Towing the Line

The Pacific Ocean west of Newport is among the most well studied seas on the planet. It still has secrets to tell.

February 2, 2018

By Nancy Steinberg, Science Communicator, College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences

Jennifer Fisher of the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resource Studies deploys a net to collect samples of plankton along the Newport Line. (Photo: Nancy Steinberg)

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.

In 1958, Wayne Burt petitioned Oregon State College President August Strand to start a graduate program in oceanography. Burt became the department’s first chair the following year.

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.

In 1960, June Pattullo became one of three new oceanography faculty members, joining John Byrne and Bill Pearcy. She was the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D. in physical oceanography.

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?

One person asking this question was Bob Smith, a new graduate student in physical oceanography who eventually became a faculty member at Oregon State and is now a CEOAS professor emeritus. He was particularly interested in upwelling. “Some people didn’t think the coastal ocean was worth studying,” he recalls. “They thought the coastal zone is just a big mess of turbulence and that we wouldn’t ever be able to get anything predictive out of studying it.”

He studied it anyway, using what would now be considered primitive technologies that were standard for the 1960s. Nansen bottles, invented in the late 1800s, were purely mechanical devices — open cylinders lowered on a wire to a desired depth and then triggered to close with a weight sent down the wire, trapping a water sample inside. Water clarity was measured with a standard white disk 30 centimeters (1 foot) wide known as a Secchi disk. Scientists lowered it over the side on a line marked with depth intervals and recorded the depth at which the disk disappeared from view.

The 80-foot-long R/V Acona, launched in 1961, accommodated 15 scientists and crew.

Some things haven’t changed. On board Elakha last fall, Fisher and research assistant Sam Zeman took their first samples at a station designated NH-1, one nautical mile from shore, as the sun inched toward the horizon. Zeman pulled the Secchi disk out of a crate and dropped it over the side. The modern sampling plan also calls for more sophisticated equipment, such as a CTD, an electronic instrument package that measures conductivity (salinity), temperature and depth continuously as it drops through the gloom toward the seafloor.

That trip was scheduled, as always, to bracket sunset. The crew generally leaves the dock four hours before night falls and returns four hours afterward. Working in the dark enables scientists to easily capture zooplankton, which rise to the surface at night to feed. On each bimonthly trip, Fisher and her small crew aim to go out 25 miles from shore. Periodically, when they have access to larger vessel such as the NOAA ship Bell M. Shimada, they go out as far as 200 miles. The weather can be prohibitive, especially in the winter. They make a special effort to get at least as far as station NH-5, their “sentinel station” five nautical miles from shore. “Even if the weather is not good, we can usually get to NH-5,” Fisher says. “That way we have a consistent time series – that station always gets counted.”

The work can be at once grueling and mundane. The Pacific off Oregon is rarely completely peaceful, and the captain sometimes has to fight to keep the boat steady in the swift current and bucking-bronco waves. Working at night presents challenges; finicky equipment presents challenges; a small boat, rough weather and seasickness present challenges. And when the boat returns to shore, the work has really just begun. Then comes the task of examining zooplankton samples under a microscope, enumerating and identifying copepods, krill and other tiny creatures; organizing and storing data; crunching numbers; writing papers; fighting for funding.

Sampling Becomes Spotty

Sampling from the R/V Acona in the early 1960s are, from left, Bruce Watt, Lyle Hubbard and Henry Donaldson.

In 1972, when the Navy money ran out, regular sampling along the line ceased. This shift coincided with a broader transition in oceanography to “process studies”: hypothesis-driven research aimed at specific research questions, rather than what some called “mindless monitoring.”

Jane Huyer was a graduate student in the early years and is now a CEOAS professor emeritus. “During that time, proposals didn’t have a hope of getting funded if you didn’t have a hypothesis and a reasonable way of testing it,” she says. “If you just kept making the same measurements without a new understanding of the system, then how would you make any advances?”

Between 1972 and 1996, stations along the line continued to be sampled sporadically for specific projects. Biologists pulled nets to examine everything from phytoplankton to fish. “The mid-70s to mid-80s was a watershed time for sampling here,” says Waldo Wakefield, then an OSU master’s student who now works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Newport. “There was a lot of collaboration and integration of different kinds of research to develop an overall picture of the coastal ecosystem. The plankton sampling, the benthic sampling, looking at different life stages of fishes — it all worked together.”

This approach, in which faculty worked together on a common question, established the collaborative nature of Oregon State’s marine research programs that persists to this day.

The Newport Line Reboots

It took another federal oceanographic initiative and a persistent scientist to reawaken regular sampling along the line. That recipe came together in 1996 in the form of the Global Ocean Ecosystem Dynamics (GLOBEC) program and Bill Peterson, an energetic, visionary NOAA scientist.

Bill Peterson

As an OSU Ph.D. student in the 1970s, Peterson had conducted seminal studies of zooplankton ecology along the Newport Line. He was particularly interested in copepods, tiny crustaceans that link the lowest levels of the food web (phytoplankton) to the upper levels, including fish, whales and birds. Today, his research is known for critical insights into the biological engine that fuels the Pacific’s legendary fisheries.

But when he took a job with NOAA at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in 1995, his top priority was bringing back regular sampling along the Newport Line. Once GLOBEC funds ran out in 2003, he supported the work using NOAA base funding and other sources. That sampling continues to this day, stewarded by Jennifer Fisher. Peterson lost a valiant battle with cancer in August 2017. (See “A Modern Champion for the Newport Hydrographic Line“)

The Line Goes High Tech

Fully loaded with equipment for the Ocean Observatories Initiative, the R/V Sikuliaq leaves Newport. (Photo: Craig Risien)

The technology used along the Newport Line has evolved with the times. Since 2006, autonomous underwater gliders (the first two were named “Bob” and “Jane” after Bob Smith and Jane Huyer) have been patrolling it 24/7. At this very moment, two gliders resembling small yellow missiles are swimming their lonely way, diving and surfacing in an undulating path, collecting data on temperature, salinity, water clarity, ocean currents and more. These remarkable instruments transmit about 10 percent of their data as they “fly,” communicating via satellite when they surface. When a battery gets low, the glider surfaces and calls home. Scientists retrieve it from a boat, switch the battery out for a fully charged replacement, download the full data set and release it. The gliders can be monitored and even controlled via a smart phone app.

Underwater gliders like this are patrolling Oregon's coastal waters. (Illustration courtesy of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences)
Underwater gliders like this are patrolling Oregon’s coastal waters. (Illustration courtesy of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences)

Gliders gather more data under more weather conditions than ever before. “There weren’t a lot of studies of local oceanography in winter, because those conditions are tough to go out in,” says Jack Barth, an OSU oceanographer and one of the founders of the glider program. “But we can do that with gliders. We can keep them out in 30-foot seas — they can go out in anything.”

Yet, traditional net sampling from a boat can’t be abandoned altogether. To collect zooplankton, for example, “there’s really no new technology to do that,” Barth admits. “That’s old-school nets.” In addition, the human eyes on the ocean serve as real-time sentinels.

“We’re out there observing the ocean all the time,” adds Fisher. “We see the water clarity, we see if there’s a phytoplankton bloom, we know if there’s hypoxia happening right away. We’ve got our fingers on the pulse.”

And so twice a month, year round, Fisher and her team head offshore to take the ocean’s pulse at as many stations as they can along the Newport Line. During the trip last fall, engine trouble prevented a “full line,” but Elakha did get to station NH-5, making the excursion official. Even in that short span of miles from shore, differences in water clarity and zooplankton were apparent. At NH-1, under the watchful eye of the Yaquina Head lighthouse, spiky crab larvae filled the zooplankton net. They were hard to rinse off into the waiting sample jars. By NH-5, they had pretty much disappeared, and the water was noticeably clearer. Past NH-5, the zone of coastal upwelling, Fisher says things would look different still. She would know for sure exactly how different when she takes her data sheets and samples back to the lab for further analysis.

A Deep-Ocean Conveyor Belt
The summer sun can warm your face, and the air can feel hot, but if you’ve ever been swimming along the Oregon coast, you know how cold the water can get. It gets especially chilly when north winds blow and push warmer surface water to the west. In its place, currents from deep in the ocean rise along our beaches and bays to replace it. This water — delivered by a process that scientists call upwelling — isn’t just colder; it also carries more nutrients that can fuel ocean life. On the downside, it has less oxygen and tends to be acidified. Like the proverbial slow boat to China, it can take decades for deep ocean currents to travel to the West Coast. When it last touched the atmosphere at the start of its journey, CO2 levels were lower than they are today. In the future, the water upwelling along our coast will carry the memory of the annual increases in CO2.

From Theory to Textbook

Gigabytes of data, binders upon binders of field notes and spreadsheets and sheds full of water and plankton samples have led to hundreds of scientific publications based on Newport Line data. The early sampling revealed how Oregon’s ocean works. Later efforts helped scientists to recognize when and why it wasn’t working as it usually does. Other work revealed the ecological consequences of shifts in ocean function from season to season and from one decade to the next.

Initially, studies along the Newport Line focused on physics — currents, temperatures and winds — in order to understand and characterize the most important oceanographic phenomenon in the region: wind-driven coastal upwelling. This process underlies nearly everything else that happens in Oregon’s ocean, from the flourishing fisheries to the presence of gray whales to the low-oxygen conditions and ocean acidification that have been in the news in recent years. In a nutshell, summer winds blowing from the north push surface water to the west and drive the conveyor belt of deep, cold, nutrient-rich waters into the coastal zone, fueling the Northwest’s food webs.

Certainly, oceanographers had hypothesized about and modeled this process before 1961. But they did not have data to back up their theories. Bob Smith was one of the first to characterize the phenomenon. “People knew upwelling existed. We knew the water was awfully cold at the beach. Everyone agreed that given the wind structure here it would happen, but it was conceptual. There was a lot of speculation — how wide is the upwelling zone? Where does the cold water come from and where does it go? People had an idea but not a quantitative idea.” With Newport Line data, the mechanics of upwelling were nailed down and entered the realm of “textbook science.”

Cheeseburgers and Celery

The biological sampling conducted by Bill Peterson and others revealed a beautiful seasonal dance of copepod species that provided insight into the building blocks of regional food webs and consequences of climate change. Peterson found that summertime sub-Arctic coastal currents deliver cold waters and northern copepod species to the coastal zone. These northern copepods — Peterson and his colleagues sometimes refer to them as “cheeseburgers” — are fatty bundles of nutrition that fuel the food web and result in fat salmon. In contrast, smaller, skinny copepods — the “celery” — arrive in the wintertime with warmer subtropical waters.

Whether the marine menu includes cheeseburgers or celery also depends on the status of natural climate cycles, operating on time scales from months to years. Cool phases are associated with good nutritional conditions for everyone and high salmon catches. Fish and the food web above them, from marine mammals to birds, frequently go hungry during the warm cycles (such as El Niño years) — and so do fishermen.

After many years of observing patterns of food webs and climate drivers, Peterson developed a forecasting tool, often referred to as a “stoplight chart,” to predict whether future years will be good for salmon returns. The charts track sea surface temperature, coastal upwelling, copepod diversity and measures of baby salmon abundance. They suggest, based on these factors, whether future years will provide good, intermediate or poor ocean conditions for salmon survival. These projections have proven to be highly reliable and figure prominently in salmon management.

Collaboration Down the Line

The Newport Line’s rich dataset and consistent sampling regime have always served as a magnet for researchers wishing to study Oregon’s ocean. “You can’t take too many steps down any hallway here without bumping into someone who’s worked along the Newport Line,” says Angel White, CEOAS oceanographer. “It’s part and parcel of CEOAS culture. It’s a resource, and it’s our access to the sea.”

OSU oceanographer Walt Waldorf, right, and a R/V Wecoma crewmember secure the NH-10 buoy on deck. (Photo: Murray Levine)

Scientists from around the Northwest have conducted research programs near the Newport Line to take advantage of the regular sampling. Waldo Wakefield has been working the line for decades with OSU professor Lorenzo Ciannelli to collect young flatfish (flounders and sole). NOAA fisheries biologist Ric Brodeur has used Newport Line data to determine that the first year of life in the ocean for young salmon has more impact than previously thought on catches of adult fish.

OSU benthic ecologist Sarah Henkel, who studies the potential consequences of wave energy systems on bottom-dwelling communities, has collected samples along the Newport Line for comparison to the seafloor ecosystem at the wave energy test site.

White discovered a link between toxic domoic acid in shellfish tissues and warm-water ocean conditions brought about by climate conditions such as El Niño. This finding may ultimately result in an ability to forecast so-called red tides, aiding fishermen and protecting seafood consumers.

The existence of the Newport Line was critical in bringing to the region the most sophisticated, extensive system of ocean monitoring ever developed. In 2014, the Ocean Observatories Initiative (OOI), a massive federally funded ocean monitoring program, followed the Newport Line to deploy a section of the Endurance Array, a network of moored buoys, cables and gliders that collects colossal amounts of data.

OOI monitoring data have documented the increasing occurrence and severity of bottom hypoxia (low oxygen) along the Oregon coast in the summertime. Other measurements are now contributing to our understanding of ocean acidification, a result of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. Newport Line data helped scientists to identify the “warm blob” of ocean water that lingered off the Oregon coast from 2014 to 2016, wreaking havoc with oceanic food webs.

And last August, the moored OOI buoys examined whether zooplankton would respond to a solar eclipse. Sure enough, as the moon darkened the sun, these organisms began their night-time migration to the surface.

New Questions

Without Bill Peterson bulldogging for funding, the future of the hydrographic and biological sampling along the Newport Line is uncertain. Some level of support is likely to continue, says Fisher, but the program is already operating with a skeleton crew.

E. Nelson Sandgren taught drawing and painting at Oregon State University from 1947 until his retirement in 1985. He captured this scene of OSU oceanographers collecting water samples from the deck of the R/V Yaquina. Sandgren died in 2006. (Painting courtesy of the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences)

As Angel White jokes, “What do they say about time series? Never start one and never end one.” Some climate phenomena cycle on the scale of decades, so even the Newport Line’s 56-year record might only capture a single cycle.

Regular monitoring is generally regarded as the job of government, not universities, so many local oceanographers feel that NOAA and other agencies should foot most of the bill. White and other scientists who rely on Newport Line data recently submitted a letter to potential funding agencies encouraging continued support. “The Newport Line has served as a foundation for studying the impacts of climate variability and ecosystem response … the length and consistency of the Newport time series provide a powerful context for studying ecosystem impacts from unpredictable changes of the ocean and climate variability,” they wrote.

Just a few weeks before he passed away, Bill Peterson told OSU oceanographer Ted Strub that he had 20 more papers he wanted to write using Newport Line data. Zooplankton and water samples collected over the past two decades line the shelves, floor to ceiling, of multiple sheds on the grounds of the Hatfield Marine Science Center. Even if sampling on the Newport Line ceases tomorrow, these data and samples would support hundreds of graduate theses and journal articles, but they won’t tell us about the future. Oregon’s ocean has many more secrets to tell, if only we keep asking it questions.


CATEGORIES: Service to Oregon Healthy Planet Utility Categories homefeature Marine Studies Initiative Uncategorized Print Issues winter-2018

2 thoughts on “Towing the Line

  1. Hi, My name is Ariana Rosewood. I adore and love the ocean and wanted to study marine bio once i turn 18 i enjoy your college profile so far and hope to apply to it in the future

    thanks for the stories.

    1. Nice to hear from you, Ariana. The ocean is truly amazing, and I’ve found Oregon State to be a great place to study it. People here are so friendly and committed to this work. All the best in your future endeavors.

      Nick Houtman

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