Category Archives: Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Stream ecosystems and a changing climate

Examining the effect of climate change on stream ecosystems

Oak Creek near McDonald Dunn research lab. The salamander and trout in the experiments were collected along this stretch of creek.

As a first year Master’s student in the lab of Ivan Arismendi, Francisco Pickens studies how the changing, warming climate impacts animals inhabiting stream ecosystems. A major component of stream ecosystem health is rainfall. In examining and predicting the effects of climate change on rainfall, it is important to consider not only the amount of rainfall, but also the timing of rainfall. Although a stream may receive a consistent amount of rain, the duration of the rainy season is projected to shrink, leading to higher flows earlier in the year and a shift in the timing of the lowest water depth. Currently, low flow and peak summer temperature are separated by time. With the shortening and early arrival of the rainy season, it is more likely that low flow and peak summer temperature will coincide.

A curious trout in one of the experimental tanks.

Francisco is trying to determine how the convergence of these two events will impact the animals inhabiting streams. This is an important question because the animals found in streams are ectothermic, meaning that they rely on their surrounding environment to regulate their body temperature. Synchronization of the peak summer temperature with the lowest level of water flow could raise the temperature of the water, profoundly impacting the physiology of the animals living in these streams.



How to study animals in stream ecosystems?

Salamander in its terrestrial stage.

Using a simulated stream environment in a controlled lab setting, Francisco studies how temperature and low water depth impact the physiology and behavior of two abundant stream species – cutthroat trout and the pacific giant salamander. Francisco controls the water temperature and depth, with depth serving as a proxy for stream water level.

Blood glucose level serves as the experimental readout for assessing physiological stress because elevated blood glucose is an indicator of stress. Francisco also studies the animals’ behavior in response to changing conditions. Increased speed, distance traveled, and aggressiveness are all indicators of stress. Francisco analyzes their behavior by tracking their movement through video. Manual frame-by-frame video analysis is time consuming for a single researcher, but lends itself well to automation by computer. Francisco is in the process of implementing a computer vision-based tool to track the animals’ movement automatically.

The crew that assisted in helping collect the animals: From left to right: Chris Flora (undergraduate), Lauren Zatkos (Master’s student), Ivan Arismendi (PI).

Why OSU?

Originally from a small town in Washington state, Francisco grew up in a logging community near the woods. He knew he wanted to pursue a career involving wild animals and fishing, with the opportunity to work outside. Francisco came to OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife for his undergraduate studies. As an undergrad, Francisco had the opportunity to explore research through the NSF REU program while working on a project related to algae in the lab of Brooke Penaluna. After he finishes his Master’s degree at OSU, Francisco would like to continue working as a data scientist in a federal or state agency.

Tune in on Sunday, June 24th at 7pm PST on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM, or listen live at  Also, check us out on Apple Podcasts!

Ocean sediment cores provide a glimpse into deep time

Theresa on a recent cruise on the Oceanus.
Photo credit: Natasha Christman.

First year CEOAS PhD student Theresa Fritz-Endres investigates how the productivity of the ocean in the equatorial Pacific has changed in the last 20,000 years since the time of the last glacial maximum. This was the last time large ice sheets blanketed much of North America, northern Europe, and Asia. She investigates this change by examining the elemental composition of foraminifera (or ‘forams’ for short) shells obtained from sediment cores extracted from the ocean floor. Forams are single-celled protists with shells, and they serve as a proxy for ocean productivity, or organic matter, because they incorporate the elements that are present in the ocean water into their shells. Foram shell composition provides information about what the composition of the ocean was like at the point in time when the foram was alive. This is an important area of study for learning about the climate of the past, but also for understanding how the changing climate of today might transform ocean productivity. Because live forams can be found in ocean water today, it is possible to assess how the chemistry of seawater is currently being incorporated into their shells. This provides a useful comparison for how ocean chemistry has changed over time. Theresa is trying to answer the question, “was ocean productivity different than it is now?”

Examples of forams. For more pictures and information, visit the blog of Theresa’s PI, Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher:

Why study foram shells?

Foram shells are particularly useful for scientists because they preserve well and are found ubiquitously in ocean sediment, offering a consistent glimpse into the dynamic state of ocean chemistry. While living, forams float in or near the surface of the sea, and after they die, they sink to the bottom of the sea floor. The accumulating foram shells serve as an archive of how ocean conditions have changed, like how tree rings reflect the environmental conditions of the past.

Obtaining and analyzing sediment cores

Obtaining these records requires drilling cores (up to 1000 m!) into deep sea sediments, work that is carried out by an international consortium of scientists aboard large ocean research vessels. These cores span a time frame of 800 million years, which is the oldest continuous record of ocean chemistry. Each slice of the core represents a snapshot of time, with each centimeter spanning 1,000 years of sediment accumulation. Theresa is using cores that reach a depth of a few meters below the surface of the ocean floor. These cores were drilled in the 1980s by a now-retired OSU ship and are housed at OSU.

Theresa on a recent cruise on the Oceanus, deploying a net to collect live forams. Photo credit: Natasha Christman.

The process of core analysis involves sampling a slice of the core, then washing the sediment (kind of like a pour over coffee) and looking at the remainder of larger-sized sediment under a powerful microscope to select foram species. The selected shells undergo elemental analysis using mass spectrometry. Vastly diverse shell shapes and patterns result in different elements and chemistries being incorporated into the shells. Coupled to the mass spectrometer is a laser that ablates through the foram shell, providing a more detailed view of the layers within the shell. This provides a snapshot of ocean conditions for the 4 weeks-or-so that the foram was alive. It also indicates how the foram responded to light changes from day to night.

Theresa is early in her PhD program, and in the next few years plans to do field work on the Oregon coast and on Catalina island off the coast of California. She also plans to undertake culturing experiments to further study the composition of the tiny foram specimens.

Why grad school at OSU?

Theresa completed her undergraduate degree at Queen’s University in Ontario, followed by completion of a Master’s degree at San Francisco State University. She was interested in pursuing paleo and climate studies after transformative classes in her undergrad. In between her undergraduate and Master’s studies she spent a year working at Mt. Evans in Colorado as part of the National Park Service and Student Conservation Association.

Theresa had already met her advisor, Dr. Jennifer Fehrenbacher, while completing her Master’s degree at SF State. Theresa knew she was interested in attending OSU for grad school for several reasons: to work with her advisor, and to have access to the core repository, research ships, and technical equipment available at OSU.

To hear more about Theresa’s research and her experience as a PhD student at OSU, tune in on Sunday, June 10th at 7pm on KBVR Corvallis 88.7 FM, or listen live at  Also, check us out on Apple Podcasts!

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.


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.

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.