Earth Healthy Planet

Prehistoric Sampling and Futuristic Forecasting

Scientists at Oregon State have uncovered evidence that similar dead zones arose abruptly thousands of years ago during periods of rapid warming.

sunset2-largeFor two weeks in the fall of 2015, the whole world convened in Paris to tackle the looming dangers of a warming planet. President Obama, Secretary of State John Kerry and Microsoft mogul Bill Gates were among the luminaries who took the stage at the 21st annual UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. The conference mission: to drive home the urgency of sustained climate action, codified in a worldwide agreement.

On December 12, 195 nations signed an historic pact, pledging to limit global temperature increases while mitigating climate impacts already in the pipeline. Meanwhile, scientists at Oregon State University continue to contribute important climate-change findings to the global discussion, derived from sources as diverse as ocean-floor sediments and advanced computer models. Here’s a look at several significant new studies from Oregon State.

Willamette Basin Outlook
Less snowpack, more wildfire, but ample water expected down the road

256px-WillametterivermapAs the century unfolds and greenhouse gases trap more and more solar heat in the Willamette River’s vast drainage, native fish like salmon and steelhead will lose access to the cold waters they need to survive. Timbered mountains that feed the watershed will succumb more and more often to wildfire. Moisture will fall mostly as rain, leaving many high peaks bereft of snowpack, historically one of the Pacific Northwest’s water-holding mainstays.

The outlook, however, is not as dire as these recent findings suggest — at least for the next 85 years. That’s because Oregon’s largest river basin boasts a robust system of massive dams, including Fern Ridge on the Long Tom River and Detroit on the North Santiam River, to harness and hold millions of gallons of water in deep reservoirs that can be tapped in dry times. By century’s end, when other U.S. regions likely will face critical shortages, the Willamette River basin is expected to have sufficient water to fill the needs of farms, industries, cities and households, even as human habitation soars.

These are the conclusions of a multiyear study funded by the National Science Foundation and led by Oregon State University in partnership with several other universities. “The dams built above the Willamette Valley were engineered to reduce the risk of floods, but they also do a valuable job in storing water for use during summer,” notes OSU environmental scientist Anne Nolin, lead investigator for the five-year, $4.3 million Willamette Water 2100 Project.

More Empty Stomachs
Lower yields and higher prices could threaten food security

wheatGlobal crop yields could drop as much as 15 percent if fossil fuel emissions remain high over the next few decades. Prices would spike in response, hitting pocketbooks with increases as high as 30 percent. So concludes an international team of experts — among them John Antle, an agricultural economist at OSU — who presented its analysis at the 2015 Paris climate talks.

“Agriculture has adapted to various shifts in climate over time, but the concern now is how rapidly things are changing,” says Antle, the study’s co-leader. “We have a growing global population and increasing pressure on water, soil and other resources. Even without climate change, feeding the world would likely get harder.”

The team noted, however, that forward-looking technological, economic and policy decisions could greatly mitigate the destabilizing effects of climate.

Warm-Water “Blob”
Ancient evidence shows “eerie resemblance” to today’s low-oxygen zones

Slide2 copyIn the late ‘50s, people knew The Blob as a low-budget, sci-fi horror movie. In today’s science lingo, “The Blob” refers to something much less fanciful but potentially just as scary as the gelatinous alien life form from the Hollywood classic.

Today’s Blob, a massive swath of warm water recently discovered along the North Pacific coast, worries scientists because sustained warming in the ocean can lead to “hypoxia” — low-oxygen “dead zones” that disrupt marine food webs by killing the plankton upon which other marine life depends.

Now, scientists at Oregon State have uncovered evidence that similar dead zones arose abruptly thousands of years ago during periods of rapid warming. After analyzing the chemical and organic fingerprints in layers of prehistoric, deep-sea sediments, Ph.D. student Summer Praetorius reports that current conditions are “eerily reminiscent of past conditions that gave way to extended periods of hypoxia.”

Earth’s ancient oceans responded rapidly to global warming, says oceanographer Alan Mix. “Many people have assumed that climate change impacts will be gradual and predictable,” Mix says, “but this study shows that the ecological consequences of climate change can be massive and can occur pretty fast, with little warning.”