Shifting Waters in a Changing Place

by Margaret Conley, PhD student in Ocean, Earth, and Atmospheric Sciences

Margaret tying off a ground line for a bottom mooring in a side channel of the Yaquina Bay estuary in Newport, Oregon. Photo by Jim Lerczak.

I study estuaries, the beautiful, mucky, and sometimes smelly mixing zones where river and ocean meet. Estuaries are exciting because they are always changing. Of course, every place has its seasons. Here in Oregon, we have summer sun and winter rain, spring flowers and fall leaves. But in an estuary, these changes are amplified: On top of seasonal changes, there is the daily drama of the tide, alternately flooding and exposing mud flats and marshes. The tide and the seasons also bring changes we can’t directly see — how warm and salty the water is, for example. These invisible characteristics are critical for the creatures that make estuaries their home, including oysters.

Low tide reveals a complex network of muddy banks and channels that are invisible during high tide at King Slough (top row) and Paddle Park (bottom row), two spots along the Yaquina Bay estuary, Newport, Oregon.

Oysters are used to a certain degree of change. But how will they, and their estuarine home, respond to the larger changes that human-caused climate change will bring? This is what my fellow researchers and I are trying to figure out, and we’re starting by better understanding the dynamics of one of the most basic water characteristics: temperature. We are studying water temperature in the Yaquina Bay estuary in Newport, OR to figure out how it changes with tides, storms, and seasons. Once we better understand the current range of temperature changes, we can start to predict how the estuary might change in the future, and how all this change affects the plants and animals that live in the estuary.

We are measuring the temperature of estuary water at many locations, from far upriver where the water is fresh to the salty water at the estuary mouth. By looking all along the channel, we can witness the battle between ocean and river, pushing each other back and forth as the strength of the tides and the river flow change over time. We’re also measuring the mucky places, like tidal flats where the water comes and goes and side channels called sloughs. All these water sources, plus heat from the sun, combine to determine the temperature of the water in the estuary. By recording the temperature changes from tide to tide and season to season, we hope to identify which factors are most important in determining temperature at each location along the estuary. We also want to figure out how these conditions influence where oysters grow best.

A calm morning at Cannon Quarry Park, Lincoln County, Oregon.

Besides the changing waters, the assortment of plants and animals that live in the Yaquina Bay estuary also changes over time. Baby salmon travel through estuaries on their way to the sea, and birds use the Yaquina as a rest stop during migration or as a summer or winter vacation home. Just like me, these animals are temporary visitors, and they never see the full range of estuary conditions. But there are also those who make this changing place their permanent home. Just like the residents of waterside towns, organisms like oysters set up shop on a particular spot and stay put. To understand why oysters live where they do, we have to become permanent residents too.

That’s where the scientific instruments come in. These little machines let us become residents of the estuary. While we return home to Corvallis after each field trip, the instruments stay behind, quietly recording the changing waters. While we work in our offices, they brave winter storms, floating logs, encroaching mud, and curious creatures. With luck, plus lots of knots and tape, they are still there when we return, and they report back on what they’ve seen. Each time we visit, the instruments look like they’ve been claimed by the estuary, coated in brown goop to match the muddy bank, sprinkled with baby barnacles just like the nearby rocks. Crabs move into our bottom moorings as they slowly sink into the muck. If we didn’t return soon enough, they might just disappear entirely.

A sensor that measures temperature and conductivity, before and after cleaning.

Using these measurements, we plan to figure out what the oysters themselves already know: How does the temperature of the water change over time? After several months of measurements, we can already start to put together a story. We see the winter rainstorms that push ocean water down the estuary back towards the sea, changes in the coastal ocean that creep their way up the estuary with the tides, and solar-powered heating. Once we know how temperature in the estuary changes, we can try to predict how it will be impacted by climate change. This temperature change also contributes one piece of the puzzle in understanding how oysters, intrepid inhabitants of this changing place, will respond. 

Sunset and a falling tide at Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Oregon, looking towards the Yaquina Bay Bridge.

Destiny and Perseverance

A scientific conference attended by Giancarlo and colleagues pre-pandemic. From right to left: Giancarlo, Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli (my advisor), Dr. Caren Barcelo, and Jennifer Wong-Ala (lab mate).

by Giancarlo M. Correa, PhD Student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Have you ever thought about how you got to where you are now academically? In my case, three clear events got me to where I am. I think every outcome is a product of something, and that something might be destiny or it might be perseverance.

Finding an ideal career by chance

When I was in school I loved math, and honestly, I was pretty good at it. I participated in many regional math competitions and I succeeded in some of them. I assumed that studying anything related to engineering after school would be the right path for me, and I left my amazing school life with that thought in mind. In Peru, where I was born and raised, there is a very competitive exam students need to take in order to be admitted into the very few good (and free) public universities, so applicants typically take classes at special centers (popularly called “academies”) after school during some months to be prepared to take that exam. I signed up in a center called Pamer to study for exams allowing me to apply to the industrial engineering program at San Marcos National University, the oldest university in America.

By then, I needed to review math and verbal concepts, but also subjects such as chemistry, biology (which I hated), and physics. So, one sunny Saturday, I made a mistake and I attended a biology class to which I was not assigned. The professor was renowned in Pamer for his way of teaching. And here is when destiny, for the first time, played a role in my academic formation. That Saturday I fell in love with biology in just two hours of class. The way this professor taught biology was extremely engaging and thought-provoking; I never realized how interesting biology was until that moment. I did not need to think twice — I knew at that moment that biology was going to be my future career. A few months later I was admitted to San Marcos National University to study biological sciences, and that was one of the best decisions of my life.

As a student in biological sciences, I had to travel a lot around my country. I will never forget the amazing places and people that I met. This is the most famous waterfall in Peru: Gocta, located in the Amazonas region.
My first opportunity in research

The first months of my undergraduate life were difficult for me, as adapting to university life was not immediate and I needed some time to adjust to working on my own and not having a professor pushing me. I wanted to specialize in molecular biology, which was a popular choice among most students by then, and I was quite good at my molecular biology classes. In the fourth year of study, every student must select a specialization to follow during the last two years, and there were three choices: zoology, botany, and hydrobiology and fisheries. I was unsure which path to take. Most students took zoology or botany since there were more professors and researchers to work with in those disciplines. However, I do not usually follow the herd so I chose hydrobiology and fisheries, beginning my fourth year at the university somewhat unsure about this decision.

A year later, I needed to look for a laboratory or institution in which to get mandatory research experience, and to do an undergraduate thesis. That was a critical moment in my academic life. I asked one of my professors about internship opportunities at the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE), and she introduced me to the leader of the Population Dynamics and Stock Assessment Unit, who accepted me to do a research internship for a few months (that was the plan at the beginning, but those months became years). Then came the second crucial moment in my academic life: I started to study the population dynamics of fish populations using statistical and mathematical methods, an amazing field that I am still in love with.

The first scientific survey I participated in taught me how hard and enjoyable can be working onboard. An unforgettable experience. This is one of the main research vessels of the Marine Institute of Peru (IMARPE): the BIC Jose Olaya Balandra.
An international jump

I worked for almost five years at IMARPE, gaining invaluable knowledge and experience. During that time, I undertook a master’s program in applied math, I participated in my first research cruise, and I published my first paper. I also participated in international conferences and met great scientists in Peru and abroad, and some of them were the source of inspiration for my next big step: pursuing a doctoral degree abroad.

Applying to American universities is not an easy task for international students; it demands time and money, but I was determined. I researched all the requirements, and soon identified the most important ones: passing the TOELF exam (to prove that I am proficient in English), taking the GRE, finding an academic advisor and getting funding. I passed the TOELF exam with a score that was good enough. Next I took the GRE, and I got an outstanding score in the math section, a not-bad verbal score, and a quite bad score in the written part. However, I struggled to find an academic advisor. I made a list of all the professors that I would have liked to work with, and I emailed them asking for opportunities. Sixty percent did not reply, 20% were not accepting new students at that time, 15% did not have funding sources, and 5% (one professor) invited me for an interview and ended up supporting my application to Oregon State University, although funding was not guaranteed. And here is the third crucial moment in my academic life: I only applied to one university and I was admitted. Was I lucky? Who knows, but this outcome was a consequence of perseverance and I am proud of it. Since fall 2018, I live in a small city in the Pacific Northwest (Corvallis), working with Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli on projects related to population dynamics of the Pacific cod in the eastern Bering Sea. I have no words to describe how much I have learned during the last years and how beautiful is this area of the world.

When I applied to Oregon State University, I was not aware of how astonishing the Pacific Northwest is. I am truly lucky of living in this area. Here is a viewpoint in Newport, a city relatively close to Corvallis.
What about you?

Have you thought about the crucial moments that brought you to where you are now? Were they products of destiny or perseverance? Identify them and be thankful and proud of them. There is no better or worse place to be, there is only the right one, where you are now. Are you excited about which events will define your academic life? I am, and I have no doubt that I will make the right decision. Enjoy this moment and do not stop persisting to achieve your academic and life goals. Destiny might play an important role at some point, but it will need to be complemented by your perseverance.  

Building Community

by Ashley Peiffer, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

In the foreground, a school garden built by my community counterpart and fellow science teacher, Iddi. My tin-roofed house is in the background and Mshangai village lies in the valley below.

Upendo is the Swahili word for “love” and the name of one of my best friends in the Mshangai village of Tanzania where I lived as a Peace Corps volunteer from 2017-19. When I first arrived in Tanzania, I thought I knew what the village needed. It was only after getting to know my neighbors, like Upendo and her daughter, Rosie, that I realized my role as a volunteer was to drop all my preconceived notions and become part of the community first. Over the two years I spent in Mshangai, Upendo and Rosie taught me how much time and upendo it takes to build relationships and a sense of community. When I came back home to start my master’s degree at Oregon State University, I used those lessons, discovering that even without being physically present in a community, it’s still possible to maintain meaningful relationships with people across the globe.

Upendo, Rosie and I dressed up in our best batik (a hand-dyed fabric) for a local wedding.

One of the first moments I recognized that working in the village had nothing to do with imposing ideas of what “should” be and everything to do with building relationships was when Upendo started asking me to babysit Rosie. The simple gesture of asking me to fill a role that was normally taken by other women in the community brought me the humbling, heart-opening feeling of belonging. I found a deep sense of joy through the connections I made while taking on tasks such as babysitting, washing dishes with other women at local events, and chatting with village Bibi’s (“grandmas”) in an attempt to learn the three local dialects in my area that were often meshed with Swahili. Staying present in these day-to-day activities helped me to build meaningful relationships and listen to the concerns of my friends.

I often carried Rosie around the village center so she could avoid the mud with her bare feet.
One of my favorite pastimes: Chatting with my neighbor, Mama Sophia, and her sister near a shop in the village.

Without taking the time to get to know my neighbors, I would have never discovered that a major concern of the community was the amount of time girls and women missed out on their daily activities due to a lack of menstrual hygiene products. Nearing the end of my time as a volunteer, I found myself knee-deep in grant writing and event planning to host health seminars for hundreds of students and women in the community with my friend and fellow teacher, Rachel. We planned three seminars to teach about sexual and reproductive health and give away reusable menstrual pad kits from the HURU (“Freedom”) International program.

Rachel and I often wore matching khangas (colorful cloth printed with Swahili idioms) for community events.

On the last day of the event, my friends from Mshangai and nearby villages came to receive their HURU kits, some walking over 5 miles one way just to reach the event. I was moved to tears by the community of women gathered with me. I held Rosie as Rachel gave the health lectures and all of the women, including my dear friend Upendo, took notes and asked questions. After the seminar, girls and women from the community paraded around the village with their colorful HURU kits, and Rachel saved the extras and all the education materials for incoming classes of students in future years.

Secondary school girls jotting down notes during a HURU seminar. Rachel and I hand-made the educational posters on the walls around the classroom.
Keeping one eye on Rosie while Rachel explains what would be found inside each HURU kit: reusable menstrual pads, underwear, and soap.
Secondary school girls proudly showing off their new HURU kits! 

The importance of community remains a focus of my life and a source of inspiration for my master’s thesis. Through the Marine Resource Management program and my advisor, Dr. Michael Harte, I was connected with the non-profit Secure Fisheries, a program of One Earth Future focused on empowering coastal communities in the Somali region to sustain and manage their fisheries resources and promote peace-building. Their work includes developing cooperative fisheries management in coastal communities, creating a system of region-wide catch data collection in partnership with universities and governments, and enhancing fisheries value chains to ensure communities derive as much value as possible from their fisheries resources. With staff located in both the Somali region and the United States, Secure Fisheries uses both community knowledge and scientific research to boost local capacity for fisheries management.

Photo from a Secure Fisheries’ hosted oceanographic mapping exercise in a Somali coastal community.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought my initial research plans– a gender and small-scale fisheries project in the Somali region–to a standstill. While in quarantine, I realized much of Secure Fisheries’ field work was significantly delayed because of the pandemic. Even so, staff members on both sides of the globe found creative ways to continue and even improve ongoing projects by switching to remote communication with communities and collecting GPS fisheries data. I was inspired by how the organization maintained strong relationships within communities, even with our new norm of social distancing. This inspiration led me to change my thesis research. I wanted to understand how Secure Fisheries and similar organizations adapted to extraordinary circumstances alongside the communities they work in, sustaining relationships with communities they could no longer visit in-person. 

Living and working in Tanzania allowed me to learn first-hand how building trust and relationships can lead to great things. Through my research so far, I have seen how Secure Fisheries exemplifies those same values. Without community relationships and an appreciation for local knowledge, Secure Fisheries may not have been able to identify means of adapting their work to the pandemic, like seeking alternatives to data collection or communication.

As I wrap up my research, I find myself reflecting back to my days in Mshangai, remembering what it was like to hand HURU kits to my neighbors and friends, knowing that they were receiving sorely-needed supplies. I have found a sense of belonging here in Oregon with the Marine Resource Management program and with Secure Fisheries (through Zoom!), and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude for Upendo and Rosie, who opened up their homes and hearts to me and who patiently taught me what it means to build community. 

Straddling Two Cultures at Sea

by Johna Winters, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management

Johna Winters supporting OOI mooring operations in small boat off of the R/V Sikuliaq in 2018

As a marine technician, I’ve been to the North Pole, the equator, and the Great Lakes. I’ve worked with many oceanographers, limnologists (scientists that study freshwater systems like lakes), and ship’s crew to accomplish science missions from deploying scientific moorings off the coast of Oregon, to deep sea net trawls in the sea of California, to mud grabs in the deepest part of Lake Superior to look for evidence of invasive mussels. As a technician, my main job was to make sure that the scientists had what they needed to complete their projects: streams of data, sampling equipment, and expertise to deploy that equipment safely. In the process, I also obtained a U.S. Coast Guard rating which qualifies me to work as ship’s crew. 

An improvised science contraption Johna made out of a Tupperware container and spare parts, circa 2014. Photo Credit: Johna Winters.

But sometimes I used “people skills” as much as technical skills. Sometimes my job involved greasing the wheels of collaboration between scientists and crew. This role found me making an effort to communicate with each of these groups in their own language and then translating. Sometimes sampling methods didn’t make a lick of sense to the crew and sometimes scientists didn’t comprehend ship operations. In communicating with both groups, the techs were able to make data collection more efficient and higher quality. I didn’t see one group as superior to the other, only as serving different but important roles in our mission to study the ocean.

From technician to social scientist

It never occurred to me that I would one day be designing a study about research vessels for my master’s thesis work. While my degree in chemistry and my tech skills were useful for gathering accurate physical science data, they did nothing to help me wrap my head around these workplace interactions. I needed new models, frameworks, theories, and methodologies which the social sciences provided in abundance.

Johna on a cruise in the Arctic near the North Pole* aboard the USCG Cutter Healy in 2015. *The North Pole does not have an actual pole. Photo Credit: Croy Carlin

I got an inkling that these things could in fact be studied when an aquatic scientist gave me a paper called “Scientists and Mariners at Sea” (Bernard 1976). I was mystified that someone had written an academic paper about my strange profession. The crux of the paper is a discussion of some statistical methodology that was quite obscure to me at the time, but the other material in the paper was what was interesting to me. Research vessels today are quite different than they were in 1976. For example, alcohol is no longer permitted in the U.S. academic research fleet, there are many more women working in science (unacceptably, the proportion of non-white scientists in the geosciences has changed very little), and legal rights for LGBTQ+ people have advanced, but some of the themes of the Bernard paper are still relevant. Bernard writes about a dual hierarchy and the different cultures and value systems of scientists and mariners that, without the existence of research vessels, would never interact.  

Johna evaluating a sensor for damage on a rosette water sampler aboard the USCG Cutter Healy 2015. Photo Credit: Cory Mendenhall, USCG
A glass ceiling in ocean sciences

The longer I was a technician the more I realized that women in leadership roles were few and far between and it became obvious that I was treated differently because of my gender. Switching jobs did not alter this pattern. There were more women in the science parties that I interacted with, biology in particular, but in deck-work focused science parties, like mooring groups, and in the ship’s crew, not so much. I began to wonder, Did the unique environment of a research vessel have an influence over the cultural and historical momentum of sexism? Policies such as Title 9 and Title 7 had existed for decades, but how did policies designed to eliminate sexual harassment function in this unique environment?

Johna leading deck operations during a mooring deployment aboard the R/V Oceanus in 2016. Photo Credit: Mounted GoPRO

In 2016 or 2017, I came across another paper that has influenced my research direction: “SAFE: Survey of Academic Field Experiences” (Clancy et al. 2014). This study was originally designed for anthropologists but the researchers added other discipline categories when some geologists requested that they be included. The study found that a large proportion of respondents reported incidents of sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination and assault in field sites and identified structural aspects of academia, such as high power differentials between students and more senior academics, as contributors to this dynamic. When I came across this paper, I thought, “Someone should do this in oceanography!” It was two years later that my master’s thesis project solidified around this topic, with the help and encouragement of my committee members.

Expanding Horizons

In order to answer my research questions, I had to break through my past bias against the social sciences. As a younger person I dismissed anything that in my mind was “not science.” I attribute this narrow way of thinking to many influences around me, from my B.S. in chemistry to a comic by xkcd, an attitude that was also perpetuated by my STEM professors during my undergraduate education.

Comic highlighting perceptions of different fields in science. Edits in red are Johna’s. Note that the sociologist didn’t even get a conversation bubble until Johna added one in. Source:

Today I find the notion of a hierarchy of disciplines ridiculous. Different questions require different tools. And the research questions for my thesis couldn’t be answered with the tools that I knew from my B.S. in chemistry or from being a technician, so I applied to the Marine Resource Management program at Oregon State University.

My journey through my master’s course work in Marine Resource Management has included a core of oceanography classes, as well as qualitative and quantitative social science methods and marine policy as well as elective classes in women’s and gender studies, accounting, and environmental politics. It is this combination of approaches and tools that will help me to carry out my research objectives and hopefully offer something of value to the research vessel community, by disrupting the patterns that keep talented women from reaching leadership roles as crew, scientists, and technicians. 

As Johna says, “You can lubricate a winch with a grease gun, but you can’t solve sexism with a salinometer.” Photo Credit: Shannon Zellerhoff

A Search for the Planet’s Oldest Ice

Jenna Epifanio, Ph.D. student in Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Jenna in the field. Credit: Ian Van Coller

What would you see if you looked into a time capsule from 1.5 million years ago? If the time capsule contained air before it was sealed up, you would find out a lot about the Earth’s climate. Between October and January of last year, I had the opportunity to join a team of researchers to go find some of that air, trapped in a natural time capsule: An Antarctic ice sheet.

using ice to understand earth’s past

Ice on our planet’s polar ice sheets has been preserving records of climate for hundreds of thousands of years, and in the case of Antarctica, a lot longer than that. Antarctica is thought to have first become covered in ice about 30 million years ago, which means if we sample ice at the correct locations on the continent, we might be able to discover some of that extremely old ice.

Bubbly ice from the Allan Hills, Antarctica

What makes polar ice a great archive for climate science is the direct nature of what it preserves. Not only do the water chemistry and particles trapped in the ice tell us about the past climate, but ice also collects tiny air bubbles that preserve an undisturbed record of the Earth’s atmosphere. Because ice is formed by layers and layers of snow that become packed down over thousands of years, all of the bubbles that are trapped in the ice sheet are preserved in chronological order – the deeper down in the ice sheet, the older the ice and the air trapped in it. Climate scientists can drill a long ice core and analyze it to determine the chemistry of the ice as well as the composition of atmospheric air in the ice bubbles.

Even though Antarctica glaciated over 30 million years ago, we probably won’t ever find ice that old on the continent. Because ice moves quickly (geologically speaking) and is subject to stress, melting and flow, most of the extremely old ice in Antarctica has already been destroyed. Currently, the oldest record of past climate contained in an ice core goes back 800,000 years. Recently, however, there has been a push to identify ice older than this because of an interesting question about the climate system that we want to answer.

Between 1.2 million and about 900,000 years ago, the Earth went through a dramatic shift in ice age cycles. During what’s known as the Mid Pleistocene Transition (MPT), the Earth changed from having ice ages every 40,000 years to having much colder and longer ice ages every 100,000 years. We know this from ocean sediment records of climate that contain indirect clues – proxies – describing climate conditions. However, an ice core record that covers that period would be invaluable: Instead of using proxy records of climate recorded in the ocean sediments, we would have a sample of the atmosphere itself to measure and answer questions about the climate from that period.

A visible layer of volcanic ash trapped in the ice sheet, near the Allan Hills, Antarctica.

Recently, scientists collected ice that was dated to be 1.5 million to about 2.7 million years old at a location in Antarctica called the Allan Hills. Situated about 140 miles from the U.S Antarctic base, McMurdo station, the Allan Hills is known as a “blue ice area,” and when you see it for the first time, there is no question as to why it bears the name. Blue ice areas (BIAs) are created when winds scour the ice sheet, removing the top layer of uncompressed snow and exposing the blue ice. At the Allan Hills, this process is combined with other physical factors that allow very old ice to be found near the surface. That extremely old ice near the surface is what I, and a few wonderful people from around the country, were there to sample.

The primary goal of the field season was to re-drill an ice core at a location that had been identified to have ice that is 2.7 million years old. The original ice core, collected a few years ago, was fairly small, and has mostly been consumed as samples were chipped off of it in the process of understanding its age. One secondary goal of the expedition was to drill some reconnaissance samples in locations that were good candidates for old ice. Over the seven weeks, we successfully drilled three 150-m ice cores, one of which will very likely contain ice that is 2.7 million years old.

Field work at the bottom of the world

Just arriving in Antarctica is an ordeal. A commercial flight to Christchurch, New Zealand takes about 18 hours. I was the only representative from Oregon State University on the team, so meeting some new and also some familiar faces was the first order of business when I arrived. Along with the other researchers, I met our camp manager, Anna, an impressive and ferocious mountaineering woman on her tenth season in Antarctica. I also met Elizabeth (‘E’) and Tanner, both professional ice core drillers (yep, that’s a real job!), who have a ridiculous amount of experience between the two of them. These tough-as-nails people would teach me how to drill ice cores in one of the most extreme places on the planet. To get from New Zealand to the icy continent, the team and dozens of other researchers and personnel boarded a US Air Force C-17, a gigantic military plane. The trip took five loud, and quite cramped hours, until we landed on the airfield located on the ice near McMurdo station.

Drilling 2.7 million-year-old ice with the Blue Ice Drill.

We spent ten days at McMurdo Station collecting camp gear, planning meals and food needs, and training in snow survival skills, and then we flew to our remote field site. Multiple Twin Otter flights from McMurdo Station to the Allan Hills were needed to deliver nine people, two ice core drilling rigs, and all of our camping gear. Two other researchers and I were on the last flight, which was delayed due to high winds and poor visibility at the Allan Hills.

The first order of business was to finish setting up camp, and begin setting up our drilling equipment. The next few days were grueling work, lugging gear to different drill sites, drilling anchors in the ice to secure our tents and equipment, and testing the electrical generators that would power the blue ice drill, a 9.5-inch diameter ice core drill that we would use to extract literal TONS of ice over the next seven weeks. The exhaustion that set in at the end of each very long day made sleeping in a tent during 24 hours of daylight some of the easiest sleeping I’d ever done.

Scott tents and living quarters on a beautiful day at the Allan Hills, Antarctica.

It is amazing how quickly you can adapt to harsh conditions. Our team was in the field for seven weeks. That’s seven weeks of waking up in a tent every morning to freezing temperatures, getting dressed, grabbing some warm tea and a quick breakfast, then heading out to our drill sites to continue the drilling from the day before. Drinking water was made by melting ice that we chipped out of the ice sheet at a special “sterile” location. There were no showers, and all my baby-wipes were frozen into a solid block of ice before I got to my tent that first night in the field. The sun never set, and if the wind would stop howling in the middle of the night, I would wake up, disturbed by the sudden change. Those nights were special, though, because you could hear the ice sheet cracking. Loud pops echoed across the ice sheet and reminded you of how incredible it was that you were there.

Science during a pandemic

I should be in Antarctica right now, sleeping in a Scott tent, enjoying the company of some amazing scientists and ice core drillers. The Allan Hills ice core drilling project was funded for two field seasons. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the field work has been delayed, and I’m sitting in Corvallis, Oregon, remembering that dramatic place. I don’t feel sorry for myself for missing out on a second season; being there once was the experience of a lifetime, and I’m grateful to have had it. Living through this pandemic does highlight how dramatically nature can change our lives, giving a little bit of perspective as to why understanding climate change is important. Understanding what is natural, normal, and possible for the Earth’s climate system is key to understanding how it will change in the future. Understanding the nature of that change can prepare us for what comes next.

Most of the team at the Allan Hills ice core drilling project.

Follow Jenna on Twitter @sciencejenna

From Owl Pellets to Pacific Fisheries

Laura Vary, M.S. student in Marine Resource Management  

Laura Vary with her father, who introduced her to science at a young age.
Beginnings of a scientist

I first became a scientist when I was four years old. I was crouching beneath a large pine tree in the woods of my backyard with my father standing beside me. We were inspecting an oblong, dark brown conglomeration. My dad explained that this mysterious thing was an owl pellet, likely excreted by one of the screech owls inhabiting our property. He palmed the pellet and we walked back to my house along the wooded path, my mind expanding as he described all that the little pellet could contain. 

Back in our garage, my father showed me how to carefully break apart the pellet using tweezers. He pulled out small rodent bones, teeth, and other unidentifiable fragments tangled in the coarse hair that held the pellet together. We dissected many of these in the months that followed, transforming my backyard into my first field site. My interest in ecology grew as I watched the dynamics of robins, cardinals, foxes, and chipmunks in those woods. They introduced me to basic biology as I found treasures including a complete, bleached possum skeleton and an intact still-born coyote pup. My biochemist father taught me all he knew about our woods during frequent walks in the evenings, stoking my enthusiasm and helping me to learn that the world of science could be mine. 

Though I lived inland near lakes and rivers teeming with small spotted sunfish and bass, I was drawn to the craggy granite shoreline of Maine’s coast. I would rock-hop away from my mother as she read to seek out hidden tide pools that burst with barnacles and mussels and small periwinkles. By sixth grade I was determined to become a marine biologist. 

to another coast, far away

My mission to become a marine biologist led me, surprisingly, to the drought-stricken Central Valley of California where I studied marine and coastal science at the University of California at Davis. I was immediately drawn to the school after learning about UC Davis’ Bodega Marine Laboratory. Strategically located at the site of one of the most productive areas of the California coast, Bodega Marine Lab houses all varieties of innovative University of California undergraduate and graduate marine ecosystem research. With urging from my father to “follow the research” and extensive emotional support from my mother, I moved 3,300 miles away from my family. 

I joined my first undergraduate research project in the spring of my freshman year in the Ecology and Evolution Department with the Wainwright Lab studying the morphological evolution of teleost fishes. I traveled to the Smithsonian Museum’s Collections Facility in Maryland with a small group of my peers, and together we measured preserved specimens of Teleostei fishes. These measurements, and others taken by more undergraduates in following years, produced one of the largest public databases of linear measurements of fishes available today. This work resulted in the presentation of my first research project utilizing a subset of these data at the 28th Annual Undergraduate Research Conference. 

Studying morphological evolution at the Smithsonian

Then, after a year-long digression in terrestrial plant ecology, my first significant experimental failure, and the completion of physically exhaustive biology courses, I finally arrived at Bodega Marine Lab in August of 2018. I studied coastal and biological oceanography and assisted with research in Steve Morgan’s planktonic fisheries ecology lab. I counted fish larvae and eggs and became endlessly fascinated with the expansive world that fit within the view of my microscope. I returned to this lab after graduation in 2019 to become a paid research technician. In this dream role I learned identification of invertebrate larvae, how to distinguish one species of krill from another, and organized a science crew and team of volunteers to evaluate marine protected areas off the Sonoma Coast. The Morgan Lab became my second home; I understood my priorities as a researcher and progressive member of a new wave of scientists and determined what my future after graduation would look like.

Searching for fish larvae and eggs in plankton samples

From marine biologist to marine resource manager

Upon reflection of my undergraduate education, I realized that solving complex matters like sustainable ocean management and climate change requires an interdisciplinary framework. Furthermore, I learned that the waves of change I wanted to make would be more difficult to achieve with my Bachelor’s degree alone. The recognition of these goals led me to Oregon State’s research-focused yet extremely interdisciplinary marine resource management program. In the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences I will work with Dr. Lorenzo Ciannelli in his fisheries oceanography lab. Using fish plankton data, I plan to research the ability of fishes like halibut, cod, and pollock to alter the timing (phenology) and location (geography) at which they spawn. I strive to understand the biological flexibility of these species and how it relates to the future of their populations, reliant commercial and Indigenous fisheries, and the larger marine ecosystem. I am driven by the need to understand what confers resilience in fish populations, and how we – as stewards – can learn from traditional native practices, historical environmental dynamics, and robust predictive models to create sustainable ecosystems and restore balance in the ocean.

Researching Marine Protected Areas (and Olive Rockfish) off the California Coast.

My path in science has always been driven by a clear goal to promote sustainability and revitalization within our global ecosystems. I hope that more people find room for research and science in their daily lives as this goal intersects so many fundamental aspects of human life. A common misconception for many is that scientists are highly trained individuals that dedicate their lives to research… we are not. We are inquisitive people that look at our world, make observations, and ask questions, just as I did when I was young. I want more people to understand that their voices and actions are deeply influential in the scientific world, and I will dedicate my future in research to ensuring the inclusivity of academia, management, and conservation. Science needs everyone!

Follow Laura on Twitter @resultscan_Vary

A Tale of Two Seeps

By Lila Ardor Bellucci, Ph.D Student in Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Lila Ardor Bellucci sampling deep sea mud. Image courtesy of Marley Parker.

Methane seeps are places where methane gas escapes from reservoirs below the seafloor into the overlying waters. These seeps support unique and fascinating benthic communities that provide habitat and food to other deep-sea fauna, while also keeping methane from reaching the atmosphere. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, scientists are interested in studying seeps to see what role they might play in climate change. Seep ecosystems may also be a source of energy, biopharmaceutical compounds, and valuable rare earth elements, all of which could contribute to the US “Blue Economy.” As we humans explore these potential resources, scientists like me are working to better understand seep communities and their functions to inform future management. This article is about two seeps my team and I encountered during an October 2020 expedition to find and characterize methane seeps along the Cascadia Margin – about 80 miles off the coasts of Oregon and Washington.

Looking off the back deck of the E/V Nautilus at the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Argus. Image courtesy of Lila Ardor Bellucci.
Ocean exploration

Part of the fun in exploring never-before-seen parts of the ocean is that it’s hard to predict what you’re going to find. Prior to entering graduate school, I participated in ocean exploration and research aboard the E/V Nautilus and R/V Neil Armstrong as a member of their Science Management and Marine Technician teams. This unpredictability was always one of my favorite parts of the job, and the same was true of my lab’s recent E/V Nautilus cruise to explore methane seeps along the Cascadia Margin. Even across similar ocean depths and latitudes, seep sites can vary dramatically in appearance and function, and in the animals and microbes that live there. One reason for this variation is that seeps can be thought of as having lifetimes and can look very different at different phases in their lives. During our recent cruise, we were lucky to find seeps at opposite ends of these phases, often called “successional stages.”

Searching for seeps

One of the first remotely operated vehicle (ROV) dives we had planned was to a site where past sonar data had indicated exciting wide-spread bubbling. The multibeam sonar is an acoustic tool, mounted to the ship’s hull, that allows researchers to map the seafloor and also detect methane seep bubble streams. As we came over the site, sitting about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) below us, we were disappointed to find no trace of bubbles in our multibeam data. Would we descend and not be able to find the seep?

When Lila and the other scientists see bubble plumes like this, they know there will be methane leaking from the seafloor, but they never know what it is going to look like until the ROV actually gets down there. Image courtesy of Oregon State University, NOAA OER, NOAA OCNMS, Ocean Exploration Trust, NA-121.
First seep

We decided to dive anyway, and the risk paid off. Shortly after reaching the seafloor, we were surprised to come across massive piles of carbonate rock, looming above ROV Hercules like dark towers. This type of rock is formed by the methane-eating reaction of bacteria and archaea (single-celled organisms, often found in extreme conditions) that live at seeps. Carbonate rocks of this size could have taken hundreds or even thousands of years to form! Similar to an old growth forest with large trees, the existence of these massive towers told us that the seep must be at a later successional stage in its life. Although we came across living clam beds, often found at methane seeps, this impressive site was no longer the bubbling frenzy it may once have been during its younger days. 

Carbonate rocks, created as a byproduct of methane being eaten by microbes, provide a home for many animals from octopods to mushroom corals.  You can also see expansive microbial mats in the fissures between rocks; this fauna is living on a shallow dusting of mud overlying even more carbonate rock. Video courtesy of Oregon State University, NOAA OER, NOAA OCNMS, Ocean Exploration Trust, NA-121.
Unexpected discovery

Our next discovery was even more unexpected. On our way to the late successional stage seep site, our multibeam mapping team noticed a large bubble plume in the sonar data, again about 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) deep. Although we hadn’t initially planned on it, we decided to take a chance and investigate further. As the ROVs (Hercules and its stabilizing companion Argus) descended, we picked up the acoustic signals of bubbling from over 100 meters (328 feet) off the seafloor, using an ROV-mounted sonar. When we arrived at the bottom, we were greeted by one of the largest microbial mats any of us had ever seen.

Second seep

As we navigated around its edge to gain our bearings, we realized that the mat of dense, white and gray bacteria seemed to go on forever, covering at least 50 square meters. As we explored its interior, we found numerous bubble plumes on the northern edge of the mat, filled with small tube worms and surrounded by extensive clam beds. This was a textbook young seep, in an early successional stage and (to our delight!) still soft and perfect for taking sediment core samples. At older sites, taking cores can be difficult because of those carbonate rocks that form, blocking the core tube as we try to push it in.

The research team collecting sediment cores at the early successional stage seep site. This video is sped up four times.  Video courtesy of Oregon State University, NOAA OER, NOAA OCNMS, Ocean Exploration Trust, NA-121.
Collecting sediment cores

I should mention that, while the collection of sediment cores and other samples may seem like a simple task, each sample we collected was actually the collective achievement of a whole team. Our team was made up of the various specialists and scientists that ran each dive from within the “control van” aboard the ship, as well as those who joined us from land via satellite-enabled telepresence. While we (the science team and data loggers) dictated and recorded sampling, pilots manipulated ROVs and mechanical arms thousands of feet below them, navigators managed the position of the ship, and video engineers controlled the ROV cameras that we all used to see. 

Processing samples

Each of the samples we collected on our dives was then processed as soon as the ROVs came back on deck. Because we ran 24/7 operations on the E/V Nautilus, both dives and sample processing could occur at any time of day. In the case of our “young” seep dive, processing our glorious cores and other samples took us over 7 hours. This was in addition to the 8 hours each of us spent on watch in the control van, in my case from 12 to 4 (both AM and PM). It was cold, it was muddy, and it was non-stop, but it was a whole lot of fun and all worth it. The samples we collected from these two diverse seeps, as well as the others we visited during our cruise, will now enable us to better understand these diverse seep habitats from various angles.


Although studying individual seep sites really well can be very valuable, it’s also important to study a broad range of seeps when trying to gain a better understanding of them. As this tale of two seeps shows, even nearby seeps can be very different, each telling us part of a larger deep-sea story. Unexpected discoveries like this help us to shape our understanding of a seep’s lifetime, thereby providing valuable guidance for future research.

Originally published on the NOAA Office of Exploration and Research website as a mission log for E/V Nautilus cruise NA-121: “Gradients of Blue Economic Seep Resources”.

A Kriller Antarctic Winter

By Kirsten Steinke, Ph.D. student in Ocean Ecology and Biogeochemistry

Kirsten Steinke

I wake up and rub my eyes as my 5:45 alarm goes off in the morning.  Still pitch black out my window, I quickly throw on my workout clothes, grab my yoga mat and head to the lounge for 6 am group yoga. After spending thirty minutes waking up my muscles, I head to the gym for my morning workout routine with my buddy Ken: a three-mile run on the treadmill while watching an episode of Rick and Morty. Sufficiently sweaty, I head to the girl’s bathroom (which is way nicer than the one I have at home) and take a quick shower. Finally awake, I head back to my room and get my stuff together for the long day of work. I look out my window again and the sun is just starting to rise behind the glacier. I stop what I’m doing and take a minute to just watch. I can hardly believe that this is the view I get to start my day with every morning.

The sunrise at Palmer Station, Antarctica

After the winter solstice on June 22, the sun started returning rapidly to our region of the Western Antarctic Peninsula (wAP). The sunrise is a welcome site as in the dead of winter we were only getting about 3-4 hours of sunlight every day. In total, our OSU research team spent about six months conducting research and living at one of the Antarctic research stations owned by the United States Antarctic Program (USAP): Palmer Station. Palmer is situated on Anvers Island in the northern part of the Western Antarctic Peninsula. The smallest of the three research stations run by USAP, Palmer looks out over the Southern Ocean and the vast mountain ranges that are typical of the Antarctic Peninsula. The setting is spectacular: We watch icebergs float in and out of the surrounding bays and listen to the earth-shattering eruptions of the glacier calving nearby. One iceberg, dubbed Old Faithful, got stuck in the bay and stays with us all season. It is comforting in a way to see it standing faithfully by each day as we begin our field work.

Old Faithful, our most loyal iceberg

“Why on Earth are you going to Antarctica in the middle of winter?” was a common question that I, and the rest of my research team, got asked. Believe it or not, the changes that occur in Antarctic ecosystems during the winter are poorly understood. Our team of krill researchers sought to fill some of these knowledge gaps as we conducted experiments on the overwintering of arguably the most important keystone species in Antarctic ecosystems: Antarctic krill. These tiny crustaceans, about as big as the length of your pinky as adults, support most of the top predators in the Antarctic ecosystem. Whales, penguins, seals, fish and other seabirds rely on krill as their primary food source.

Antarctic krill, Euphausia superba. Photo credit: Australian Antarctic Program

Our research project was designed by my advisor, Dr. Kim Bernard. She’s interested in how the warming at the northern wAP affects the food available to krill throughout the autumn and winter. The northern wAP is warming quicker than most other places on Earth, which has altered the food web dynamics at the northern WAP. Krill feed primarily on diatoms (microscopic algae) and copepods (microscopic zooplankton). The warming temperatures have resulted in declines in diatoms but more copepods at the northern wAP. Winter is a critical life history stage for young krill as food availability decreases in response to lower light levels. We wanted to know how this climate-induced change in food availability, compounded by the overall lower levels of food availability, affects the physiology of young krill. Hence, six months of Antarctic research collecting, observing, and learning from our kriller friends.

Out collecting food for our krill

While these six months may have been the most demanding of my Ph.D. career, they were also some of the best months of my life. We worked long hours in the lab and out in the field six days a week, making sure we had enough resources to support our long-term feeding experiment and to carry out our physiological experiments. Similar to the krill, we learned how to adapt to the extreme winter conditions. We got used to working in complete darkness, learned which path to take to work when winds were blowing over 100 knots and discovered that the quickest way to warm our fingers and toes after a long day of field work was to hold them directly against the small space heater in our office.

The sunset reflecting off the newly formed sea ice
Palmer Station welcoming the evening light

Our long field season at Palmer Station, Antarctica finally came to an end in the middle of October. In addition to the hundreds of samples that we successfully obtained from our research project, we left Palmer with new memories, incredible stories and 17 new friends that we were lucky enough to call our polar family. This experience was truly one of the greatest of my life and I cannot wait until our next field season starts in February 2021. It’s going to be kriller.

The 2019 Antarctic research team. OSU CEOAS graduate Julia Fontana (left), OSU CEOAS Associate Professor Dr. Kim Bernard (Center), OSU CEOAS PhD Student Kirsten Steinke (right)