Summer 2007

Planet Watch

Summer 2007
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Too much information! That can be the reaction when conversation turns to the intimate details of illness, personal relationships or other difficult topics. You might expect the same response from Earth scientists as they digest data streaming in from satellites, ocean buoys, air monitors, soil probes and other sources.

As we embark on the International Polar Year and continue studies closer to home, the sheer amount of information can be staggering. In the past, 10 good data points could provide the basis for a thesis. Today, they can be the tip of an iceberg that fills computers with enough details to last a lifetime.

This issue takes us to the Oregon coast, where oceanographers are using subsurface gliders to complement information from satellites, shipboard surveys and moored buoys. These technologies expand our view, but they are still no match for this complex natural system. While fishermen continue to bring in plenty of Dungeness crabs and see a salmon and sardine resurgence, OSU scientist Jack Barth and his colleagues see a troubling pattern of delayed upwelling and plankton production careening from one extreme to another. More information will be needed to solve this puzzle.

Interpreting data is a task for field researchers, computer scientists and mathematicians. Dawn Wright and Malgorzata Peszynska demonstrate different types of analysis. Wright uses data from sonar and other sources to develop geographic information system maps of the seafloor. Peszynska improves the mathematical basis for computer models of groundwater. In each case, they and their colleagues are providing better ways to visualize and interpret an expanding data flow.

Turning data into knowledge takes time, as every student knows. Among the students in this issue is Kim Johnson, a physics and Honors College senior who is getting a first-hand look at the genesis of clouds. Equipped with knowledge about the principles of air movement and cloud formation, she will pursue her childhood dream to understand hurricanes. No doubt, she will find herself in a storm of data about one of nature’s most powerful forces.

Nick Houtman, Editor