Science for the Ocean

Cynthia Sagers, Vice President for Research

I WAS IN COLLEGE before I ever stepped foot in an ocean. It was during a spring-break trip to Vero Beach, Florida, with my sister and best friend. Before then, my impressions had come from a movie, Captain Nemo and the Underwater City, which I saw at the Pastime Theatre in Maquoketa, Iowa, when I was 9 years old.  The sea on the silver screen was mysterious and romantic yet completely alien to me.

Ten years later on that trip to Florida, I finally was able to see for myself how amazing it is — this massive, warm, salty, endless body of water. For hours, we would sit in the cool sand and watch the waves. It was fascinating, powerful and terrifying. Visions of rogue waves and shark attacks ran through my mind. But the idea of a giant mass of water that moved by itself — undulating up and down, back and forth, hither and yon — captivated me.

Later in the mid-90s, while teaching an evolutionary biology class at the University of Arkansas, I took my class to collect marine fossils on the south end of town to a place where the ancient Gulf of Mexico had lapped the land at the edge of a shallow sea. My students discovered shark teeth, corals, mollusks and bryzoans (aquatic invertebrates that form colonies), ancestors of species that still ply the world’s oceans. I asked the students, “Why had these animals gone extinct? What can they show us about the precarious times in which their descendants live?”

The ocean remains a wonder to me. As an ecologist, I have worked on land, but I understand that the ocean — like forests, wetlands and grasslands — is vulnerable to disruptions and that we are just starting to understand its complexity and dynamics.

For more than 60 years, Oregon State researchers have studied the oceans to learn how they work. Our faculty share their insights and discoveries with people whose lives intertwine with the sea: fishermen who struggle daily in a dangerous occupation; coastal communities facing erosion from winter storms and the ongoing risk of subduction zone earthquakes and tsunamis; government agencies charged with managing marine resources as a public trust.

This special issue of Terra is dedicated to Oregon State’s Marine Studies Initiative. The stories stem from a research enterprise in which nearly a third of last year’s record-breaking $309 million in funding — approximately $89 million — is tied to the oceans and all they encompass. As you read through the magazine, you’ll see that Oregon State is a world leader in this work. Like my former college students, I hope you’ll be fascinated by discoveries from the deep and the research that will help preserve one of our planet’s most precious resources.