Healthy Planet

Signs of a Changing Ocean

Sailor turned scientist pursues plankton on the Newport Line (photo courtesy of Jennifer Fehrenbacher)

On her way to graduate school, M. Kelsey Lane took a slight detour. After getting a bachelor’s degree in geology-biology at Brown University in 2010, she shipped out on a 134-foot sailboat. Over the course of seven years, her voyages on the Sea Education Association’s tall ships took her around the world. She developed her sailing skills, got her captain’s license and deployed plankton nets and other scientific equipment in the course of teaching oceanography to undergraduates. 

After years at sea, Lane decided to dive full time into teaching and research. When assistant professor Jennifer Fehrenbacher (College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences) was looking for a student to expand her open-ocean research program, Lane was a logical choice. 

Fehrenbacher specializes in a type of plankton known as foraminifera, or forams for short. As a master’s student, Lane goes to sea to collect plankton samples along the Newport Line, a series of research stations that stretch west from Yaquina Head. 

In her search for forams, she digs into a kind of marine science treasure chest: the archive of organisms collected by scientists along the line for the past 60 years. She also analyzes sample collections gathered elsewhere by OSU researchers who venture into the California Current along the West Coast. Her collaborators include Jennifer Fisher and other scientists in the Cooperative Institute for Marine Resources Studies at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center. 

Kelsey Lane works in a shipboard lab. (Photo courtesy of Kelsey Lane)

Under Fehrenbacher’s guidance, they are compiling a new foram record for Oregon’s coastal ocean over the last decade. Because foram species are sensitive to water temperature, the findings could provide critical insight into climate change. Fehrenbacher’s curiosity was sparked by her surprise discovery of warm-water foram species in Newport Line samples collected in 2015. 

The question is whether the appearance of warm water in the northeast Pacific (such as the warm blob of 2014-16) has occurred repeatedly in the past or if it reflects a “new normal” in ocean circulation, says Lane. Signs of another warm blob were reported in 2019, and Lane is addressing the issue with Melanie Fewings, an OSU physical oceanographer who specializes in ocean-atmosphere interactions.

After she completes her master’s degree in marine resources management, Lane will enter OSU’s Ph.D. program in ocean ecology and biogeochemistry.

By Nick Houtman

Nick Houtman is director of research communications at OSU and edits Terra, a world of research and creativity at Oregon State University. He has experience in weekly and daily print journalism and university science writing. A native Californian, he lived in Wisconsin and Maine before arriving in Corvallis in 2005.