Coastal News

Oregon State Researchers to Study Climate Fluctuations in the Ocean Along Washington’s Olympic Coast

A team of Oregon State University researchers is leading a three-year effort to learn more about climate fluctuations in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary using more than 20 years of oceanographic data.

The sanctuary is located off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington. It has been named a sentinel site for ocean acidification. Monitoring of ocean conditions in sentinel sites can provide early warning of changing ocean conditions, in this case along the Pacific Northwest coast, including conditions that could impact economically and culturally important fisheries.

The researchers will collaborate with Tribal scientists and resource managers from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, and the Quinault Indian Nation, as well as researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“This collaboration is designed to fill an important gap in understanding the oceanographic conditions in a region that is seeing climate-related changes,” said Melanie Fewings, an associate professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and the project’s principal investigator.

The project is supported by a nearly $525,000 grant from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration’s Climate Program Office. Co-principal investigators are OSU’s Craig Risien and Brandy Cervantes.

The sanctuary is embedded in the northern California Current system, which runs along the western coast of North America and plays an important role in the circulation of the ocean. The current system is affected by major climate fluctuations such as marine heat waves; changes in the timing of spring upwelling, which is when colder, nutrient-rich water from the deep ocean cycles up to the sunlit surface zone, where phytoplankton grow; seasonal hypoxia, or low oxygen conditions; and ocean acidification.

These changes can have significant impacts on economically and culturally important fisheries along the Pacific Northwest coast. In addition, the four Washington Coastal Treaty Tribes have protected rights to marine resources within Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The research helps to fulfill NOAA’s treaty obligations to the Tribes.

Moorings placed in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary have been collecting data about the physical oceanographic conditions in the sanctuary, including water temperature, salinity, density, velocity, and dissolved oxygen concentration. The moorings were deployed as part of the sanctuary’s monitoring program, but funds have not been previously available to study the entirety of the collected data.

The researchers will first clean up data collected in the past – filling in missing gaps so the data is complete and consistent. Once the data is more organized and accessible, it will be made available to the broader research community, and Fewings and her team will begin their analysis.

They want to better understand the timing of the seasonal fall and spring transitions that occur within the water column, Fewings said. They also want to better understand the frequency of occurrence of anomalies or changes in conditions over time.

“One of the goals of this project is to try to define what ‘normal’ looks like in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary,” Fewings said. “We know there are strong anomalies, such as marine heatwaves, but we’d like to have a more robust understanding of what has been happening over the past two decades.”

They also plan to compare climate fluctuation data in the sanctuary with similar data collected by previous studies off the coast of Newport, Oregon. The comparison will help researchers better understand similarities or differences in conditions between the two locations, which are separated by about 300 kilometers or 200 miles.

Presently, several assessment reports for the northern California Current region rely on data collected from the Newport Hydrographic Line, a line along which scientists regularly survey ocean conditions.

“Estimates from Newport are used when that data may not be a good representation of what is happening farther north,” Fewings said. “There may also be different anomalies between the two locations.”

For additional regional context, the researchers also will take advantage of publicly available data from moorings off the coasts of Washington and Oregon deployed by the National Science Foundation’s Ocean Observatories Initiative Coastal Endurance Array, operated by OSU.

Similarities or differences between the Newport and Olympic Coast data could help inform discussions around the potential need for a similar sampling line off the Washington Coast, Fewings said.

Jenny Waddell, research coordinator at Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a collaborator on the project, added: “Gaining a better understanding of subsurface variability in the sanctuary and comparisons to the richly studied Newport Line, are great outcomes for the sanctuary, as well as for our partners, who will be able to more easily use sanctuary mooring data for their own resource management purposes.

“This work to process and analyze the sanctuary’s long-term mooring record, and make it widely available, will yield benefits for decades to come.”

Collaborators on the project are Katie Wrubel, resource protection specialist for Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary; Joe Schumaker, marine resource coordinator for the Quinault Indian Nation Department of Fisheries; Tommy Moore, oceanographer with the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission; Charles Seaton, senior oceanographer with the Columbia River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission; Jennifer Fisher, research ecologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center; Kym Jacobson, research zoologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center; and Maria Kavanaugh, assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.


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