(From the Winter 2010 Oregon Stater)
By Mark Floyd
For the past decade, Oregon State University has boasted an oceanography program ranked among the top five in the nation, and its broad spectrum of marine and coastal science research has an international reputation that few institutions can match.
Yet it wasn’t until a series of announcements over the past year that many Oregonians sat up and took notice of what was going on in their own backyard. As the university begins a historic reorganization intended in part to achieve a “critical mass” in many signature areas of research, OSU’s work in marine science stands as a prime example of how that looks. Among the announcements:
In september 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy announced that it would create a new Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, further cementing the leadership of the university in wave energy development and bringing to $13 million the total amount of funding for the initiative.
This January, the Obama administration nominated OSU zoology professor Jane Lubchenco to become administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – a prestigious post to which she later was confirmed.
In August, NOAA announced that it would move its Pacific fleet operations from Seattle to Newport to be adjacent the OSU’s Hatfield center, a stunning economic boon for the mid-Oregon coast that will bring as many as 175 NOAA employees, a half-dozen ships and an annual economic impact in the tens of millions.
The National Science Foundation announced in September that OSU would be one of the lead institutions on a $386.4 million Ocean Observatories Initiative that, among other things, will establish a system of surface moorings, seafloor platforms and undersea gliders to monitor the ocean – with a major presence off Newport.
These developments don’t come about by accident, points out OSU President Ed Ray. They build upon a half-century legacy of research. Combined, they create a critical mass of focused excellence in ocean and coastal science.
“OSU has been doing world-class research, both on its own and in collaboration with other universities and agencies, for many years,” Ray said. “The move of the NOAA fleet, the Ocean Observatories funding and other initiatives in Newport are simply logical responses to the research strength that has been assembled there and on campus – and extends literally into every corner of the world.”
Oregon State’s emergence as a force in marine and ocean sciences has been in the works for decades, though its public persona has been in different disciplines. The university came of age as an agricultural institution, developed the top-ranked forestry program in the country, and toward the end of the last century, gained a reputation as an emerging force in engineering. Marine sciences got some recognition, such as when OSU oceanographers discovered the first documented undersea hydrothermal vents and when John Byrne, who later would be OSU president, was named NOAA administrator.
But no one ever accused OSU of being a sea cow college.
“We’ve always been the light under the bushel basket,” said Mark Abbott, dean of OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. “Face it, fundamental science isn’t necessarily sexy. But more and more people are beginning to notice Oregon State because of the volume of high-quality research, our federal leadership, the emergence of programs with applications to real-world problems and that confluence of recent major events.”
Oceanography began at OSU in the late 1950s under the leadership of Wayne Burt, but its reach was limited by poor facilities and little access to the ocean. The 16-foot fiberglass boat Burt used in those early days was primarily restricted to exploring Yaquina Bay and it wasn’t until the Office of Naval Research provided a sea-going 80-foot research vessel called the Acona in 1961 that the university was able to seriously attract new faculty interested in ocean research, according to Byrne.
The R/V Yaquina followed in 1964, and a year later, OSU opened the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport as a research, education and outreach facility. As both HMSC and the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences grew, the university developed marine science strengths in other areas – including the zoology department within the College of Science, fisheries and wildlife within the College of Agricultural Sciences, the nationally recognized Oregon Sea Grant program, the wave energy and tsunami research clusters within the College of Engineering, and others.
The overall growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 2008-09, Oregon State University attracted $61 million in funding for ocean and coast science research – which amounts to 32 percent of OSU’s entire research budget.
And a funny thing happened along the way. Fundamental science has become – if not sexy, at least, necessary in the eyes of the public.
When the oil tanker New Carissa sank near Coos Bay in 1999, OSU physical oceanographers explained where the currents would carry the spilled oil. When the Pacific Ocean off Oregon was first plagued by low-oxygen or hypoxic areas in 2001-02 that led to periodic marine “dead zones,” it was an interdisciplinary team of OSU researchers that described the phenomenon – and explained its origins.
The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people drew comparisons with Oregon’s own Cascadia Subduction Zone and brought the university’s researchers into the spotlight. OSU’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory includes one of the world’s foremost tsunami wave basins. When harmful algal blooms closed clam harvests and killed hundreds of seabirds, OSU was there with its fundamental science to show how plankton can become toxic.
Now climate change threatens to trump all other issues and there may not be another university in the country better suited to study the basic science underlying climate, analyze the impacts on fisheries and coastal processes, and educate the citizenry through its applied programs.
A common thread that runs through OSU’s marine sciences is collaboration. Nowhere is that more evident that the Hatfield Marine Science Center, where OSU researchers work daily with partners from state and federal agencies, private industry and marine educators to conduct research on critical issues, and to share that information with the public and key stakeholders.
“In recent years, Newport has become a major force in coastal marine science in this country and we like to say that OSU provides the portal to the sea,” said George Boehlert, who directs the center. “What makes the university unique among marine science programs is how it responds to the needs of the state and region, which is the application of its land grant mission to the coast and ocean.
“There are few other places in the country where you will see commercial fishermen and crabbers working directly with researchers on issues,” Boehlert added.
While recent events have elevated OSU’s marine science visibility within the state, the university’s national and international research scope continues to grow. OSU scientists conduct research in the coastal areas of every continent, from vertical tsunami-proof structures in Japan, to hypoxia regions off Chile and South Africa, to melting ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctic regions.
Oregon State’s leadership on the national ocean science scene is literal. In addition to Lubchenco’s NOAA appointment: Kelly Falkner just returned from leading the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic research programs; Mike Freilich heads NASA’s Earth Science Division; Abbott is a member of the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF and advises Congress and the President; and Tim Cowles was appointed to direct the Ocean Observatories Initiative.
As OSU’s ocean and coastal science programs grow, even more opportunities await. Oregon State has submitted a proposal for a new $100 million ocean-going vessel to replace the aging R/V Wecoma and researchers hope to receive word in early spring, Abbott says.
“Oregon State University has perhaps more breadth and depth in marine and coastal science than anyone, and that opens up a lot of doors,” Abbott said. “In addition to expertise in many different disciplines, we provide fundamental science, research with direct application, and now we’re providing new access to the ocean through ships, satellites, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, gliders, the Marine Mammal Institute and other programs – and we do it on a global scale.”
OREGON FACES AN OCEAN OF ISSUES
Not so long ago, Oregonians considered the Pacific Ocean vast, stable and virtually impervious to human influence. How quickly things change. Consider the laundry list of issues that have made recent headlines: global climate change, ocean acidification, coastal erosion, massive earthquakes and tsunamis, marine “dead zones,” harmful algal blooms, declining salmon runs … the list goes on.
All of these potentially affect Oregon. And all have OSU researchers leading scientific efforts to mitigate their impacts. Here is just a sampling:
For each of the past eight years, Oregon has experienced low-oxygen waters in its near-shore and though the finger of blame for this hypoxia and resulting “dead zones” cannot yet be pointed at climate change, the symptoms dovetail with those predicted by most climate change models.
Oceanographer Jack Barth and zoologist Francis Chan are two of the principal investigators in PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans – an OSU-led consortium of four universities, including Stanford, which is funded by the Packard and Moore foundations to study near-shore dynamics. Oregon’s hypoxia varies in length and severity and OSU studies have shown that it is caused by changes in wind and ocean circulation patterns.
“In 2006, we had the strongest, most widespread hypoxia event yet seen off the Pacific Coast,” Chan said, “and it also was the most long-lasting. For the first time we had ever observed, some parts of the near-shore ocean actually ran out of oxygen altogether.”
Ocean acidification also is a by-product of the changing oceans. An international team of researchers aboard OSU’s research vessel Wecoma last year documented for the first time high levels of acidified ocean water within 20 miles of the West Coast shoreline – raising concern for marine ecosystems from Canada to Mexico. Burke Hales, an OSU oceanographer on that team, said the corrosive, acidified water that is being “upwelled” seasonally from the deeper ocean, is probably 50 years old – suggesting that future ocean acidification will increase because atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen sharply.
“When the upwelled water was last at the surface, it was exposed to an atmosphere with much lower CO2 levels than that we see today,” Hales said. “The water that will upwell off the coast in future years already is making its undersea trek toward us, with ever-increasing levels of carbon dioxide and acidity.”
For the past two years, commercial fishing for Chinook salmon in the Pacific Northwest has been severely restricted to protect dangerously low runs on the Klamath and Sacramento rivers. OSU researchers Michael Banks and Gil Sylvia, part of the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station, are leading a project to learn more about where salmon from different river systems migrate in the ocean.
They already have shown they can use DNA testing to determine a salmon’s river of origin within 24-48 hours after being caught. Next they hope to determine if salmon from the Klamath River, for example, band together in the ocean or are widely dispersed with fish from other rivers.
“This is ground-breaking research that could allow resource managers to keep much of the ocean open for fishing, yet protect weakened runs of fish,” Sylvia said.
Statewide closures of razor clamming because of domoic acid buildup occur on a near-yearly basis, not only disappointing outdoor enthusiasts but costing local communities million of dollars in lost revenues. OSU researchers have teamed with colleagues at the University of Oregon and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to monitor the harmful algal blooms behind the problem.
Phytoplankton blooms are a normal ocean process, but certain species have the ability to produce toxins that can be harmful to humans. Pseudo-nitzschia produces domoic acid, which bio-accumulates in the tissues of razor clams, mussels and oysters and causes a syndrome known as amnesic shellfish poisoning in humans. Alexandrium produces saxitoxin, which can lead to paralytic shellfish poisoning
“We already have done a lot of the background science … ,” said Peter Strutton, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences and one of the lead researchers on the project. “Now the goal is to do a full-out response when these blooms occur and to determine what triggers the toxicity.”
Not all of the ocean-related issues facing
Oregon are dire. Last year, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it would establish a Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at the OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. The federal funding will support construction of the nation’s first integrated wave energy testing facility near Newport, as well as environmental studies, community outreach and other initiatives.
Acknowledged as the nation’s academic leader in developing wave energy, Oregon State has attracted more than $20 million in funding for wave energy-related projects. Annette von Jouanne, a professor of electrical engineering, is developing and testing new prototypes of wave energy technology and working with private industry on commercialization.
“OSU and the Pacific Northwest are really the perfect place to move wave energy from a novelty to a strong contributor to our renewable energy portfolio,” said von Jouanne. “We have an amazing range of faculty that can tackle every major element of the issue.”
OSU is playing a lead role in the $386.4 million Ocean Observatories Initiative that will be the equivalent of creating a Hubble telescope for the oceans. OSU oceanographers and engineers will create and deploy moorings, platforms and undersea gliders off the Northwest coast to allow unprecedented study of the ocean.
“Once we turn this thing on, the data we gather within a year will be staggering,” Barth said. “It will provide information on climate change, ocean biology, winds and currents … on just about everything. We will be able to analyze storms at sea for the first time and actually measure how much carbon dioxide gets washed out from the near-shore to the deep ocean.”
OSU oceanographer Chris Goldfinger, ’91, ’94, began a project this summer to image the seafloor off Oregon and develop the most detailed maps of our near-shore ocean. With funding from the Oregon Legislature and NOAA, the $7 million project will chart 34 percent of Oregon’s waters and 75 percent of its rocky reefs, recording every bump, depression, reef and boulder on the seafloor from a depth of 10 meters out to three miles, the boundary of Oregon’s territorial sea.
“Developing an image of our ocean floor will help us model tsunamis, identify marine habitats, select alternative energy sites, identify geological hazards, and enhance safe and efficient marine transportation,” said Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski.
REACHING AROUND THE WORLD: ANTARCTICA
Kelly Falkner, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences
For the past two-plus years, Kelly Falkner served as the National Science Foundation’s first program director for integrated Antarctic research. Though based in the nation’s capitol, she spent six weeks at the McMurdo base coordinating science programs and later traveled to the United States station on Palmer Peninsula to assist with the science and gain first-hand experience with U.S. Antarctic ship operations.
Falkner’s job at NSF was to analyze the hundreds of different research projects involving Antarctica and see what was being done right – and what was missing. What she found was that not enough of the projects went far enough – or were broad enough – to begin answering questions about large-scale issues such as climate change or the causes and mechanisms behind the melting of sea ice.
At Falkner’s going away party in Washington, D.C., her colleagues presented her with a framed photo of a coastal glacier in Antarctica, which they had named after her in recognition of her efforts. Falkner Glacier is an east-flowing ice sheet stretching four miles long through the Mountaineer Range in Victoria Land.
“I was stunned,” she said. “One tradition for the Antarctic program appointments is to get a white boot signed by people in the office – just before they ‘boot you’ out. That’s what I expected, a boot. Instead, I got a glacier.”
REACHING AROUND THE WORLD: JAPAN AND KOREA
Scott Baker, Fisheries and Wildlife at HMSC
OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute is now the largest academic program of its kind in the country, and it rapidly is becoming one of the most influential. Geneticist Scott Baker, associate director of the Newport-based program, has become an international leader in the use of DNA analysis to track threatened species.
His study analyzing whale meat sold in Korean markets suggests that the number of whales sold for human consumption there is much higher than that being reported to the International Whaling Commission. A similar analysis of whale-meat products sold in Japanese markets – ostensibly the product of “bycatch whaling” – also is much higher than official reports.
Japan and South Korea are the only countries that allow the commercial sale of products killed as “incidental bycatch,” Baker said. The sheer number of whales represented by whale-meat products on the market suggests that both countries have an inordinate amount of bycatch – compared to what is being reported.
“The price for an adult minke whale can reach as high as $100,000,” Baker pointed out. “Given these financial incentives, you have to wonder how many of these whales are, in fact, killed intentionally.”
REACHING AROUND THE WORLD: CHINA
Sam Chan, Oregon Sea Grant
The people of Fujian Province in China depend on mangrove forests to maintain clean estuaries for commercially important shellfish and other species, and the mangroves also act as a buffer to protect them from coastal storms and typhoons. But when a non-native grass called Spartina alterniflora was introduced in 1982, dense floating mats of vegetation began crowding out those critical mangroves.
Enter Sam Chan, ’84. The Extension agent, who works for the OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant program, led a 2007 trip to China to explore new methods of combating the invasive Spartina, which also occurs on the West Coast of the United States. Since that visit, the Chinese initiated a number of coastal wetlands restoration projects.
This summer, a contingent of Fujian Academy researchers spent a week in Oregon looking at attempts to control Spartina and protect wetlands.
Those efforts over the past two years have led to a growing partnership between OSU and Fujian Academy that encompasses a range of issues, including earthquakes and tsunamis.
“Both of our countries face similar ecologic, economic and health problems from invasive species, and we both have concerns about natural disasters,” Chan said.
REACHING AROUND THE WORLD: INDONESIA
Chris Goldfinger, College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences
The devastating tsunami that struck Indonesia in 2004, killing more than 200,000 people, was not only one of the worst natural disasters in recent history – it provided a wake-up call for people living along the West Coast of the United States that this could happen here.
The similarities between the Pacific Northwest and Indian Ocean subduction zones are eerie, according to Chris Goldfinger, an OSU marine geologist who in 2007 led the first expedition by a U.S. research ship into Indonesian waters in nearly 30 years.
Goldfinger is an internationally known expert on subduction zone earthquakes, and his research into the Cascadia Subduction Zone off the Northwest coast has documented numerous quakes of magnitude 8.5 or higher over the past 10,000 years. The 43-day trip to Indonesia, funded by the National Science Foundation, was the first step in learning more about that region’s geologic past. Goldfinger uses sediment analysis to find evidence of past earthquake activity.
“The (Indonesian) region has had many, many earthquakes in the past, yet we know very little about its seismic history because of its remoteness and access issues,” Goldfinger said.
Mark Floyd, ‘78, ’90, is assistant director of News and Communication Services at OSU.