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Smooth Sailing

March 3rd, 2011

By Mark Floyd, Posted on February 1st, 2011

For the past decade, Oregon State University has boasted an oceanography program ranked among the top five in the nation, and its broad spectrum of marine and coastal research has an international reputation that few institutions can match.

Federal agencies are funding OSU research on tsunamis, marine ecosystems, wave energy, ocean observing, invasive species and acidification, among other things. In September 2008, the U.S. Department of Energy created a Northwest National Marine Renewable Energy Center at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, further cementing the university’s leadership in wave energy and bringing to $13 million the total amount of funding for the initiative. Researchers are looking at environmental (how will marine organisms respond to subsurface electrical fields?) and technical (what engineered systems will be most effective?) questions and collaborating with state agencies, communities and the private sector.

National Leadership

In 2009, OSU zoology professor Jane Lubchenco became administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — the second OSU faculty member to hold that position after John Byrne in the 1980s, who later became president of OSU. In addition, Kelly Falkner, former professor in the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS), now leads the National Science Foundation’s polar research programs. Her COAS colleagues have made similar contributions: Professor Mike Freilich heads NASA’s Earth Science Division; Mark Abbott, dean of the college, is a member of the National Science Board, which oversees the NSF and advises Congress and the president; and Emeritus Professor Tim Cowles directs the national Ocean Observatories Initiative. (See “Run Silent, Run Deep” on Terra)

In August 2009, NOAA announced that it would move its Pacific Fleet operations from Seattle to Newport to be adjacent to OSU’s Hatfield Center, a stunning economic boon for the mid-Oregon coast that will bring as many as 175 NOAA employees, a half-dozen ships and an annual economic impact in the tens of millions.
Ocean Observing

Shortly after that, NSF announced that OSU would be one of the lead institutions on a $386.4 million Ocean Observatories Initiative that, among other things, will establish a system of surface moorings, seafloor platforms and undersea gliders to monitor the ocean — with a major presence off Newport.

“Oregon State University has perhaps more breadth and depth in marine and coastal science than anyone, and that opens up a lot of doors,” says Abbott. “In addition to expertise in many different disciplines, we provide fundamental science, research with direct application, and now we’re providing new access to the ocean through ships, satellites, the Ocean Observatories Initiative, gliders, the Marine Mammal Institute and other programs — and we do it on a global scale.”

“Sea Cow College”

OSU’s emergence as a force in marine and ocean sciences has been in the works for decades. The university came of age as an agricultural institution, developed the top-ranked forestry program in the country, and toward the end of the last century, became an emerging force in engineering. Marine sciences got some recognition, such as when OSU oceanographers discovered the first documented undersea hydrothermal vents and when John Byrne was named NOAA administrator.

But no one ever accused OSU of being a sea cow college. “We’ve always been the light under the bushel basket,” says Abbott. “Face it, fundamental science isn’t necessarily sexy. But more and more people are beginning to notice Oregon State because of the volume of high-quality research, our federal leadership, the emergence of programs with applications to real-world problems and that confluence of recent major events.”

Oceanography began at OSU in the late 1950s under the leadership of Wayne Burt, but its reach was limited by poor facilities and little access to the ocean. The 16-foot fiberglass boat Burt used in those early days was restricted to Yaquina Bay, and it wasn’t until the Office of Naval Research provided a sea-going 80-foot research vessel called the Acona in 1961 that the university was able to attract new ocean scientists, says Byrne.

The R/V Yaquina followed in 1964, and a year later, OSU opened the Hatfield Marine Science Center as a research, education and outreach facility. As both HMSC and COAS grew, the university developed marine science strengths in other areas — marine ecology, fisheries and wildlife, the nationally recognized Oregon Sea Grant program, wave energy, tsunamis and others.

The growth has been nothing short of phenomenal. In 2008-09, Oregon State University spent nearly $100 million on ocean and coastal research — 37 percent of all OSU research expenditures. And a funny thing happened along the way. Fundamental science has become — if not sexy — at least necessary in the eyes of the public. When the oil tanker New Carissa sank near Coos Bay in 1999, OSU physical oceanographers explained where the currents would carry the spilled oil. When the Pacific Ocean off Oregon was first plagued by low-oxygen areas that led to periodic marine “dead zones” in 2001-02, an interdisciplinary team of OSU researchers described the phenomenon and explained its origins.

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people drew comparisons with Oregon’s own Cascadia Subduction Zone and brought the university’s researchers into the spotlight. OSU’s O.H. Hinsdale Wave Research Laboratory includes one of the world’s foremost tsunami wave basins.

In 2010, as British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon well continued to spew oil into the Gulf of Mexico, OSU researchers were documenting the effects. Kim Anderson of OSU’s Superfund Research Program established a sensor network to monitor PAHs (petroleum-based compounds) in the air and water. Bruce Mate, director of OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, led efforts to monitor sperm whale movements. Stephen Brandt, director of Oregon Sea Grant, conducted his sixth assessment of fish habitat in the northern Gulf “dead zone.”

The strength of OSU’s expertise gained additional recognition this year when COAS scientist Kelly Benoit-Bird received a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, which carried a $500,000 grant for her research. She specializes in the use of acoustics to study marine ecology. (See “Genius of the Sea”)

Today, Oregon Sea Grant Director Stephen Brandt leads OSU’s Marine Council, which aims to enhance and to coordinate a global research enterprise. With scientists conducting studies from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the North Atlantic to the South Pacific, Oregon State’s leadership in international ocean science is literal.


An earlier version of this story, “Powered by Oceans,” appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of the Oregon Stater magazine.

For information about supporting research and teaching through faculty endowments, contact the Oregon State University Foundation, 1-800-354-7281 or visit CampaignforOSU.org.

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