By Nancy Steinberg (OSU) originally published in Terra on February 2, 2018, excerpt reposted with permission.
The Pacific Ocean west of Newport is among the most well-studied seas on the planet. It still has secrets to tell.
Last Fall, Oregon State’s small research vessel Elakha embarked on an overnight cruise, setting sail under clear fall skies, unseasonably warm in the late afternoon. The ocean’s swell, just enough to force a landlubber to hold onto the rails, hadn’t turned to chop. The boat and its small crew headed straight out into the ocean to collect samples on what is known as the Newport Hydrographic Line, a swath of water that scientists have been monitoring for nearly 60 years.
While still in the protected waters of Yaquina Bay, Jennifer Fisher prepared the sampling equipment, deftly shackling cables to the boat’s winch system, lining up specimen jars and unfurling zooplankton nets. Fisher is a scientist with the joint NOAA-OSU Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies (CIMRS) and the coordinator of regular sampling along the line. The boat had had engine trouble the day before, but for the moment everything was humming along. At the end of the jetty, the captain slowed to navigate carefully around a gray whale, which surfaced intermittently and spouted, as if wishing the crew a safe trip.
Elakha’s route followed a line drawn decades ago by Wayne Burt, the founder of Oregon State’s oceanography program. In its current incarnation, regular sampling here contrasts high-tech against low-tech: It is conducted by robots and human beings. The work is both routine and surprising; continuous but also intermittent. Dozens of people collect the data. Hundreds use it. Thousands, if not more, benefit from what is learned. Despite the changes that have taken place in the sampling regime over decades, the basic justification remains the same: Monitoring the coastal ocean frequently, in person, over long time periods, provides invaluable information. This enduring commitment will only become more critical in this time of enormous global change.
A Line Is Drawn
On a map of Oregon, find the coastal town of Newport. Draw a straight line directly west, perfectly perpendicular to the coast, out into the mighty Pacific 200 nautical miles from the blinking beacon of the Yaquina Head lighthouse. You’ve just sketched the Newport Hydrographic Line. Nearly everything we know about the function of Oregon’s coastal ocean ecosystem has been learned from samples collected at these stations between 1961 and … well, last week.
The origin of the line predates the establishment of OSU’s oceanography program by Burt, an Oregon native with a gift for persuasion. In 1954, he convinced Oregon State College, now OSU, to hire him as the institution’s first oceanographer — in the Department of General Science, on a salary paid by the U.S. Navy. Understanding the tremendous value in studying the coastal ocean, Burt cobbled together a one-man nearshore sampling program. But what he really wanted was a department of oceanography and a dedicated research vessel. With further Navy funding, he launched OSU’s oceanography department (now the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences) in 1959 and commissioned its first research vessel.
That ship, the 80-foot Acona, was specifically designed by Burt to ply Oregon’s nearshore waters. It was the first crucial element in establishing the Newport Line. The second was June Pattullo, one of Burt’s first hires and the only woman in the fledgling department. Pattullo, the first woman in the U.S. to receive a Ph.D. in physical oceanography, provided leadership for the new sampling program.
Crews aboard Acona, succeeded by the 180-foot Yaquina in 1964, sampled bimonthly along the Newport Line, out to 165 nautical miles from shore. These early years focused on the most basic properties of the water: temperature, salinity, clarity, dissolved oxygen, nutrient concentrations. Currents were not measured directly but calculated using other data. Faced with the unexplored black box of Oregon’s coastal ocean, researchers began by asking the most elementary, descriptive question: What is the ocean like off Oregon?
Read the rest of this article on Terra