Water, Disasters, and Preparedness

This blog does not generally cover topics related to natural or coastal hazards. But disasters are very much in the news, and water–the overabundance of it in the case of tsunamis or preparing for having clean water in the event of a disaster are obviously very germane.  Below is a list of some excellent resources for both issues and much more.

CORVALLIS, Ore. — As the devastation of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami become more evident, those of us who live along the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire” wonder if we’ll be prepared for an equally destructive quake and its tsunami that could come to our doorsteps at any time.

To help prepare, the Extension and Experiment Station Communications (EESC) office has just completed an update of its webpage “It Could Happen to You: Be Prepared for Natural Disasters” at http://extension.oregonstate.edu/tough_times/emergency/natural-disasters

Other resources are:

  • Also, learn about your community’s disaster plan and create a plan for your family, home and office with It Could Happen to You” publications developed by the OSU Extension Service.
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Ocean Acidification Primer

Sunset at Hug Point, Oregon. Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

Sunset at Hug Point, Oregon. Photo by R. Emanuel, OSU.

The December 2009 (Volume 22, Number 4) issue of Oceanography has just published an excellent primer on ocean acidification. NOAA researchers from the Pacific Northwest are some of the authors.

To quote the authors (Doney et al.) of this introductory piece directly:

“The cumulative human CO2 emissions over the industrial era now amount to close to 560 billion tons. A little less than half of this anthropogenic CO2 remains in the atmosphere—certainly enough to be of grave concern as a greenhouse gas leading to climate change. The remainder is, at present, removed in roughly equal parts into the ocean and by land  vegetation. Revelle and Suess (1957) wrote a prophetic view of our perturbations to the global carbon cycle: Thus human beings are now carrying out a large scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future—a sentiment that may be especially true for ocean acidification.”

The entire edition covers this topic quite thoroughly: http://tos.org/oceanography/issues/current.html.

Beach Bacteria Again in the News

Hug Point, OR. Photo by R. Emanuel

Hug Point, OR. Photo by R. Emanuel

Oregon beaches are known for their pristine beauty and open access. But as development increases along them, impacts are being felt. Oregon Live (the Oregonian) published the results of the annual Natural Resources Defense Council report “Testing the Waters 2009”.  Several Oregon beaches made the list of problematic areas because of beach bacteria counts that were deemed unhealthy by state and federal standards.  Below is a summary of the bad news.

Beach County Samples % above standard
Harris Curry 97 20
Nye Lincoln 97 7
Sunset Bay Coos 67 6
Rockaway Tillamook 55 5
Bandon Wayside Coos 38 5
Gold Curry 20 5
Cannon Clatsop 121 4
Mill Curry 78 4

The full Oregonian article can be found here. What can be done about beach bacteria? Here are some immediate steps:

1. Scoop the poop! Pet waste contributes to significant amounts of fecal coliform on public beaches.

2. Care for your beach-side septic system. Septic system leach fields should function properly and drain into the ground where soil microorganisms can process the waste products. Poorly functioning septics will often well up on the surface and can then flow into local streams or directly on to the beach. More information can found at the OSU Well Water Program site.

3. Manage stormwater to keep it from flowing into local streams and on to beaches.  As stormwater flows increase, beach bacteria counts tend to increase in porportion.  Consider reducing your home or business contribution to stormwater by installing a rain garden or other Low Impact Development technology.  More information can be found here.

Zombie mudshrimp & devastated estuaries

I have blogged extensively on the grim march of invasive species here at H20NCoast. While this topic is always relevant, I took a break for a while from the bad (and sometimes good) news about biological invasions.  This piece, however, just popped into my email and begs for immediate attention.  Straight from OSU News and Communication Services:

Isopod infested mudshrimp, photo courtesy of OSU

NEWPORT, Ore. – A parasitic isopod that scientists identified five years ago has all but decimated mud shrimp populations in coastal estuaries ranging from British Columbia to northern California – with the exception of a handful of locations in Oregon from Waldport to Tillamook.

And those surviving mud shrimp all are heavily infested with the parasite, known as Orthione griffenis, or Griffen’s isopod, which threatens their existence as well, experts say.

“From Bamfield, Canada, down to Willapa Bay, Wash., the mud shrimp are either gone or the populations are severely depressed,” said John Chapman, an Oregon State University invasive species specialist who works out of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “There are areas along the central- to northern Oregon coast where mud shrimp are still abundant.

“But the parasite that infects them also is abundant,” Chapman added, “and nearly all of these remaining shrimp populations are declining, which means that none of them appear to be safe.”

Continue reading

Six Years of California Current Hypoxia Climate-Related and Possible New Trend

For the communities on the North Coast that are fishery or sea-life dependent, comes some disturbing news out of researchers at the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO) which includes OSU. This particular posting is a reminder that climate change impacts cannot be easily predicted. The original OSU press-release reposted below can be found here.

Editor’s Note: Digital photographs to illustrate this story can be obtained at the PISCO web site at http://www.piscoweb.org/outreach/topics/hypoxia.

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A review of all available ocean data records concludes that the low-oxygen events that have plagued the Pacific Northwest coast since 2002 are unprecedented in the five decades prior to that, and may well be linked to the stronger, persistent winds that are expected to occur with global warming.

In a new study to be published Friday in the journal Science, researchers from Oregon State University outline a “potential for rapid reorganization” in basic marine ecosystems and the climatic forces that drive them – and suggest that these low-oxygen, or “hypoxic” events are now more likely to be the rule rather than the exception.

“In this part of the marine environment, we may have crossed a tipping point,” said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology at OSU, and the lead scientist for PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

“Levels of oxygen in the summertime have suddenly become much lower than levels in the previous 50 years,” Lubchenco said. “And 2006 broke all records, with parts of the shallow shelf actually becoming anoxic, meaning that they lacked oxygen altogether. We’ve never seen that before.”

The rapid and disturbing shift of ocean conditions in what has traditionally been one of the world’s more productive marine areas – what’s called the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem – has garnered much attention in recent years, also raising questions about whether it has happened before, and what is causing it.

“People keep asking us, ‘Is this situation really all that different or not?’” Lubchenco said. “Now we have the answer to that question, and it’s an unequivocal ‘yes.’ The low oxygen levels we’ve measured in the last six years are abnormally low for our system. We haven’t seen conditions like this in many, many decades, and now with varying intensity we’ve seen them in each of the last six summers.”

In these events, water oxygen levels have repeatedly reached hypoxic levels, below which most marine animals suffocate or are severely stressed if they cannot escape the area. If oxygen levels drop to zero, most animals die. The massive 2006 event covered at least 3,000 square kilometers, lasted for four months, and occupied up to 80 percent of the water column in shallow shelf areas, the report said. Fish either died or fled these areas, thousands of crabs died, and marine seafloor life that could not move faced almost total mortality. Recovery has been slow.

It’s less certain why this is happening, but the events are completely consistent with global climate change, the OSU researchers say.

“There have always been unusual weather events, such as hurricanes, droughts, and changes in wind patterns,” said Jack Barth, an OSU professor of physical oceanography and a lead scientist with PISCO. “So it’s difficult to prove that any one event is caused by global warming. Having said that, we expect global warming to generally cause stronger and more persistent winds. These winds contribute to the hypoxic events by increasing plankton production and holding low-oxygen water on the continental shelf for longer periods.

“At this point,” Barth added, “I’d be surprised if this trend towards hypoxic events didn’t continue.”

Francis Chan, a marine ecologist with OSU and PISCO, conducted a survey of all known records of oxygen levels on the Oregon continental shelf over the last 60 years, with measurements taken by research cruises and ocean-going vessels from more than 3,000 stations.

“The data make it pretty clear that the recent conditions are unprecedented during any period that has been measured,” Chan said. “We’re now seeing very low-oxygen water, lasting for long periods, and closer to shore than at any time in more than 50 years.”

That long period of time included several El Nino and La Nina events, possible suspects in any change of Pacific Ocean conditions, and also shifts in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, another player in near-term climate trends. None of those appeared to have any correlation to the hypoxic events.

Hypoxic conditions in ocean waters – often popularly called “dead zones” – are usually associated with serious nitrate loads or other nutrient pollution, such as in the Gulf of Mexico or Chesapeake Bay. Pollution-caused hypoxic zones are found with much less frequency in regions where significant upwelling occurs – a process that is usually beneficial to productive marine food webs.

“Coastal upwelling ecosystems occupy only about 1 percent of the ocean surface area, but they produce about 20 percent of global fishery production,” Lubchenco said. “These areas have historically been highly productive. The appearance or increase in severity of hypoxia in these ecosystems would be cause for concern.”

Some other areas of the world bear more similarity to the recent situation off the Pacific Northwest, such as the Benguela Current off South Africa and Humboldt Current off Chile. They historically have had hypoxic conditions before – which may be getting worse.

“The Namibian system in the past decade seems to be seeing lower oxygen levels and more frequent hypoxic events than it had previously,” Barth said. “Historically it has even more extreme upwelling than we have in the Pacific Northwest, and more frequent marine life die-offs.”

A concern, researchers say, is whether that system is a harbinger of the future for the Pacific Northwest.

Climate Change Impacts & Coastal Community Resilience

The U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S. AID) has been bashed on both the left and right for aiding and abetting some painfully bad episodes in international development. Regardless of the critics’ stances, the agency also does some fine things with our tax dollars, including assisting countries in managing coastal and freshwater systems in an integrated manner.

tanker_cloud.jpgThe coasts of the world are understandably where a large majority of humans have settled. In the U.S. alone, over 53% of the population lives on the coast. In places like China, India and sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion is closer to 70%. That said, coastal areas are subjected to concentrated impacts of these populations on upland fresh water systems, estuaries, and coastal waters. More importantly for burgeoning coastal population centers are the increased demands for fresh water. Hence the need for folks employed by U.S. AID, the United Nations, and others to help communities throughout the world working on ways to manage both fresh water supplies and coastal resources in an integrated fashion. To document their own work, U.S. AID published Basins and Coasts.

The latest edition is focused on how communities worldwide might need to adapt to climate change. Coastal areas are obviously among the most vulnerable to climate change as witnessed by the impacts of “big events” like the Hurricane Katrina on the U.S. Gulf Coast, Cyclone Sidr in India and Bangladesh in 2007, or “smaller” events like sea water intrusion into fresh water aquifers in Northwestern Mexico (the latter, in part because of excessive mining groundwater from aquifers allows the sea water to intrude where it had been held back by the fresh water “lens”). Though many of these locations outlined in latest edition of Basins and Coasts are far from the North Coast of Oregon, I encourage folks to read it–the lessons are just as applicable here at home. Check it out at: http://www.imcafs.org/coastsheds/. Of particular merit, I encourage a read of Pamela Rubinoff and Catherine Courtney’s piece on evaluating coastal communities for resilience to coastal hazards (including tsunamis).

Potential Wave Energy Conflicts in the North Coast News

Wave energy has made a lot of national press lately. The media attention the technology has grabbed is not without merit, as some say it promises a real alternative to standard (problematic) sources such as coal, natural gas, hydroelectric and petroleum. However, like most of the alternative energy technologies (wind, solar, and geothermal), there are potential hiccups.

hugpt.jpgThe attention that companies have spent on acquiring rights to explore the Oregon coast for wave energy parks has generated at least one particularly thorny question–what to do about access for fishing communities. Thus far, only two experimental deployments of wave energy technology have taken place (both in the Newport area). What happens when the actual wave parks are established? Crabbers and others are concerned with the potential conflicts over sandy-bottomed zones where wave energy is high and fisheries are productive.

One North Coast newspaper, the Daily Astorian, has begun to explore these questions. You can read the full article by clicking here.

Water quality at the beach: how safe is it?

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) just released an important–if not alarming–report on water quality at beaches August 7th. The report claims that the water at American beaches was unsafe for swimming a record number of days last year, according to the 17th annual beach water quality report. Using data collected from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state and local health departments, and beach monitoring programs, the report titled, “Testing the Waters: A Guide to Water Quality at Vacation Beaches,” tallied more than 25,000 closing and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lakes beaches in 2006. The number of no-swim days caused by stormwater more than doubled from the year before.

According to the NRDC report, aging and poorly-designed sewage and storm water systems hold much of the blame for beach water pollution. The problem was compounded by record rainfall, which added to the strain on already overloaded infrastructure. The authors also claim that careless urban sprawl in coastal areas is eliminating wetlands and other natural buffers such as dunes and beach grass that would otherwise help filter out dangerous pollution. Additionally, sewage spills and overflows caused 1,301 beach closing and advisory days in 2006, an increase of 402 days from 2005. Elevated bacteria levels from miscellaneous sources, such as boat discharges or wildlife, accounted for 410 closing and advisory days, an increase of 77 days from 2005. In addition, more than 14,000 closing and advisory days were due to unknown sources of pollution. Continue reading