OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

New system to restore wetlands could reduce massive floods, aid crops

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Engineers at Oregon State University have developed a new interactive planning tool to create networks of small wetlands in Midwest farmlands, which could help the region prevent massive spring floods and also retain water and mitigate droughts in a warming climate.

The planning approach, which is being developed and tested in a crop-dominated watershed near Indianapolis, is designed to identify the small areas best suited to wetland development, optimize their location and size, and restore a significant portion of the region’s historic water storage ability by using only a small fraction of its land.

Using this approach, the researchers found they could capture the runoff from 29 percent of a watershed using only 1.5 percent of the entire area.

The findings were published in Ecological Engineering, a professional journal, and a website is now available at http://wrestore.iupui.edu/ that allows users to apply the principles to their own land.

The need for new approaches to assist farmers and agencies to work together and use science-based methods is becoming critical, experts say. Massive floods and summer droughts have become more common and intense in the Midwest because of climate change and decades of land management that drains water rapidly into rivers via tile drains.

“The lands of the Midwest, which is one of the great food producing areas of the world, now bear little resemblance to their historic form, which included millions of acres of small lakes and wetlands that have now been drained,” said Meghna Babbar-Sebens, an assistant professor of civil and construction engineering at Oregon State. “Agriculture, deforestation, urbanization and residential development have all played a role.

“We have to find some way to retain and slowly release water, both to use it for crops and to prevent flooding,” Babbar-Sebens said. “There’s a place for dams and reservoirs but they won’t solve everything. With increases in runoff, what was once thought to be a 100-year flood event is now happening more often.

“Historically, wetlands in Indiana and other Midwestern states were great at intercepting large runoff events and slowing down the flows,” she said. “But Indiana has lost more than 85 percent of the wetlands it had prior to European settlement.”

An equally critical problem is what appears to be increasing frequency of summer drought, she said, which may offer a solid motivation for the region’s farmers to become involved. The problem is not just catastrophic downstream flooding in the spring, but also the loss of water and soil moisture in the summer that can be desperately needed in dry years.

The solution to both issues, scientists say, is to “re-naturalize” the hydrology of a large section of the United States. Working toward this goal was a research team from Oregon State University, Indiana University-Purdue University in Indianapolis, the Wetlands Institute in New Jersey, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. They used engineering principles, historic analysis and computer simulations to optimize the effectiveness of any land use changes, so that minimal land use alteration would offer farmers and landowners a maximum of benefits.

In the Midwest, many farmers growing corn, soybeans and other crops have placed “tiles” under their fields to rapidly drain water into streams, which dries the soil and allows for earlier planting. Unfortunately, it also concentrates pollutants, increases flooding and leaves the land drier during the summer. Without adequate rain, complete crop losses can occur.

Experts have also identified alternate ways to help, including the use of winter cover crops and grass waterways that help retain and more slowly release water. And the new computer systems can identify the best places for all of these approaches to be used.

The work has been supported by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation.

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Meghna Babbar-Sebens, 541-737-8536

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Wetlands

Iowa wetlands

Newport researchers seek to reduce bycatch in groundfish trawling

NEWPORT, Ore. – Researchers working with the groundfish fishing industry in the Pacific Northwest have tested a new “flexible sorting grid excluder” – a type of bycatch reduction device that shows promise to significantly reduce the incidental bycatch of Pacific halibut from commercial bottom trawl fishermen.

In a series of tests that included 30 tows off the Washington coast, commercial fishermen were able to reduce the number of halibut taken as bycatch by 57 percent, while retaining 84 percent of the targeted groundfishes, according to Mark Lomeli of the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, an organization that helps resource agencies and the fishing industry sustainably manage Pacific Ocean resources.

The findings are being published in the journal Fisheries Research.

Incidental bycatch is a significant issue in many coastal regions including the Pacific Northwest. It occurs when fishing operations result in the discard of non-targeted fish and invertebrates, or through accidental interactions with mammals, seabirds and sea turtles. It is of particular concern, resource managers say, when these “bycaught” species are overfished, threatened or endangered.

The halibut project is the latest success in a series of bycatch reduction projects conducted through a collaboration between NOAA Fisheries and the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission. These projects have captured the interest of the fishing industry, according to Waldo Wakefield of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, a principal investigator on the project and co-author on the article.

“Fishermen are really engaged in the research because they are concerned about getting shut down if the weight of the halibut bycatch approaches a certain threshold,” said Wakefield, who works out of Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “The fishermen are not only engaged with the scientists, but they interact with each other and with the net-makers.

“In addition to the reality of being shut down, there is a perception issue,” added Wakefield, who is a courtesy professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “They don’t want to unnecessarily be killing halibut, salmon and other species.”

The flexible sorting grid excluder uses two vertical sorting panels that sort fish by size as they progress back toward the codend, noted Lomeli, who was lead author on the Fisheries Research article. The concept to the design is that fish smaller than the grid openings will pass through and be retained, where fish greater than the grid openings – such as the halibut – will be excluded from the net via an exit ramp.

“The system is not perfect,” Lomeli said. “Smaller halibut will occasionally slip through and fishermen in the tests lost about 16 percent of the groundfish they were targeting.”

Nevertheless, the reduction of the halibut bycatch is significant and may be improved by further research.

“The benefit of this type of gear is that fishermen can use smaller or bigger grids depending on the size of the fish,” noted Lomeli, who also works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. “What works for one vessel may not work for another, and fishermen may want to adjust when they target different species. “

Bycatch has become a major issue, the researchers noted, especially since many of the fisheries have gone to a catch-share management system, which caps the number of fish individual fisherman can catch instead of the old system, which had a quota for the entire industry. As part of the new management system, observers are now aboard each fishing vessel to note the catch numbers and weight of both targeted fish and bycatch.

“If the fishermen start getting close to catching too many fish of the wrong species, they typically move, change gear or fish during a different time of the year,” said Wakefield, who is with the Fishery Resource Analysis and Monitoring Division of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.

Wakefield and Lomeli have been collaboratively conducting trawl selectivity studies in West Coast trawl fisheries. Their initial work began with the Pacific whiting industry at reducing Chinook salmon bycatch. In this work, a bycatch reduction device using an open escape window was developed that allowed strong-swimming Chinook to escape through the open window, while weak-swimming Pacific hake passed through to the codend.

They also worked with Bob Hannah and Stephen Jones of Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in helping the Oregon pink shrimp industry reduce habitat impacts and bycatch of eulachon, a small threatened species in the smelt family, by modifying components of the trawl net. The research team is continuing its work with shrimpers, developing new proposals to further decrease the bycatch of eulachon as well as juvenile rockfish.

The collaborative effort to reduce bycatch by NOAA, the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission, ODFW, the fishing industry, net-makers and others is one reason Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center was established – and is considered one of the most unique marine research and education facilities in the world.  The bycatch issue is of such significance it will be a focus of Marine Science Day on April 13 at the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

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Waldo Wakefield, 541-867-0542

Mobile LIDAR technology expanding rapidly

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Imagine driving down a road a few times and obtaining in an hour more data about the surrounding landscape than a crew of surveyors could obtain in months.

Such is the potential of mobile LIDAR, a powerful technology that’s only a few years old and promises to change the way we see, study and record the world around us. It will be applied in transportation, hydrology, forestry, virtual tourism and construction – and almost no one knows anything about it.

That may change with a new report on the uses and current technology of mobile LIDAR, which has just been completed and presented to the Transportation Research Board of the National Academy of Sciences. It will help more managers and experts understand, use and take advantage of this science.

The full exploitation of this remarkable technology, however, faces constraints. Too few experts are trained to use it, too few educational programs exist to teach it, mountains of data are produced that can swamp the computer capabilities of even large agencies, and lack of a consistent data management protocol clogs the sharing of information between systems.

“A lot of people and professionals still don’t even know what mobile LIDAR is or what it can do,” said Michael Olsen, an assistant professor of civil engineering at Oregon State University, and lead author of the new report. “And the technology is changing so fast it’s hard for anyone, even the experts, to keep up.

“When we get more people using mobile LIDAR and we work through some of the obstacles, it’s going to reduce costs, improve efficiency, change many professions and even help save lives,” Olsen said.

LIDAR, which stands for light detecting and ranging, has been used for 20 years, primarily in aerial mapping. Pulses of light up to one million times a second bounce back from whatever they hit, forming a highly detailed and precise map of the landscape. But mobile LIDAR used on the ground, with even more powerful computer systems, is still in its infancy and has only been commercially available for five years.

Mobile LIDAR, compared to its aerial counterpart, can provide 10 to 100 times more data points that hugely improve the resolution of an image. Moving even at highway speeds, a technician can obtain a remarkable, three-dimensional view of the nearby terrain.

Such technology could be used repeatedly in one area and give engineers a virtual picture of an unstable, slow-moving hillside. It could provide a detailed image of a forest, or an urban setting, or a near-perfect recording of surrounding geology. An image of a tangle of utility lines in a ditch, made just before they were backfilled and covered, would give construction workers 30 years later a 3-D map to guide them as they repaired a leaking pipe.

Mobile LIDAR may someday be a key to driverless automobiles, or used to create amazing visual images that will enhance “virtual tourism” and let anyone, anywhere, actually see what an area looks like as if they were standing there. The applications in surveying and for transportation engineering are compelling, and may change entire professions.

Just recently, mobile LIDAR was used to help the space shuttle Endeavour maneuver through city streets to reach its final home in Los Angeles.

Some of the newest applications, Olsen said, will have to wait until there are enough experts to exploit them. OSU operates one of the few programs in the nation to train students in both civil engineering and this evolving field of “geomatics,” and more jobs are available than there are people to fill them. Due to a partnership with Leica Geosystems and David Evans and Associates, OSU has sufficient hardware and software to maintain a variety of geomatics courses. But more educational programs are needed, Olsen said, and fully-trained and licensed professionals can make $100,000 or more annually.

Other nations, he said, including Canada, have made a much more aggressive commitment to using mobile LIDAR and training students in geomatics. It is critical for the U.S. to follow suit, Olsen said.

Collaborators on the new report included researchers from the University of Houston, Lidarnews.com, David Evans and Associates, Persi Consulting, and Innovative Data, Inc.

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Michael Olsen, 541-737-9327

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Glitter Gulch

Glitter Gulch


Highway image using LIDAR

Highway image


Video of space shuttle move:

http://bit.ly/R1wMM7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scott Baker, 541-272-0560

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pilot whale strandings