Stories tagged CMOP

Fact: I love British comedy (like this). I also love British accents, red telephone booths, tea, and I was indeed one of the crazies who woke up at 3am to watch The Royal Wedding this past Spring.

I mention all of this to explain why this headline caught my attention: "Myrionecta rubra Video Earns Telly Award." Telly. Telly, telly, telly! What a remarkably British word, right?

I didn't have a clue what Myrionecta rubra was, but it turns out it wasn't British. It was better! It was science!! It was red water, or rather enormous masses of microscopic red critters that give the appearance of turning the water red.

Researchers at the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Predictions teamed up to produce a 5 minute long video that

"follows [scientists] as they study the genetics of Myrionecta rubra and its ability to form massive red water patches in the Columbia River estuary. The research team is searching for clues to determine if it could be used as an early warning signal for changes in the environment."

It was so fabulous, it won a Telly Award! You can check out the award-winning video yourself below:

Red Water from CMOP on Vimeo.

Sep
16
2010

An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).
An Atlantic salmon: slightly GMOed (by me).Courtesy Hans-Petter Fjeld
Buckle up, Buzzketeers, because school is in session.

Did I just mix metaphors? No! You wear seatbelts in my school, because they help prevent you from exploding.

But you will probably explode anyway, because you are going to get taught. By JGordon. About the future.

Here’s your background reading: a GMO is a genetically modified organism—a living thing whose genetic material has been altered through genetic engineering. Humans have been genetically modifying plants and animals for thousands of years (by selectively breeding them for desired characteristics), but it’s only been in the last few decades that we’ve gotten really fancy and fast about it.

While in the past, or what I like to call “the boring old days,” it took generations to breed crops that produced high yields, grew faster, or needed less water, we can now do that sort of thing in an afternoon. (Well, not really an afternoon, but these aren’t the boring old days, so we should feel free to use hyperbolic language.) We can insert genes from one plant into another, bestowing resistance to pests or poisons, or increasing the nutrition of a food crop.

Pretty cool, right? Maybe. GMOs tend to make people uncomfortable. Emotionally. They get freaked out at the thought of eating something that they imagine was created like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Most people prefer to eat stuff that was created the old fashion way: through SEX.

Once they’re in your tummy, GMOs are probably pretty much the same as any other food, really. However, there may be other reasons to approach them cautiously. Most organisms make a place for themselves in their environment, and their environment makes a place around them, and things tend to work pretty well together. But GMOs are brand new organisms, and it can be very difficult to tell how they’ll fit into the rest of the natural world. Will they out-compete “natural” organisms, and cause them to go extinct? Will they interbreed with them, and introduce new weaknesses to previously strong species? The repercussions of such events could be… well, very bad.

On the other hand, GMOs could provide food—better, more nutritious, easier to grow food—for people and places that really need it. And with global population expected to increase by a few billion people before it stabilizes, we’re going to need a lot of food.

Just like everything else, this stuff is complicated. Really complicated. But the issue isn’t waiting for us to get comfortable with it before it pushes ahead. Hence, our main event: GMO salmon.

You might not have devoted much mental space as of yet to mutant ninja salmon, but you will. See, transgenic salmon (i.e., salmon with genes from other animals) may be the first GMO animal on your dinner plate. Or whatever plate you use for whenever you eat salmon. If you even use a plate, you animal.

What’s the point of the GMO salmon? In the right conditions, they grow much faster than their normal counterparts, and they require about 10% less food to reach the same weight as normal salmon. The company responsible for them, AquaBounty, has been working on the project for more than 20 years. Inserted into a commonly farmed species, the Atlantic salmon, the final, successful combination of genes comes from Chinook salmon (a closely related, but much larger species) and the ocean pout (a slightly eel-like fish that can tolerate very cold water). While Atlantic salmon typically only grow during the summer, the new variation produces growth hormones year round, so they can grow to marketable size in about 60% of the time it would normally take, assuming they’re kept in water that’s at the right temperature, and given plenty of food year round.

While some people object to GMO foods on the grounds that the long-term effects from eating them are unknown, probably the more salient argument is the effect they might have on the natural world. A larger, faster growing species could put tremendous pressure on already stressed, wild Atlantic salmon. AquaBounty counters that in normal ocean temperatures, the GMO salmon would grow no faster than wild salmon. Also, all of the GMO salmon are female, and 95 to 99% of them are sterile (they can’t reproduce). And none of that should matter, because the salmon will be raised in tanks, away from the ocean.

Even if they are successfully isolated from wild salmon, opponents point out, that doesn’t mean they are isolated from the environment. See, salmon eat other fish, and it takes about 2 pounds of other fish to make one pound of salmon (according to this article on the GMO salmon). Large amounts of the kinds of fish people don’t eat are caught and processed to feed farm-raised salmon. If cheaper, fast-growing salmon cause the demand for salmon to rise, more food stock fish will have to be caught to supply the farms, putting pressure on these other species.

A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...
A salmon farm: Nets keep the salmon in and the predators out, but disease, parasites, and pollution move through freely. But salmon farms reduce stress on wild salmon populations. It's complicated...Courtesy Dark jedi requiem
Then again, if the GMO salmon can be raised successfully and profitably in inland tanks, it could remove other negative environmental impacts. Aquaculture fish farms are typically in larger bodies of water, with the fish contained inside a ring of nets. The high concentration of fish in one area leads to more diseases and parasites, which can spread to nearby wild fish. Salmon farms also produce lots of waste, and it’s all concentrated in one spot. Supposedly, a farm of 200,000 salmon produces more fecal waste than a city of 60,000 people. (That’s what they say—it sounds like a load of crap to me, though.)

It’s a tricky subject, and anyone who says otherwise is being tricky (ironically). Nonetheless, it seems likely that the Food and Drug Administration will soon declare this particular GMO as officially safe to eat, and GMO salmon fillets could make their way to the supermarket in the next couple years. Even if the FDA didn’t approve the fish, however, that would only mean that it couldn’t be sold in the US—the operation could continue to produce fish for international markets.

GMO salmon are just the tip of the GMO animal iceberg (if you’ll forgive the iceberg analogy—I don’t mean to imply that they are going to sink us.) The next GMO in line for FDA approval, probably, is the so-called “enviropig,” a GMO pig with a greater capability to digest phosphorus. This should reduce feed costs, and significantly lower the phosphorus content of the manure produced by the pigs. That’s important because phosphorus from manure often leaches into bodies of water, fertilizing microorganisms, which, in turn, reproduce in massive numbers and suffocate other aquatic life.

As the human population grows and needs more food, genetically engineered plants and animals are going to become increasingly common. They might make the process of feeding and clothing ourselves easier and more sustainable. Or they might royally screw things up. Or both. So start thinking about these things, and start thinking about them carefully.

Er… so what do you think about GMOs? Are they a good idea? Are they a good idea for certain applications? Are they a bad idea? Why? Scroll down to the comments section, and let’s have it!

Aug
03
2010

Keep on puffin: These guys definitely can't help you quit.
Keep on puffin: These guys definitely can't help you quit.Courtesy Andreas Trepte

Climate change. Rising seas. GMOs. Humans have such an incredible impact on Earth's environment that it's clear we're now the dominant force of change on Earth. This situation has even led some scientists to rename this geologic epoch the Anthropocene, or the human epoch. But as we alter, tweak, and pollute more each year, what will it mean for the survival of other species into the future?

According to Dr. Stephen Kress, they can look forward to human stalkers and creepy mechanical scarecrows. Kress began his career in the islands along Maine's coast during the late 60s and early 70s. In response to the loss of bird species diversity on many islands, he decided to start a human-led migration program that would move puffins to some of the islands. Puffins had once been abundant in the area, but their population dwindled due to overhunting and egg harvesting.

Still others accused Kress of trying to play God. “We’d been playing the Devil for about 500 years,” says Tony Diamond, a Canadian seabird researcher who has collaborated with Kress for decades. “It was time to join the other side.”
(same article as above)

Yikes: Something tells me they might have had better luck with this guy.
Yikes: Something tells me they might have had better luck with this guy.Courtesy 関西画像創庫

Amid the skepticism of fellow scientists and the stubbornness of birds, Kress persevered and now boasts growing puffin populations on a few islands. But after several attempts to set natural protections and population controls in place, including a mechanical scarecrow to ward off predators, Kress and assistants continue to monitor and protect the puffins themselves. It's the only way they can maintain the new populations. After all, in a human-dominated environment, we get all the benefits and all the responsibilities--a job some might conclude is for the birds.

We are as gods and have to get good at it.
Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline

Jul
14
2010

"Here's what I've lately decided: I'm the little kid in "The Sixth Sense" who sees the dead people. I'm getting really sick of being this Cassandra. I mean, it's kind of miserable."
Peter Ward, Author of "The Flooded Earth"

Salon.com recently interviewed Peter Ward about the future of American cities as sea levels rise. The interview was not just depressing--some of Ward's comments were downright terrifying. Regarding the possibility of ending ocean currents, he commented that with one exception, every past mass extinction was caused by volcanic global warming events. He notes:

"Ocean currents slow down. You lose your wind, everything…. Everything goes stagnant, and a stagnant ocean becomes an oxygen-free ocean, and an oxygen-free ocean breeds very bad microbes."

But perhaps the most disturbing implication in the interview was that in order to be heard, scientists have to weaken their own arguments, which in turn weakens governmental response and public perception of the danger.

"No one wants to be branded as some sort of flaming political agenda-ist. These estimates aren't going down, because the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere keeps going up. And in fact we keep shooting over the worst level projections that people were saying two or three years ago."

So what can we do? This kind of catastrophic discussion makes my weekly reusable bag use at Rainbow seem like chewing gum in a leaking dam, or maybe that first cap BP put on the well. It may make a tiny difference, but it won't avoid disaster.

After all the reading I've done the last few weeks about climate change, I've begun to think the first step is confronting the evidence as a nation (good luck, right?). The hardest part then is identifying and committing to mitigation/response plans--I say that because we are already deeply impacting our environment in ways that we can't reverse. But I also think that as Ward says, "…wherever there's challenges, there are opportunities." If we're going to make changes on a broad scale, we have to find a way to be optimistic about these very depressing facts.

In preparation for the Future Earth exhibit (more soon!), we've been working with the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP). You can read more about their research and outreach efforts on Science Buzz or on their website. The tagline on their website, "Understanding variability to anticipate change," is just the kind of proactive attitude we need as we face rising sea levels.

"I have a fundamental belief that science and education are essential to prepare our society to anticipate and steer changes."
Antonio Baptista, CMOP Director

Where do you find hope for our future? Please reply in the comments!

Jun
03
2010

Sophisticated forecast modeling tools developed at the Center for Coastal Margin Observation & Prediction (CMOP) were recently used to assist in the rescue of a disabled underwater glider.

CMOP researchers spent two days using a particle-tracking model to predict where and when their glider, nicknamed “Phoebe,” would drift ashore. This helped researchers understand how much time they had to stage a recovery operation.

Rescue planning: This is an example of the particle tracking model used to predict the direction the glider would drift. Red represents the glider GPS signals. Green represents the particle tracking forecast.
Rescue planning: This is an example of the particle tracking model used to predict the direction the glider would drift. Red represents the glider GPS signals. Green represents the particle tracking forecast.Courtesy CMOP

“Once Phoebe became a drifting glider, we treated her as a major piece of scientific instrumentation at risk and an opportunity to test our computer models in a sea emergency,” says Antonio Baptista, director of CMOP. “The forecasting system used for Phoebe is the same that we are currently transferring to the U.S. Coast Guard and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) for inclusion in their respective operational and emergency response systems.”

Phoebe is a bright yellow glider that moves through the water, gathering information, and sending satellite signals back to land each time she surfaces. She was sent out on her first mission of the year on April 16, 2010 to collect data in the waters off the Washington coast as a collaborative research effort with the Quinault Indian Nation.

Five days into her mission, Phoebe stopped communicating.

Katie Rathmell and Michael Wilkin, members of the CMOP field team in Astoria, Oregon, waited and hoped to receive a signal from her. Hours passed and still no signal. Then almost 24 hours later, Phoebe called home. She had surfaced and transmitted a GPS signal of her current location.

“We reviewed the files she sent and determined that she had gotten stuck at 8.4 meters below the surface and was unable to come up to the surface,” says Rathmell.

The team theorized that Phoebe got tangled in a kelp bed. After a pre-programmed period of time, she jettisoned her emergency ballast weight, which gave her enough buoyancy to escape the entanglement and surface. But having dropped the ballast weight meant she could no longer dive or maneuver. Phoebe was adrift in the ocean.

Rathmell and Wilkin started talking about how to stage a rescue. The challenge was the gale force winds offshore were making the seas too rough for ships to get out of the harbor. The team would have to wait until weather conditions improved.

Even though Phoebe was disabled, she was capable of transmitting a GPS signal every 30 minutes. This allowed the team to track her location. She was drifting south and getting closer to the Columbia River plume. They were concerned she might get caught in the incoming tide. This would pull her into the river and possibly crash her into the jetty. Currents and winds could also push her onto the beach and the surf could break up the glider. The problem was the team was unsure which direction she would drift.

That is when they made the decision to use CMOP’s modeling tools to help narrow down Phoebe’s potential drifting trajectories, possible threats, and windows of time for a recovery operation.

“The team hoped the weather would break in time for a successful recovery. The models helped predict how much time they had to recover Phoebe,” says Paul Turner, senior research programmer.

The data for the particle tracking comes from the forecast models that CMOP runs on a continuous basis. Turner ran simulations for two days using the winds, currents and tides to predict where Phoebe might end up. He generated graphs that predicted drifting directions in one, two, three and four hour intervals.

“Paul Turner did a very good job of getting the modeling and drifter prediction tools working in a fashion that allowed the data to be useful for us,” says Wilkin.

The forecast model showed that time was running out for Phoebe. The prevailing winds and currents were pushing her closer to shore. It was imperative to rescue her soon.

For several days, the conditions were too dangerous to cross the Columbia Bar and get the glider safely aboard a ship. Then around 10:30 on Sunday morning, the research team received word there was a break in the weather and Captain Dan Schenk from Sea Breeze Charters in Ilwaco, Washington would take them out.

Rathmell and Wilkin boarded the “Nauti-Lady” and took a rough ride over the Columbia Bar en route to Phoebe’s last known location.

Finding Phoebe was a challenge. This time of year there are crab traps set out in the ocean and many of their floats are the same color as Phoebe. The team would spot something on the surface of the water that might be Phoebe but it turned out to be something else.

Then they spotted her tangled up in crab lines and floats. “She was surrounded by kelp, plastic, beer bottles, and all sorts of trash,” says Rathmell. They were successful in getting hold of her, removing the crab lines, and pulling her aboard the ship. The team safely returned Phoebe to shore.

Found!: "Phoebe" was found tangled in kelp and crab lines off the Washington coast.
Found!: "Phoebe" was found tangled in kelp and crab lines off the Washington coast.Courtesy CMOP

“The successful rescue of Phoebe, under difficult sea conditions, is a credit to the team work among the Astoria field team, boat operators, modelers and programmers,” says Baptista. “CMOP’s oceanographic knowledge, field observations, computer models, and cyber infrastructure all came together to allow people to make the right decisions at the right time.”

CMOP will use the lessons learned from Phoebe’s rescue operation to further improve their scientific and engineering infrastructure.

Feb
07
2010

Underwater, or “internal” waves, unlike the familiar wind-generated surface waves, occur due to density stratification often generated by coastal tides. These internal wave can lead to redistribution of nutrients and minerals. Internal waves can also cause vertical “velocity shear”, intensifying the vertical mixing process within the water column and bringing suspended particles and nutrients to the surface. Understanding and tracking these internal waves is another way to monitor the vital signs of an estuary.

Internal waves
Internal wavesCourtesy CMOP

CMOP successfully launched its new autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) to help scientists gain a better understanding of the Columbia River estuary. One of the first studies to use these vehicles will be directed at internal waves. Craig McNeil, oceanographer from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington and CMOP investigator, is using AUV’s to study the generation and propagation of internal waves in the Columbia River estuary and plume. He's interested in the physics of internal waves and mixing near the sea surface and the sea floor.

McNeil said,

“Scientists speculate that some bottom following internal waves have closed circulations that traps water and biology. The AUVs will help us sample these waves so we can better understand these complex mixing mechanisms.”

One upcoming experiment will study the dynamics of the freshwater plume as it spreads out over the denser saltwater of the coastal ocean. Of particular interest is to compare measured observations with theoretical predictions. McNeil will program the vehicles to travel into the advancing plume and navigate through the plume front. This will allow CMOP to study the progression of internal waves that are known to be generated at the advancing plume front and determine their propagation speed.

Watch researchers deploy the AUV: Watch Craig, Troy, and Trina deploy the AUV in the Columbia River.
Watch researchers deploy the AUV: Watch Craig, Troy, and Trina deploy the AUV in the Columbia River.Courtesy CMOP

Before those measurements could take place, McNeil needed to test the vehicles’ capabilities in the field. Along with oceanographer Trina Litchendorf and field engineer Troy Swanson, McNeil tested the vehicle in Lake Washington over the winter months. By spring the team was ready to take it through its paces in the Columbia River estuary.

They traveled to Astoria, Oregon, and met up with CMOP’s field team for the vehicle’s first mission in the river. They decided initial tests would be conducted during slack tide due to the limits of the vehicle in strong currents. The mission was based on tidal cycle information supplied by CMOP’s cyber-team. The expected velocities during slack tide would be less than 0.5 m/s or about 1 knot, which was in the acceptable range for the vehicles

The vehicle was deployed near the first transponder set by the team in the North Channel of the Columbia River. There it performed a compass calibration and proceeded to its first designated waypoint. To make sure it was on track, McNeil monitored the vehicle’s position with a device called the Ranger. The Ranger's transponder receives status updates from the vehicle.

Water temperature map: This figure shows a map of water temperature recorded by the CTD on the AUV during its first mission in the North Channel of the Columbia River estuary westward of the Astoria Bridge.
Water temperature map: This figure shows a map of water temperature recorded by the CTD on the AUV during its first mission in the North Channel of the Columbia River estuary westward of the Astoria Bridge.Courtesy CMOP

The results of the mission were a success. The vehicle traveled upon its designated coordinates and collected salinity and temperature data. Now the team has a better understanding of how to control the vehicle’s navigation in the river, which means it will be able to perform longer missions.

McNeil and his team will now use the AUVs to study various physical processes in the Columbia River estuary, including internal waves, currents, and mixing of various biogeochemical components of the water; all of these adding to our understanding of the estuary’s vital signs.

More photos of the AUV deployment: More photos of the AUV deployment
More photos of the AUV deployment: More photos of the AUV deploymentCourtesy CMOP

Feb
07
2010

Estuaries are coastal areas in which rivers and oceans meet. Thus, they include both fresh and salt water, each of which support different ecological communities of plants and animals, large and small. Salinity (“saltiness”) of the estuary is a measure of its health--a vital sign--for those communities.

In some cases, salt-water from the ocean side of the estuary can begin to “intrude” on an area previously dominated by fresh water. It is important to be able to measure and monitor this aspect estuary health.

CMOP has developed a remote sensing device that opens the way for scientists to better understand and predict salinity intrusions in estuaries.

Circuit analog for dipole source on river bed
Circuit analog for dipole source on river bedCourtesy CMOP

Oceanographer Thomas Sanford, Ph.D., and his team from the Applied Physics Laboratory at the University of Washington, have developed a bottom-mounted instrument for measuring electrical conductivity in the water column, which can be transformed into salinity readings.

The current process for measuring salinity involves sensors that provide “point” observations. Sanford’s instrument provides measurements of integrated salinities across the entire water column, allowing a more representative description of salinity intrusion.

How does it work?

Sanford’s approach is to produce a low-frequency electrical current and measure the resulting electric field at a nearby dipole receiver. The received electrical field is a function of the electrical conductivity of the water column and the sediments.

Quasi-static electrical analog circuit: The quasi-static electrical analog circuit for electric currents divided between the parallel resistors of saline water (Rw ) and the sediment (Rs ) is such that: Vr /Is = CRwRs /(Rw + Rs ) = C(Σw + Σs )-1 , ∴ Σw = CIs/Vr – Σs, where Σw is the conductance (vertical integral of σ) of the river, C is an empirical calibration value, Is is the source current, Vr is the receiver voltage and Σs is the conductance of the sediments
Quasi-static electrical analog circuit: The quasi-static electrical analog circuit for electric currents divided between the parallel resistors of saline water (Rw ) and the sediment (Rs ) is such that: Vr /Is = CRwRs /(Rw + Rs ) = C(Σw + Σs )-1 , ∴ Σw = CIs/Vr – Σs, where Σw is the conductance (vertical integral of σ) of the river, C is an empirical calibration value, Is is the source current, Vr is the receiver voltage and Σs is the conductance of the sedimentsCourtesy CMOP

Sanford’s team deployed the system in the Columbia River estuary before and during a flood tide. At the same time, they took measurements with a CTD, a standard oceanography-sampling device that reads Conductivity, Temperature and Depth. As the layer of seawater thickened, they observed the decreased resistance of the water column caused the receiver voltage to decrease.

Previous studies in the Columbia River had demonstrated a tight correlation between electrical conductivity and salinity. This correlation permits the conversion of electrical conductivity to salinity. Sanford’s team collected a time series of water-column electrical conductivity that they converted to salinity. The inferred salinity was shown to agree with the salinity readings from the CTD.

Vertically integrated salinity: Observed vertically integrated salinity from CTD casts (red dots) compared to that inferred from the electrical measurements using the electrical conductance time series fitted to the equation: Sw = 8.82*(CIs/Vr -Σs ), where C is an empirical coefficient equal to 43, Is is source current and Vr is observed electric field and Σs an offset caused by leakage into the sediments equal to 8. Blue dots are observed electrical conductance and the continuous curve is the electrical conductance, both converted by salinity by the factor 8.82 psu/S/m.
Vertically integrated salinity: Observed vertically integrated salinity from CTD casts (red dots) compared to that inferred from the electrical measurements using the electrical conductance time series fitted to the equation: Sw = 8.82*(CIs/Vr -Σs ), where C is an empirical coefficient equal to 43, Is is source current and Vr is observed electric field and Σs an offset caused by leakage into the sediments equal to 8. Blue dots are observed electrical conductance and the continuous curve is the electrical conductance, both converted by salinity by the factor 8.82 psu/S/m.Courtesy CMOP

What's next?

CMOP researchers are looking at Sanford’s new sensor as an opportunity to better explain processes as diverse as internal waves, estuarine turbidity, and summer blooms of phytoplankton (tiny mobile plants that sometimes collect in massive “blooms” in surface waters in estuaries). They expect to improve computer models that are designed to depict the variable conditions of the estuary, and anticipate changes associated with climate and human impact. Once demonstrated for the Columbia River, the new sensor has the potential to be used in estuaries around the world.

Feb
05
2010

When you visit a doctor, he or she usually uses a medical device to measure your vital signs, such as heart rate, blood pressure and temperature. The doc might also draw some blood to test in the laboratory for its biochemical composition. Environmental scientists do similar activities to determine the health of an estuary. But an estuary is huge in comparison to a human being; getting enough data to draw meaningful conclusions can be challenging.

LOBO's launch in the Columbia River: Watch video
LOBO's launch in the Columbia River: Watch videoCourtesy CMOP

Here’s where LOBO, CMOP’s Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory, comes in. WET Labs, Inc. senior research scientist Andrew Barnard, Ph.D. and CMOP researcher Joe Needoba, Ph.D. have teamed up to develop innovative methods to collect high quality, long-term data sets to improve scientific understanding of the vital signs of the Columbia River estuary.

Traditionally, any effort to monitor the “biogeochemistry” of a body of water requires scientists to board a ship, collect water samples, transport them back to a lab, and then measure the nutrients in the water. These trips are expensive and time-consuming and yet they only provide a “snapshot” of the estuary’s biogeochemical vital signs at the time of the shipboard sampling trip. Barnard and Needoba decided to approach the problem by utilizing an oceanographic monitoring platform made by Satlantic and customizing it with enhanced capabilities and improved water quality sensors.

LOBO is a water quality monitoring device that takes hourly measurements of nitrate, salinity, temperature, chlorophyll, turbidity, conductivity, depth, dissolved oxygen, oxygen saturation, and colored dissolved organic matter (CDOM).

LOBO is part of the Science and Technology University Research Network (SATURN), an end-to-end coastal margin observatory at CMOP. The data will provide the center with a better understanding of the ecosystem and composition of the water in the Columbia River and its estuary.
“What we are trying to do is establish a monitoring system that allow us to gain an understanding of the variability of the water quality, not only every hour but over weeks, months, and years,” said Needoba. “What this will tell us is how the estuary is behaving and responding to various forcing factors.”

LOBO is currently located in the Lower Columbia River and uses cellular telemetry to relay data every hour to a web site. The web interface lets anyone with and internet connection who is interested graph and download an individual variable or multiple variables, on a single day or over multiple days.

Sample reading from LOBO: The figure on the left shows a sample reading from LOBO of the levels of CDOM and dissolved oxygen from January 1 to January 5, 2009. The figure on the right plots hourly readings of water quality.
Sample reading from LOBO: The figure on the left shows a sample reading from LOBO of the levels of CDOM and dissolved oxygen from January 1 to January 5, 2009. The figure on the right plots hourly readings of water quality.Courtesy CMOP

The LOBO system will serve as an important biogeochemical data node within CMOP. “What we are doing in the Columbia River estuary is part of a larger project within CMOP to provide a framework of water quality measurements to scientists studying the estuary and coastal ocean,“ said Needoba.
The next step is to use the upcoming CMOP research cruises to verify that the data from the LOBO mooring is representative of the estuary as a whole. Needoba plans to use future research cruises to study the variability associated with different regions of the estuary and ensure that the aspects of the water quality his team measures in one specific site can be extrapolated to the entire estuary.

Barnard and his group at WET Labs, Inc. intend to expand the LOBO's biogeochemical monitoring capabilities by adding a new sensor to measurement dissolved phosphate in the water. “We will use our latest and greatest technology to create better capabilities for long term measurements and monitoring,” said Barnard.

Feb
05
2010

One way to determine the health of an estuary is to test some of its “vital signs”. Important vital signs in rivers and estuaries include things that affect the quality of the water for the health of the various living organisms that call that water home. If there are toxic materials, or even too much of a good thing, like oxygen, organism throughout the food chain can suffer.

One such vital sign can be the development in rivers and estuaries of “red tides”. This term is used to describe large “blooms” of phytoplankton in coastal waters. Phytoplankton are tiny floating plants. They obtain energy through the process of photosynthesis and must therefore live in the well-lit surface layer, where they account for half the photosynthetic activity on our planet. “Red tides” don’t have to be either red or associated with tides, but they concern scientists, because they can produce toxins that can overwhelm other organisms in the water.

Plankton bloom: Plankton bloom flows under Astoria bridge.
Plankton bloom: Plankton bloom flows under Astoria bridge.Courtesy Alex Derr, CMOP

CMOP is studying a plankton bloom that is dominated by one type of organism called Myrionecta rubra. The organism is technically a eukaryotic protist, a single-celled organism that floats in the water column. Under certain environmental conditions, the cells grow exponentially to millions of cells per liter of water within a few days. The cells are red and the shear numbers of them reflect the sun’s light and enhance their red color in the water.

Myrionecta rubra
Myrionecta rubraCourtesy CMOP

CMOP researchers Herfort and Peterson traveled to Astoria to collect samples of the plankton bloom. They gathered samples in both the dense red water and in clear patches of water. These samples helped them compare the conditions in the water and the influences the red tide organism might have on its environment.
CMOP scientists have already analyzed several samples collected during previous year’s blooms. Herfort and Zuber use molecular biology techniques to look at the genetic fingerprints of these organisms and others associated with the bloom. This molecular work is carried out in collaboration with Lee Ann McCue Ph.D., a scientist from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, who performs genetic sequence analysis. Herfort said, “Our data will improve our understanding of the ecological impact of Myrionecta rubra bloom on the Columbia River estuary.”
Red tide, close-up
Red tide, close-upCourtesy CMOP

Eventually whatever caused the Myrionecta rubra to grow rapidly will change and they will no longer have a source of nutrients. Peterson stated, “When they die, they decompose and bacteria can feed on the decomposed material. This growth of bacteria then draws down the oxygen in the water around them while they are respiring”. So while the bloom itself is not toxic in this case, here’s where another vital sign comes in: the bacteria’s respiration may have a harmful effect to other species, by depleting oxygen available to them. (Due to a great deal of water flow and flushing in the Columbia River, this is currently not a danger.)

What's next?

Unanswered questions that CMOP researchers are exploring include:

  • Is the Myrionecta rubra an important “vital sign” for the estuary?
  • What controls the timing and behavior of the bloom?

The CMOP research team wants to start answering these and other questions by using a combination of physiological studies, molecular work, and observations and simulations from their end-to-end coastal margin observatory (SATURN). They hope this will provide clues about the factors that lead to plankton blooms, and ultimately improve the ability to predict these events.

Jun
14
2009

Mouth of the Columbia River
Mouth of the Columbia RiverCourtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Digital Visual Library
Have you ever wondered what happens when a river ends and the ocean begins? Well, the scientists at the Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction (CMOP) do. Based out of Oregon, the center conducts their research on the Columbia River. Their goal is to understand and predict how humans and the climate affect the costal margins. The research has three themes, to test and advance the way research is done, to understand the human and natural variables that affect the margin, and to integrate the two previous themes to create a functional research station.

So, are you still contemplating the question, what is going on in this unique area where fresh water that has travel the country meets the salty water of the ocean? Well, the center has opportunities for K-12 students and teachers and undergrad and graduate students to become involved. Everything from summer camps and programs for middle and high school students to internships for the undergrad and grad students. Not interested in traveling? Data is also available on their website for the free-lance researcher.

Before the next time you jump into the big blue, quench your thirst for knowledge and see what CMOP is doing to research and preserve the coastal margins of the Columbia.