Category Archives: College of Earth Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

Breaking the Arctic ice

 

Thermal AVHRR image with land masked in black. Can see the lead coming off of Barrow Alaska very bright. The arrows are sea ice drift vectors.

Cascade over mossy rocks near Sol Duc Falls, Olympic National Park, WA.

When you hear about fractures in sea ice, you might visualize the enormous fissures that rupture ice shelves, which release massive icebergs to the sea. This is what happened back in July 2017 when a Delaware-sized iceberg broke off from the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica. However, there are other types of fractures occurring in sea ice that may be impacted by atmospheric conditions. Our guest this week, CEOAS Masters student Ben Lewis investigates how interactions between the atmosphere and sea ice in the Beaufort Sea (north of Alaska in the Canadian Archipelago) impact the formation of fractures. His research involves mapping atmospheric features, such as wind and pressure, at the point in time when the fractures occurred and provides insight into the effect of the atmosphere on the formation and propagation of fractures. Utilizing satellite imagery compiled by the Geographical Information Network of Alaska from 1993 to 2013, Ben has conducted a qualitative analysis to determine the location and time when these ice fractures occurred and what type of physical characteristics they possess.

Southern Alps from the summit of Avalanche Peak, New Zealand.

While fractures appear small on the satellite image, the smallest fractures that Ben can observe by are actually 250 meters wide. Fractures can span hundreds of kilometers, and the propagate very quickly; Ben cites one example of a fracture near Barrow, Alaska that grew to 500 kilometers within 6 hours!

Fractures are potentially deadly for people and animals hunting in the Arctic. As weather flux in the fragile Arctic ecosystem has become more erratic with climate change, it has been difficult for people to predict when it was safe to hunt on the ice based on patterns observed in prior seasons. Additionally, it has been problematic to track weather in the Arctic because of its harsh conditions and sparse population. A well-catalogued record of weather is not available for all locations. Modeling atmospheric conditions, such as pressure and wind, based on what has been captured by satelliteimagery, will facilitate better prediction of future fracture events.

Sunset over Sandfly Beach, New Zealand.

While pursuing an undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Arkansas, Ben was able to study abroad James Cook University in Australia, where he gravitated towards environmental physics, while taking advantage of incredible opportunities for nature photography. He also did a semester abroad in New Zealand, where he studied geophysical fluid dynamics and partial differential equations. Ben came to OSU as a post-baccalaureate student in climate science, and while at OSU, he became acquainted with his future PI, Jennifer Hutchings,  and his interest in Arctic research grew. He cites learning about snowball earth, glaciology, and the cryosphere, as providing the basis for his desire to pursue Arctic climate research. Eventually, Ben would like to pursue a PhD, but in the immediate future, he plans to keep his options open for teaching and research opportunities.

 

Characterizing off-channel habitats in the Willamette River: Fish need to cool off too!

During the summer, when the mercury clears triple digits on the Fahrenheit scale, people seek out cooler spaces. Shaded parks, air conditioned ice cream parlors, and community pools are often top places to beat the heat. If you’re a resident of Corvallis, Oregon, you may head downtown to dip your toes in the Willamette River. Yet while the river offers a break from the hot temperatures for us, it is much too warm for the cold water fishes that call it home.

Where do fish go to cool off?

As a master’s student in the Water Resources Graduate Program at Oregon State University, Carolyn Gombert is working to understand where cold water habitat is located along the Willamette River. More importantly, she is seeking to understand the riverine and geomorphic processes responsible for creating the fishes’ version of our air conditioned ice cream parlors. By placing waterproof temperature loggers along sites in the upper Willamette, she hopes to shed light both on the temporal and spatial distribution of cold water patches, as well as the creation mechanisms behind such habitats.

 

The cart before the horse: seeking to reconcile science and policy

Because the Willamette Basin is home to Cutthroat trout and Chinook salmon, the river is subject to the temperature standard adopted by the state of Oregon in 2003. Between May through October, Cutthroat and Chinook require water cooler than 18 degrees Celsius (64.4 degrees Fahrenheit). Currently, the main channel of the Willamette regularly exceeds this threshold. The coolest water during this time is found in side channels or alcoves off the main stem. While Oregon law recognizes the benefits these “cold water refuges” can provide, our scientific understanding of how these features change over time is still in its early stages.

Emerging stories

Data collection for Carolyn’s project is slated to wrap up during September of 2017. However, preliminary results from temperature monitoring efforts suggest the subsurface flow of river water through gravel and sediment plays a critical role in determining water temperature. By pairing results from summer field work with historical data such as air photos and laser-based mapping techniques (LiDAR) like in the image below, it will be possible to link geomorphic change on the Willamette to its current temperature distributions.

Between 1994 and 2000, the Willamette River near Harrisburg, Oregon shifted from a path along the left bank to one along the right bank. This avulsion would have happened during a high flow event, likely the 1996 flood.

No stranger to narratives

Prior to beginning her work in hydrology at OSU, Carolyn earned a bachelor’s in English and taught reading at the middle school level. Her undergraduate work in creative writing neither taught her how to convert temperature units from Fahrenheit to Celsius nor how to maneuver in a canoe. But the time she spent crafting stories did show her that characters are not to be forced into a plot, much like data is not to be forced into a pre-meditated conclusion. Being fortunate enough to work with Stephen Lancaster as a primary advisor, Carolyn looks forward to exploring the subtleties that surface from the summer’s data.

If you’d like to hear more about the results from Carolyn’s work, she will be at the OSU Hydrophiles’ Pacific Northwest Water Research Symposium, April 23-24, 2018. Feel free to check out past Symposiums here. Additionally, to hear more about Carolyn’s journey through graduate school, you can listen to her interview on the Happie Heads podcast.

Carolyn conducting field work on the Willamette.

Carolyn Gombert wrote the bulk of this post, with a few edits contributed by ID hosts.

Using sediment cores to model climate conditions

In the lab of Andreas Schmittner in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, recently-graduated PhD student Juan Muglia has been developing a climate model to understand ocean current circulation, carbon cycling, and ocean biogeochemistry during the last ice age, focusing on the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica.

Juan has developed a climate model using data gathered from sediment cores, which are samples from the ocean floor that provide researchers with a glimpse into the elemental and organic composition of the ocean at different points in time. Scientists can acquire insight into the characteristics of the Earth’s past climate by analyzing the geologic record spanning thousands of years. Modeling the conditions of the last ice age, which occurred 20,000 years ago, allows researchers to better understand how the Earth responds to glacial and interglacial cycles, prompting the transition between cold and warm phases (we are currently in a warm interglacial period).

The process of generating an accurate climate model consists of tuning parameters embedded in the physics equations and fortran code of the model, to reproduce characteristics directly observable in modern times. If researchers can validate their model by reproducing directly observable characteristics, the model can then be used to investigate the climate at points in time beyond our direct observational capacity.

Since it’s not possible to directly measure temperature or nutrient composition of the ocean during the last ice age, Juan uses an indirect signature that serves as a proxy for direct measurement. Three isotopic sediment tracers, including 15Nitrogen, 14Carbon, and 13Carbon, are incorporated into Juan’s climate model as proxies for biological productivity and current circulation in the ocean. Investigating changes in the elemental composition of the ocean, also known as biogeochemistry, is important for understanding how climate and biology have transformed over thousands of years. The ocean serves as an enormous reservoir of carbon, and much more carbon is sequestered in the ocean than in the atmosphere. The exchange of carbon dioxide at the interface of the ocean and atmosphere is important for understanding how carbon dioxide has and will continue to impact pH, ocean currents, and biological productivity of the ocean.

Even as a kid, Juan dreamed of becoming an oceanographer. He grew up near the ocean in Argentina, surrounded by scientists; his mom was a marine botanist and his dad is a geologist. During his undergraduate studies, he majored in physics with the goal of eventually becoming a physical oceanographer, and his undergraduate thesis consisted of building fortran code for a statistical physics project. After finishing his post-doctoral studies at OSU, Juan plans to return to his hometown in Argentina, where he hopes to develop a model specific to the Argentinian climate.

Heavy Digging

minealgae

Mine Algae!!!

When I think of mining, the first thing that comes to mind is the classic gold rush miners from the mid-1800s. Someone that looks a lot like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2. I don’t mean to imply that this is, or isn’t, what a miner looks like. However, this does say something about the general lack of thought about mining practices. The EPA certainly isn’t as ignorant about mines as I am; in fact, as of 2014, they had designated over 1,300 sites around the country as superfund sites requiring extensive cleanup efforts. Tullia Upton is also thinking about mines much more deeply than the average person, and she is uncovering some alarming information.

During a road trip through southern Oregon, Tullia was bummed when she was told it was unsafe to swim in a local river, so she decided to dive a bit deeper, figuratively of course. She learned that this area has become dangerously polluted due to waste products of the Formosa mine.

formosamine

The Formosa mine near Riddle, OR

Mining practices involve extensive digging and extracting of heavy metals which are normally buried in a reducing environment deep down within the earth’s sediment. The process of digging up these heavy metals leaves behind a staggering amount of unused material, known as tailings. Mining also exposes the metals to oxygen and allows them to leach into soils and the watershed. Due to runoff from the tailings and other waste at the Formosa mine, there is now an estimated 18 mile dead zone where no organism can live. The full extent of the damage being done to the local watershed has not been thoroughly mapped though.

tulliainlab

Tullia analyzing samples in the lab

As she learned more about the dangerous metals coming from the mine, Tullia immediately got involved as a volunteer and secured research funding to study the pollution occurring at the Formosa mine. Tullia hopes to map the full extent of runoff from the Formosa mine and provide a better picture of the mess for the EPA, and other scientists, working on the cleanup process. When she finishes her Ph.D. here in Environmental Sciences, Tullia hopes to move on to a post-doc and eventually run her own research lab.

Tune in this Sunday, October 9th at 7pm PST to hear more about mine pollution and Tullia’s unique journey to grad school at OSU.

Heat and oxygen exchange at the interface of ocean and atmosphere.

 

Jenessa aboard OSU's vessel the R/V Oceanus during a cruise for a field work course. She is deploying a vertical microstructure profile attached to a large winch: fishing for the big one!

Jenessa aboard OSU’s vessel the R/V Oceanus during a cruise for a field work course. She is deploying a vertical microstructure profile attached to a large winch: fishing for the big one!

As a physical oceanographer in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, Masters candidate Jenessa Duncombe is investigating how the movement of water impacts heat and oxygen exchange at the interface of the ocean and atmosphere. Combining analytical and modeling approaches in the labs of Roger Samelson and Eric Skyllingstad, Jenessa uses linear stability analysis to predict the circulation of water in the upper 300 feet of the ocean.  Jenessa focuses on regions in the ocean with high rates of ocean and atmosphere exchange; those areas are common throughout the ocean, typically occurring near river mouths, along upwelling regions, or along strong surface currents, like the Gulf Stream. These regions can be thought of as the lungs of the ocean, responsible for the majority of oxygen and carbon dioxide uptake into the ocean. Jenessa’s goal for her research is to improve how surface ocean circulation is accounted for in global climate change models, hopefully making model predictions more accurate.

Satellite sea surface temperature image of the Gulf Stream. The red colors show the warm Gulf Stream waters traveling from the Gulf of Mexico, along the east coast, then traveling out into the Atlantic. Whirlpools of warm and cold water, called eddies, pinch off as the Gulf Stream becomes unstable heading into the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean eddies are (in Jenessa’s opinion) the coolest type of ocean circulation! For a dynamic look at ocean surface currents, check out this video from NASA called Perpetual Ocean. You can see the Gulf Stream and other strong currents, as well as whirlpools of warm and cold water spinning up in the ocean!

Jenessa’s interest in earth science began during middle school with encouragement from an inspirational teacher.  During her undergraduate studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Jenessa decided to major in earth science after becoming acquainted with other earth science majors who shared her interest in hiking. Structural geology and a physics course on the topic of waves and oscillations were among her favorite courses. In particular, waves and oscillations provided insight and clarity into her realization that visual patterns can be described by a mathematical equation. Jenessa cites a summer REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) at the University of Maryland through the NSF as a critical introduction to research. During the summer after finishing her undergraduate studies, Jenessa worked at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, acquiring experience in research related to harnessing power generated from wave energy. After finishing her Masters degree, Jenessa plans to pursue a career in science writing.

Tune in on September 25th 2016 at 7PM to hear more from Jenessa about her research related to the movement of water in the ocean and the role it may play in climate change. You can listen on the radio at 88.7FM KBVR Corvallis or by streaming live.

Hungry, Hungry Microbes!

Today ocean acidification is one of the most significant threats to marine biodiversity in recorded human history. Caused primarily by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the decreasing pH of the world’s oceans is projected to reach a level at which a majority of coral reefs will die off by 2050. This would have global impacts on marine life; when it comes to maintaining total worldwide biodiversity, coral reefs are the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on the planet.

Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that ocean acidification might proceed at levels even faster than those predicted. Large resevoirs methane hydrates locked away in deep sea ice deposits under the ocean floor appear to be melting and releasing methane into the ocean and surrounding sediments due to the increasing temperature of the world’s oceans. If this process accelerates as waters continue to warm, then the gas escaping into the ocean and air might accelerate ocean acidification and other aspects of global climate change. That is, unless something– or someone– can stop it.

The area of the seafloor Scott studies lies several hundred to a few thousand meters below the surface–much too deep (and cold!) to dive down. Scott gets on a ship and works with a team of experienced technicians who use a crane to lift a device called a gravity corer off the ship deck and into the water, lowering it until it reaches the bottom, capturing and retrieving sediment.

The area of the seafloor Scott studies lies several hundred to a few thousand meters below the surface–much too deep (and cold!) to dive down. Scott gets on a ship and works with a team of experienced technicians who use a crane to lift a device called a gravity corer off the ship deck and into the water, lowering it until it reaches the bottom, capturing and retrieving sediment.

This is where methanotrophs and Scott Klasek come in. A 3rd year PhD student in Microbiology at Oregon State University, Scott works with his advisor in CEOAS Rick Colwell and with Marta Torres to study the single celled creatures that live in the deep sea floor and consume excess methane. Because of their importance in the carbon cycle, and their potential value in mitigating the negative effects of deep sea methane hydrate melting, these methanotrophs have become a valuable subject of study in the fight to manage the changes in our environment occurring that have been associated with anthropogenic climate change.

 

Here Scott is opening a pressure reactor to sample the sediment inside. Sediment cores retrieved form the ocean floor can be used for microbial DNA extraction and other geochemical measurements. Scott places sediment samples in these reactors and incubates them at the pressure and temperature they were collected at, adding different amounts of methane to them to see how the microbial communities and methane consumption change over weeks and months.

Here Scott is opening a pressure reactor to sample the sediment inside. Sediment cores retrieved form the ocean floor can be used for microbial DNA extraction and other geochemical measurements. Scott places sediment samples in these reactors and incubates them at the pressure and temperature they were collected at, adding different amounts of methane to them to see how the microbial communities and methane consumption change over weeks and months.

Most people don’t wake up one morning as a kid and say to themselves, “You know what I want to be when I grow up? Someone who studies methanotrophs and the threat of warming arctic waters.” Scott Klasek is no exception, in fact, he went into his undergraduate career at University of Wisconsin, Madison expecting to pursue an academic career path in pre med. To learn all about Scott’s research, and the twists and turns that led him to it, tune in this Sunday, April 10th, at 7pm to 88.7 KBVR FM or stream the show live!

 

 

From the River to the Sea: Rare metal cycles and the Circle of Life

Sometime around 3.4 billion years ago, the planet earth was covered in an atmosphere of nitrogen and carbon dioxide poisonous to life as we know it today. Then something changed. Tiny photosynthetic organisms called cyanobacteria started converting carbon dioxide to oxygen, and over billions of years seaweed, kelp, and finally terrestrial plants with roots systems covered the globe, making  the entire history of animal life of Earth possible. We know this because a rare metal called molybdenum, found in ocean floor sediment cores, can be measured to show when the atmosphere changed.

Or maybe not. Maybe we’re wrong about all of that. Who can say? Here to challenge the accepted timeline of life as we know it is Elizabeth King. This Sunday Liz will walk us through a comparative study she has been working on in Oregon and the Big Island, Hawaii, underneath Dr. Julie Pett-Ridge. A Graduate student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry (CEOAS), and working with the Crop and Soil Science deparment through her advisor, Dr. Pett-Ridge, Liz hopes to uncover the truth about molybdenum. Showing that this metal travels from rivers to the ocean and back through precipitation in a cycle that is dependent on the soil and weathering processes in these different volcanic regions, Liz argues that scientists haven’t been seeing the big picture of molybdenum’s environmental history.

Liz at a sampling location

Liz at a sampling location

Molybdenum is increasingly recognized as an important agricultural nutrient, and understanding how it travels through the soil, streams, and waters of the Pacific Northwest and the world is highly valuable in keeping our land fertile and productive. To learn more, tune in Sunday night at 88.7 FM Pacific time, or steam the show live!

Liz at the mouth of a river she studies on the Big Island, Hawaii.

Liz at the mouth of a river she studies on the Big Island, Hawaii.

The Winds of Mars

False-color image of channel-confined TARs in the Amenthes Rupes Region, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

False-color image of channel-confined TARs in the Amenthes Rupes Region, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

On our own world, dust storms can carry sands from the Sahara around the globe.On Mars, immense dust storms worthy of a Mad Max reference and formations called Transverse Aeolian Ridges up to a meter tall are common sights. Unlike Earth, where we constantly see geoactive forces like water, ice, and volcanic activity changing the landscape around us, the only force we can see actively changing the landscape of Mars is the wind. With desertification increasing on our own planet dune fields in many locations are moving into existing agricultural areas. Might we eventually be living on a world where the impact of wind on the land is as great as it is on Mars? Can the windswept world of Mars tell us what life will be like someday here on Earth?

Gravel ripple wind-formed bedforms in Puna de Atacama, Argentina (de Silva et al., 2013)

Gravel ripple wind-formed bedforms in Puna de Atacama, Argentina (de Silva et al., 2013)

Rover image of Transverse Aeolian Ridges (TARs) in Endurance Crater, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Rover image of Transverse Aeolian Ridges (TARs) in Endurance Crater, Mars (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Michelle Neely, a master’s student in Geology and Geophysics studying under Shan de Silva, is investigating just that. By studying wind shaped formations called symetrical bed forms in the high desert of Argentina, which are the Earth’s closest analog to the ridges formed by the winds of Mars, Michelle hopes to learn how wind processes work on both worlds. If terrestrial desertification leaves our Blue Planet looking a lot more like the Red Planet, this research will prove invaluable.

For more on the geological history of Mars and our own future, tune in to 88.7 FM Sunday November 8th at 7pm PST or stream live to find out!

 

From Records in the Reef to Stories in the Snow: One Student’s Journey from Florida to Antarctica to Study the Geological History of the Earth

Tonight at 7 pm Pacific time Nilo Bill joins the hosts of Inspiration Dissemination to discuss his research in the Geology Program of the College of Earth Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences. Tune in to 88.7 FM KBVR Corvallis, or stream the show live, here!

Working underneath Peter U. Clark, Nilo studies paleoclimate, the ancient climate of the Earth. By examining erratic boulders in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet moved by glacial decay between 10 and 20 thousand years ago Nilo tries to understand when and why the Antarctic ice sheets began to recede. For example: How much of this change can be attributed to CO2 increases in the atmosphere?  When the sea levels rose after the last ice age, what glaciers did most of the water come from?

west-antarctic-ice-sheet

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Image from: http://learningfromdogs.com/tag/west-antarctic-ice-sheet/

Nilo became interested in the question of ancient climate and sea level rise far from Oregon State or any ice sheets, in the geomicrobiology lab at University of Miami, where he studied coral reefs to learn how much water levels rose 10 to 20 thousand years ago during the last large scale glacial melt.

Nilo’s work on ancient climate allows us not only to better understand the history of the world, but also where we are headed, as we continue to contribute to increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. Increases in atmospheric CO2 that have been linked to global climate changes and glacial melt in the past are being seen again in our own time, but at much faster rates. Whereas in the past these changes occurred over a span of nine to ten thousand years, humans have artificially increased global CO2 by comparative levels in only one hundred years.

By understanding how the earth has behaved under similar circumstances in the past, Nilo hopes that we might better predict what will occur in our own future.