Proof Points: College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences

The College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences (COAS) provides scientific leadership critical to understanding some of the most profoundly important processes and implications of issues such as climate change and ocean health.

  • Dean Mark Abbott is a member of the National Science Board, which advises Congress and the White House on science matters and governs the National Science Foundation (NSF). Former dean/OSU President Emeritus John Byrne is the former administrator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a position recently assumed by OSU Distinguished Professor Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist from the College of Science.Numerous COAS faculty have served in other federal leadership positions, including Michael Freilich, who directs NASA’s Earth Sciences division.
  • The new Oregon Climate Change Research Institute was established to provide leadership for the state on how to prepare for climate change and mitigate its impacts. That center is located on the OSU campus and directed by Philip Mote, a nationally recognized climate researcher and a lead author for one of three major reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

OSU’s expertise in near-shore oceanography is among the best in the world – a specialization that is of particular importance because such a high percentage of the population lives within 50 miles of the coast.

  • Jack Barth and colleagues have documented the cause of low-oxygen areas or “dead zones” off the Northwest coast and traced changes in upwelling to a shift in the Jet Stream that is causing increasingly intense coastal winds. These patterns are consistent with climate change models and the central Oregon coast may become a “canary in the coal mine” in providing an early warning system on how the ocean will respond to climate change.
  • OSU scientists were among the first to sound the warning that the Pacific Northwest could be subjected to a huge, catastrophic earthquake – and resulting tsunami – and their leading work on the Cascadia Subduction Zone continues today. OSU researcher Chris Goldfinger has found evidence of more than 20 major earthquakes of magnitude 8.5 or greater in the region’s history. NSF recently established OSU as headquarters for its EarthScope monitoring program for studying seismic and volcanic processes.
  • OSU researchers including Rob Holman are national leaders in the study of coastal processes on beaches. Holman’s pioneering research is leading to new insights on dangerous riptides and sand movement, and his COAS colleagues include nationally known experts on storm surges, wave heights, coastal erosion and potential impacts of rising sea levels.
  • One of the first global circulation models was created at OSU some 30 years ago, laying the foundation for modern climate change studies that dominate science today. A team of OSU researchers is continuing that pioneering research and reporting new discoveries on the rapidity of global warming – including a model by Andreas Schmittner that suggests the Earth will continue to warm by several degrees even if greenhouse gas emissions are reduced significantly.
  • Kelly Benoit-Bird’s use of acoustics to study interactions among marine animals has yielded new insights on dolphin communication and how whales target squid as prey.
  • Researchers Marta Torres and Bob Collier are studying a large methane hydrate field off the Oregon coast – both for its potential as an energy source, and for the threat it could pose to the fragile benthic environment.

OSU’s research on the ocean’s biological processes has important implications for our seafood supply, the ocean’s health, human health, and even the origin of life.

  • OSU researchers were the first to discover undersea hydrothermal vents and the unique biological communities associated with them – and those studies are important in looking at the origin of life and how different organisms can survive in increasingly acidic conditions. Burke Hales and colleagues are studying ocean acidification as part of a major carbon exchange research initiative.
  • As carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the ocean absorbs more and more, thus increasing its acidity. Burke Hales and colleagues are studying ocean acidification and its impacts on ocean ecosystems off Oregon, including shellfish and plankton.
  • COAS biologists studying microbes and plankton are making new discoveries about the abundance and diversity of the ocean’s simple organisms that form the basis of a complex marine food chain that affects salmon, tuna, groundfish – and ultimately humans. Ricardo Letelier is a principal investigator on a $5 million Moore Foundation grant studying microbial life in the ocean.

COAS atmospheric scientists are making discoveries that are providing new insights that range from flu pandemics to manned space flights to Mars.

  • COAS researcher Jeffrey Shaman documented the connection between the prevalence of influenza and a region’s absolute humidity. This groundbreaking research is helping epidemiologists better understand the seasonal nature of flu and how outbreaks such as H1N1 (swine flu) may spread in the future.
  • Oregon's forests are an important component of the Earth's carbon budget, but little was known about how forests "breathe" on yearly to decadal time scales.  Chris Thomas and Bev Law (College of Forestry) "thought like a tree" to show how forests integrated over the year from the cold of winter to the drought of late summer to develop robust estimates of carbon flux in Oregon's forests.

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