecosystem impacts, and certification systems to help inform consumers and realign incentives in the private sector.

One notable success story, outlined today in a different publication co-authored by Lubchenco in the journal Oceanography, is fisheries policy and marine management in the U.S. and European Union.

The approach incorporates a commitment to end overfishing, complete with time tables and strict accountability, plus the option of using rights-based approaches to fishery management. In the U.S., these are called “catch shares,” and they give fishermen a say in the present and a stake in the future, within scientifically determined limits. Catch shares, plus the mandate to end overfishing, are turning fisheries around, to the benefit of fishermen, consumers and ecosystems. 

This approach has transformed U.S. fisheries. For example, the number of overfished stocks in U.S. federal fisheries has plummeted from 92 stocks in 2000 to 37 in 2014.  The number of stocks that were previously depleted and have now recovered to a point where they can be fished sustainably has increased dramatically, from zero in 2000 to 37 in 2014.

Elsewhere in the world, other rights-based approaches to fisheries are also ending overfishing and protecting biodiversity.  For example, so-called ‘TURF reserves’ combine an exclusive right to fish in a particular area with no-take marine reserves.  Under this system, fully protected marine reserves provide a wide range of ecological benefits while helping to produce larger and more diverse fish species that can “seed” the areas around the reserve. Those areas can then be fished, using science-based harvest levels, by fishermen who have exclusive rights to certain areas, and gain a personal interest in protecting the sustainability of the system.

Such an approach can help protect natural systems in perpetuity while promoting economic health, and may be especially critical for food security in parts of the developing world, where nearly three billion people depend on fish for at least 20 percent of their animal protein intake.

“The challenges in fishery management are significant, but we also have good news to celebrate,” Lubchenco said. “We can end overfishing at the same time we return fisheries to profitability and sustainability.

“Much work remains to be done,” Lubchenco said. “Our global economic, political and social systems depend on the world’s natural resources, but many policy decisions do not yet explicitly incorporate natural capital into the decision-making process. However, these new results from around the world show what works. The real opportunity is widespread adoption of these ideas and approaches.”

Media Contact: 

Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337

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Rice terraces
Rice terrace in China

Decades of research yield natural dairy thickener with probiotic potential

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Microbiologists at Oregon State University have discovered and helped patent and commercialize a new type of dairy or food thickener, which may add probiotic characteristics to the products in which it’s used.

The thickener is now in commercial use, and OSU officials say it may have a significant impact in major industries. The global market for polymers such as this approaches $7 billion, and there are estimates the U.S. spends up to $120 billion a year on probiotic products such as yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk.

The new product is produced by a natural bacterium that was isolated in Oregon. It’s the result of decades of research, beginning in the early 1990s when a novel polymer with an ability to rapidly thicken milk was discovered by an OSU microbiologist. The polymer is known as Ropy 352 and produced by a non-disease-causing bacterium.

“This is one of many naturally occurring, non-disease-causing bacterial strains my research program isolated and studied for years,” said Janine Trempy, an OSU microbiologist. “We discovered that this bacterium had a brand-new, never-before reported grouping of genes that code for a unique polymer that naturally thickens milk. In basic research, we’ve also broadened our understanding of how and why non-disease-causing bacteria produce polymers.”

This polymer appears to give fermented foods a smooth, thick, creamy property, and may initially find uses in sour cream, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, cream cheese and artisan soft cheeses. Composed of natural compounds, it offers a slightly sweet property and may improve the sensory characteristics of low-fat or no-fat foods. And unlike other polymers that are now commonly used as thickeners, it may add probiotic characteristics to foods, with associated health benefits.

“There are actually very few new, non-disease-causing bacterial strains that produce unique polymers with characteristics desirable and safe for food products,” Trempy said. “In the case of a dairy thickener, for instance, a bacterium such as Ropy 352 ferments the sugar in the milk and produces a substance that changes the milk’s properties.”

These are chemical processes driven by naturally occurring bacteria that do not cause disease in humans, Trempy said, but instead may contribute to human health through their probiotic potential.

One of the most common polymers, xanthum gum, has been in use since 1969 and is found in a huge range of food products, from canned foods to ice cream, pharmaceuticals and beauty products. Xanthum gum is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but is derived from a bacterium known to be a plant pathogen and suspected of causing digestive distress or being “pyrogenic,” or fever-inducing.

Trempy’s research program has determined the new polymer will thicken whole and non-fat milk, lactose-free milk, coconut milk, rice milk, and other products designed for use in either dieting or gaining weight. Beyond that, the polymer may have a wide range of applications such as thickening of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, fruit juices, cosmetics and personal care products.

In their broader uses, microbial polymers are used for food production, chemical production, detergents, cosmetics, paints, pesticides, fertilizers, film formers, lubricants, explosives, pharmaceutical production and waste treatment.

OSU recently agreed to a non-exclusive license for the patented Ropy 352 technology to a global market leader for dairy starter cultures. It’s also available for further licensing through OSU’s Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development.

Media Contact: 

Janine Trempy, 541-737-4441

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Food thickener
Dairy thickener

Researchers to complete final deployment of OOI instrumentation this week

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University scientists this week will deploy a sophisticated research buoy and two undersea gliders, all fitted with a suite of oceanographic instruments – a final piece of the “Endurance Array,” a major component of the National Science Foundation’s $386 million Ocean Observatories Initiative.

This major marine science infrastructure project was launched in 2009 to better monitor the world’s oceans and the impacts of climate change. It is the largest single investment in ocean monitoring in United States history.

The Endurance Array off the Pacific Northwest coast has become a focal point for scientists because of emerging issues including hypoxia and marine “dead zones,” climate change impacts, subduction zone earthquakes, tsunamis, harmful algal blooms, wave energy potential, ocean acidification and dramatic variations in some upwelling-fed fisheries.

“This observatory opens up a new type of window to the sea, with environmental data available in ‘real time’ to researchers, educators, policy makers and ocean users,” said Ed Dever, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and project manager for the Endurance Array. “In the short term, it will be a laboratory for the study of processes in one of the great coastal upwelling systems on our planet.

“In the long term, the information it collects will allow us, our children, and our grandchildren to better understand the impacts of global climate change on the coastal ocean off Oregon and Washington.”

The deployment this week of an inshore surface buoy about a mile off Nye Beach in Newport – in waters about 25 meters deep – is the third and final platform location in the array’s “Newport Hydrographic Line.”  The line includes a shelf surface buoy in 80 meters of water, about 10 miles off the coast; and an off-shore surface buoy in 500 meters of water, about 35 miles out.

The in-shore surface buoy is designed to be battered by severe Pacific Ocean waves that hit the coast in winter, yet stay in place and continue making important measurements, noted Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer who has been a lead scientist on the Ocean Observatories Initiative since the early planning stages more than a decade ago.

“For the first time, the science community will be able to monitor and assess all components of the ocean simultaneously, from the physics to the biology to the chemistry,” Barth said. “The OOI is not just about measuring the ocean in different ways – it is a way to understand how ocean processes affect things like plankton production and how that in turns fertilizes the marine food web, affects acidification, leads to harmful algal blooms, and affects oxygen in the water that may lead to dead zones.”

The researchers say the proximity of the buoy to the coast is critical to understanding ocean wave and coastal river responses to winter storms.

The buoy will have an impressive array of instruments – at the surface, on the seafloor where it is anchored, and attached to a cable running up and down the water column. Various sensors will measure water velocity, temperature, salinity, pH, light intensity, carbon dioxide, dissolved oxygen, nitrate, chlorophyll, backscatter (or the measure of particles in the water), light absorption – and even populations of zooplankton and fish.

“This will provide an absolutely incredible amount of data,” Barth said. “The biggest difference is that these instruments will be out there constantly monitoring the oceans. Before, we had to rely on shipboard data, which is very hit-and-miss. As we began to use undersea gliders, we picked up more information – but gliders are limited by their power supply, so you can only load so many instruments on them.

“These buoys are game-changers,” he added. “We will be able to better monitor emerging hypoxia threats, toxic plankton blooms and ocean acidification. Fishermen can match oceanographic data with catch records and look at how temperature, salinity and other factors may affect fishing. The possibilities are endless.”

The other two buoys in the Newport Hydrographic Line will have a similar array of instruments. They will be paired with seafloor instruments that will be plugged into an underwater cable operated by the University of Washington. The cable will provide additional power for the instrumentation and high-bandwidth, two-way communications.

Oregon State also deployed a similar transect of three buoys off Grays Harbor, Wash. Together, the two east-west lines of buoys will give scientists an idea of what is happening in the ocean north and south of the influential Columbia River.

“As conditions change, we will have the ability to add new sensors and address questions that we may not be considering right now,” Dever said.

Undersea gliders represent another critical component of the Ocean Observatories Initiative. Oregon State will operate 12 gliders as part of the program, with six in the water patrolling the Northwest coast, and six more to rotate in after maintenance and reprogramming. Three gliders are operating now; two additional gliders will be deployed off Oregon this week, and a sixth glider off Washington later this month.

“The Pacific Northwest coast is becoming one of the most closely monitored ocean regions in the world,” Barth said.

Media Contact: 

Ed Dever, 541-737-2749, edever@coas.oregonstate.edu 

Jack Barth, 541-737-1607, barth@coas.oregonstate.edu

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