About Abigail Ernest-Beck

As a 2018 Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholar, Abigail is working with the United States Environmental Protection Agency in Newport, OR on quantifying the impact of anthropogenic inputs on water quality in Tillamook Estuary. Abigail just finished her junior year at Western Washington University, where she is studying Environmental Science with an emphasis in Marine Science and a minor in Music. She spent fall of 2017 studying marine biology at the Catholic University of the North in Coquimbo, Chile. Abigail is interested in studying the effects of humans on the marine environment, especially pollution. She is also interested in environmental justice and the incorporation of this in conservation efforts.

Wrapping up 10 weeks of science, streams, saltwater, and summer

After nine weeks of working, learning, and getting to know Newport, my time here is almost over. A lot has happened in past few weeks since my last blog posts, including many first and lasts for the summer.

I started these past 3 weeks with my last field day in the Trask River in Tillamook. We did a second run-through of the experiment quantifying in-stream processing so that we could have a second set of data and include a dark treatment. Once we got back to the lab, I sorted the containers and set aside the rocks for later so that I can measure the volume of the rocks and use this to better quantify photosynthesis and respiration rates – one of the projects I have for my last week.

Storing containers with river rocks from my last field day. The volume of these rocks will be measured this week to account for volume in my photosynthesis and respiration rates.

Running my last set of samples on the Burkolator

Once I was all finished with field work and running samples, it was time for data analysis! I had 3 days after gathering all my data to process them and create a final poster and presentation. Here’s the final poster that I created:

A screenshot of my final poster

But most of the time, processing data actually looked more like this:

A screenshot of one of many sheets on one of many excel workbooks as I try to piece together the data.

I have never processed large data sets before, and I learned that this process is very messy but fun. Compiling and making sense of the data brings up just as many questions as it answers. For example, when I look at the changes in dissolved oxygen as compared to total carbon dioxide in a container, preliminary graphs show me that there is a fairly linear relationship between the two. But that brings into question: is it best to use the concentration of oxygen or the percent saturation in this comparison? How can I compare changes in the containers to changes in the stream when the containers are staying in place but open the water is moving through many different areas? How can I find a way to visually present the connections that I am making in my head? What do I do about the four ugly data points that seem to be off?

And then of course: How do I present this all in just 5 minutes?

Trying to find a way to present my findings turned out to be a great way to learn more about the subject. In order to be able to explain the observed changes to others, I had to solidify my understanding of the processes underlying the changes we were seeing in water conditions as well as making the calculations and the graphs. This process was challenging and fun, and the symposium on August 17 was a great way to conclude this part of my project and see what everyone else has been working on.

So what now?

I may have presented my findings last Friday, but the project is not over yet! Over the next week, I have plenty to keep me busy: measuring the volume of the rocks collected to normalize for volume, cleaning up the many excel documents used to compile and graph data, improving the meta data on the documents I have produced, finding a way to account for loss of dissolved oxygen from air exchange, and making sure all the files I have created over the course of the summer are accessible to others once I leave.

After this week, I will keep working on this project remotely. We intend to continue processing data, and I intend to write a manuscript for my WWU Honors Program Senior Project requirements as well as the possibility of publishing this work alongside my mentors in a journal.

I also intend to go to all of my favorite places at least one last time: Ollala Lake, Bier One, South Beach State Park, and the “hammock tree,” to name just a few.

Newport, you have been good to me.

Tracing water quality from the rivers to the bay

I never thought I’d spend so much time in a river as part of a marine science research project, but here I am and I’m having a blast!

The Newport EPA has been going on research cruises to monitor water quality in the streams and the bay of Tillamook 1-2 times per month for a year now. Two weeks ago, I got to participate in the last cruise of the study. We divided into two teams, the “bay team” and the “tributary team.” Each team took measurements of dissolved oxygen, temperature, depth, salinity, and chlorophyll on-site using a multi-parameter data sonde. We also took water samples to analyze in the lab for carbonate chemistry, nutrients, dissolved organic carbon, and dissolved inorganic carbon; each measurement requires a different type of container for the sample. To make all of this easier, the EPA has converted a trailer into a mini-lab for field sampling. We have cabinets, countertops and lots of equipment all organized and easy to access!

By monitoring many different water quality parameters at locations throughout the rivers and the bay, we’re hoping to get a holistic view of the water chemistry in this system and to identify the drivers of any changes observed in the health of the system.

The trailer rigged for water sampling on the go.

Filling a cooler with a variety of water samples. Not pictured are the DOC samples, which are placed on dry ice so that they freeze immediately.

Another part of the picture is looking at how in-stream processing changes the water chemistry, specifically the amounts of carbon and oxygen. If we can get an idea of this, then we can know which changes in water quality are due to in-stream processing versus inputs such as agricultural runoff as the river runs from the forests to the bay.

Most in-stream processing is driven by periphyton, the algae growing on the rocks at the bottom of the river. To measure these changes, we removed all the rocks from a small (about 1 square foot) area in the river and placed them in a sealed container. We measured the initial dissolved oxygen in the water, let it sit in the river for four hours, and then measured the oxygen again.

Setting up the containers to measure in-stream processing. There were 4 containers with rocks and 2 controls with only streamwater at each of the two locations.

Jody Stecher, left, and me, right, measuring the oxygen in the container after removing it from the river.

We also wanted to see how one parcel of water changes as it moves downstream. At our upstream location, we released a bag of oranges into the water. Since they float in the water, they move at about the same rate as the water, so we were hoping to take measurements when they reached the downstream location. However, after about 4 hours of waiting, we decided to let this part of the experiment go. Lesson learned: there are a lot of orange leaves in the river that look like oranges when that’s what you’re hoping to see!

Waiting for the oranges to come.

After taking so many measurements and samples in a relatively short period of time, we have quite a bit of lab work and analysis coming up! Some samples will be sent to other facilities for analysis, and some will be analyzed here. I’m excited to start making sense of these data and bring together the many parts of this project to understand the system as a whole.


Water Quality in Tillamook Bay: Getting Started

How are humans affecting the water quality in Tillamook Bay?

This might sound like a simple question, but studies have been going on for decades and there is still ongoing research working to answer it. Tillamook Bay is a great habitat for oyster aquaculture, and it also happens to be in a valley largely occupied by dairy farming. In fact, there are more cows than people in the city of Tillamook. This makes monitoring the water quality and important, but complex, task. The EPA at Hatfield has been working on this current research study since 2016, which includes many projects working from various angles to try to understand the whole picture of the water chemistry in the Tillamook Bay.

One of the longest-running projects is monitoring the water quality in the bay. Multiple different devices are being left in the water for months at a time to take continual measurements of water quality. These include a Sea-Fox, Sea-FET, and a Multi-Parameter Water Quality Data Sonde. These instruments provide long-term measurements of pH, chlorophyll, salinity, depth, temperature, and dissolved oxygen. This is not one of my specific projects, but I still got to tag along while the instruments were deployed to learn about the project.

Deploying instruments to measure water quality in the bay after they were briefly taken out for cleaning.

One project that I’m working on is looking at how the water chemistry in the Trask River changes over the course of a day. On June 27, we left a data sonde at two different locations along the Trask river to measure dissolved oxygen, pH, chlorophyll, temperature, and depth over a period of two days. On June 29, we left Newport at 5:30am to drive to Tillamook, and then we collected water at 4 locations along the Trask River at five different times throughout the day. These water samples will be measured for nutrients and carbon, since these measurements can’t be taken with a data sonde. At the end of the day, we collected the data sondes left on June 27 and took them back to the lab along with the samples. These measurements will allow us to get an idea of how the chemistry of the water changes throughout the course of the day so that we can account for this when we compare the levels of carbon and oxygen in other streams. It is likely that we will return to get measurements from a longer time span that includes the evening and night.

Left: Getting set up to leave a YSI data sonde overnight in the Trask River. Right: Preparing water samples from the Trask River to be stored. Water samples for carbonate are put in glass bottles and then poisoned with very small amount of mercuric chloride to prevent further changes to the carbon composition; samples for nutrients are filtered and stored on ice.

Another part of the picture is looking at in-stream processing from periphyton, which are the algae and other organisms attached to the rocks at the bottom of the river. We know that land runoff has a significant effect on the water chemistry, but we have not yet looked at the biological processes in the stream itself. So, how do you measure exactly the amount of respiration occurring from the slimy periphyton on river rocks? It took some pondering, but we decided to take all the rocks from a given area and place them in sealed container in the river, while measuring the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. The challenge is, all the containers that are able to seal around the oxygen probe have an opening that is too small to fit rocks. The solution? Find a new container. So, we took a trip to the Smart Foodservice Warehouse Store, where there are containers of all shapes and sizes to choose from, and got a few weird looks as we measured and puzzled over containers in the food storage aisle. It’s still a work in progress, but we’re getting closer to setting up this portion of the study.

Searching for a container to measure periphyton respiration at the Smart Foodservice Warehouse Store.

When I’m not in the field, I’m measuring the nitrogen and carbon samples in the lab. The EPA just got a new machine for measuring dissolved CO2 and total CO2 called the Burkolator, developed by Burke Hales at OSU in Corvallis. It is one of only 20 or so in the world, and he came to Newport to teach us how to use it. As you can see, there are a lot of tubes; not shown in the photo is the computer screen used to control everything. I’ve been spending a lot of time learning how to work the machine and developing a written set of instructions, which is a fun challenge. We’re hoping to get some of my samples running as soon as Tuesday, July 10!

Learning how to use the Burkolator.

Like I mentioned, there are a lot of projects going on to answer the big overarching question! I have only gotten started on some parts of my project; there will be more to come. My work for the summer is only a small piece of the large overall study, but I am excited to be contributing to our understanding of the bay and to have the opportunity to learn about the diverse array of other projects happening at the same time.

Week 1 as an intern for the EPA: where science and regulation meet

After several months of looking forward to it, I just finished my first week of the Oregon Sea Grant Summer Scholars Program!

The Hatfield Marine Science Center is primarily a research center for Oregon State University, but there are also several other buildings on the campus with various agencies. One of these buildings belongs to the EPA Office of Research and Development, and this is where I’m interning this summer.

Working for the EPA is an interesting mix of science and regulation. Since the EPA is primarily a regulatory agency, this research facility is not the standard EPA workplace. Even so, a lot of federal regulations carry over. All new employees are required to complete an extensive online training, which took two of my days this week. There are also in-person safety trainings, work meetings, and paperwork. After that, I spent my time reading research articles and getting caught up on some of the background knowledge related to my project. It was a slower start than I was expecting, but I enjoyed having time to educate myself about the topic before jumping into research. In addition, the researchers have been extremely friendly and welcoming, and it is exciting to see the many labs, research boats, and scientific equipment.

I was also able to see some of my first sights of the Oregon coast this week, including South Beach, Nye Beach, and Yaquina Head. In Bellingham, WA, where I go to school, the beaches are almost all rocky, so it is a treat to get to enjoy long sandy beaches! I’m so excited to have a whole summer to enjoy here, and my list of places to visit grows every day.

At the end of the day on Friday, my mentor, Cheryl Brown, returned from travelling for a conference and we were able to start planning out research plans for the summer. We have an exciting and complicated project sampling water quality in Tillamook Bay and rivers that enter into this bay. We will be taking samples from the streams and the bay itself to try and get a better idea of how humans and agriculture may be contributing to ocean acidification in the bay. Stay tuned for more updates throughout the summer!