Coming Full-Circle with the West Coast Ocean Observing Systems

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One of the perks of working in the offices of SCCOOS and CDIP was getting out on the water to help with CDIP wave buoy deployments.

When I was accepted to the California Sea Grant State Fellowship program last November, I couldn’t keep the names of my mentor organizations straight. I knew that I’d be working with four agencies (possibly more!) along the West Coast to analyze oceanographic data in the context of marine debris and ocean acidification. The job sounded fabulous, but I didn’t really have any idea whom I’d be working for.

Twelve months later, I can rattle off the names of my host agencies in one confident breath (try saying ‘Ocean Observing System’ three times fast, with several geographic and governmental qualifiers thrown in, and you get the idea). Because my position is based at the Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (that’s SCCOOS) in beautiful La Jolla, CA, I have been able to observe many of the day-to-day workings of the oceanographic data collection that SCCOOS employs. SCCOOS is well-known for the array of real-time ocean observing platforms that it has created and maintains. My lunch break ocean views are framed by a Coastal Observing Research and Development Center (CORDC) high-frequency radar (HFR) station that measures real-time surface currents, and the door of my office is marked by a yellow Waverider buoy used by the Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) to monitor wave conditions. Both the HFR surface currents and the CDIP wave and sea surface temperature datasets have formed core components of my product development. Best of all, when I have a question, I can simply walk next door to check in with the people who collect the data.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to fully understand the whole process of data collection and manipulation.

CORDC HF Radar stations (left) and CDIP wave buoys (right) are both based at SCCOOS, allowing me to learn about the whole process of data collection and quality control, in addition to using the data to create time-averaged oceanographic products.

A large part of my fellowship involves working with data and agencies outside of Southern California. While the West Coast OOS Regional Associations (RAs) are all housed under the national Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) network, and share data across geographic boundaries, each RA has its own focus within coastal oceanography and ocean health monitoring. My fellowship has helped me explore these nuances, giving me a better understanding of the variety of coastal environments and marine-related issues around the U.S.

One of the Fellowship side projects that I developed this summer was plotting sea surface temperature (SST) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

One of my Fellowship side projects has been to plot sea surface temperature (SST, above) and significant wave height (Hs) along the West Coast.

This spring, I had the opportunity to visit another of my host OOSs, the Central and Northern California Ocean Observing System (CeNCOOS), along with several of their partner organizations. CeNCOOS is based at the edge of the world-renowned Monterey Bay and Monterey Submarine Canyon, giving it the ideal position to work with a host of academic collaborators, including the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI), UC Santa Cruz, the CSU Moss Landing Marine Lab, Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station and the Naval Research Laboratory. During my visit, I attended a Marine Debris Symposium hosted by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), and presented a poster on my Fellowship work connecting Ocean Observing System data to marine debris. The Symposium gave me the opportunity to learn about marine debris cleanup and reduction efforts around California, and connected me with people interested in using the data products I have created. Seeing potential applications for these products motivated me to solve several tricky coding problems to improve my products.

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(Top) In August, I visited several shellfish farms in Oregon and Washington. Jen McWhorter (far left), the SCCOOS Public Relations and Government Outreach Coordinator, and Jen Rhoades (middle left), the IOOS Pacific Region Coordnator, joined me on the tours. Dave Steele (middle right), the owner of Rock Point Oyster Farms, generously organized our tours. (Bottom) I also visited Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery, one of the first hatcheries to realize that low-pH waters have been causing problems in shellfish development in recent years (photos courtesy of Jen McWhorter).

In August, I had a wonderful trip to Oregon and Washington to visit my third OOS host, the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), and its stakeholders. In recent years, NANOOS has collaborated closely with shellfish farmers in the Pacific Northwest to help monitor, understand and highlight the detrimental effects of increasing ocean acidification on shellfish growth and survival. During my visit, I toured several shellfish farms to hear how they benefit from collaborations with NANOOS. One aspect of my fellowship has involved updating the West Coast Ocean Acidification Assets Inventory (a list of West Coast OA monitoring equipment and stations), which is being incorporated into the new IOOS Pacific Region OA Portal. Learning firsthand about the impacts of OA on larval growth and shell formation added value and context to the extensive lists of monitoring assets and data that I had been working with.

I also attended several WCGA meetings throughout the year, to help me understand West Coast ocean policy and how my fellowship could contribute meaningful data to West Coast ocean partnerships. I have had the chance to help plan this year’s West Coast Ocean Data Network Meeting, which focused on unveiling the West Coast Ocean Data Portal and associated datasets and connections developed this year, including the WCGA-OOS partnerships that I have helped work on during my Fellowship.

My California Sea Grant Fellowship has been an incredible growth experience. Wrangling Pythons (coding scripts) and refining my knowledge of West Coast oceanography and ocean organization acronyms has helped me realize that integrated, policy-applicable oceanographic work is what I want to do in the future. I will miss working at the incredible Scripps Institution of Oceanography, but will be taking time to travel and pursue my land- and ocean-based interests, including horse polo, bird-watching, tall-boat sailing and SCUBA diving. I will be checking the CDIP wave forecasts religiously as I attempt to learn to surf, and will remain vigilant in my quest to pick up every scrap of beach trash and to educate fellow grocery-shoppers about the environmental benefits of reusable bags. I hope to dive back into the world of oceanography soon, via a Ph.D. program or related work. Maybe someday, I’ll find my way back to the Ocean Observing Systems.

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Tracking Ocean Acidification down the West Coast

Lines of grey, barrel-shaped buoys (left) and black, spherical buoys (right) provide flotation for underwater support structures that house growing oysters and mussels at the Carlsbad Aquafarm in North San Diego County, CA

Lines of grey, barrel-shaped buoys (left) and black, spherical buoys (right) provide flotation for underwater support structures that house growing oysters and mussels at the Carlsbad Aquafarm in North San Diego County, CA

As a Californian, I had only heard snippets about ocean acidification (OA) before I started my Sea Grant Fellowship. Unlike the Mississippi River Delta, California isn’t infamous for large hypoxic “dead zones” created by agricultural nutrient run-off. And unlike Washington and Oregon, California isn’t known worldwide for its oyster hatcheries and shellfish farms, which have been heavily impacted by OA in the last several years. In fact, I didn’t know shellfish farms existed in Southern California until I visited the Carlsbad Aquafarm, which is located just north of San Diego.

Carlsbad Aquafarm is a low-key shellfish operation tucked into the same lagoon that houses the Carlsbad Nuclear Power Plant, right across the road from North San Diego County’s beautiful beaches. But the single-story sheds, and neat rows of unassuming black and grey buoys suspending underwater growth structures stretched across the lagoon, belie the fact that the farm sustains an impressive shellfish business, with nearly 1 million oysters alone currently growing in the water.

(left) Growing tanks house green abalone, one of the numerous shellfish species produced by Carlsbad Aquafarm. (right) A fully-grown green abalone (Haliotis fulgens)

(left) Growing tanks house green abalone, one of the numerous shellfish species produced by Carlsbad Aquafarm. (right) A fully-grown green abalone (Haliotis fulgens)

Carlsbad Aquafarm, started in 1990, raises oysters, mussels, clams, abalone, scallops and seaweed to sell to Southern California farmer’s markets and wholesale seafood dealers, such as Santa Monica Seafood. Although several other shellfish aquafarms exist throughout California, including Hog Island Oyster Farm in Tomales Bay and the emerging Catalina Sea Ranch (which so far only grows mussels) off Huntington Beach, Carlsbad Aquafarm is currently Southern California’s only multi-species shellfish aquaculture farm.

One of my Fellowship mentor organizations, SCCOOS, is currently working with Professors Burke Hales (Oregon State University), and Todd Martz (Scripps Institution of Oceanography), to install a new partial/total CO2 (pCO2/TCO2) sensor at the Carlsbad Aquafarm. Monitoring the waters off Southern California will provide important ocean baseline comparisons for the low-pH, OA events that our northern neighbors are experiencing, as well as a general picture of how the southern part of the California Current Ecosystem is changing over time. It will also allow Carlsbad Aquafarm to track potential future OA events in its own waters, as the West Coast continues to be impacted by increasing global CO2 emissions and decreasing pH levels.

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Ocean acidification events, and associated shellfish hatchery larvae die-offs, have been a growing problem in Washington and Oregon for the past several years. The British Columbia-based hatchery Island Scallops, which represents about 16 percent of British Columbia’s shellfish production, recently closed its processing plant and laid off a third of its workers because it couldn’t sustain production levels in the face of the deleterious effects that  increasingly low-pH waters were having on its shellfish. Because of the immediacy and substantial, far-reaching economic impacts of OA events on these hatcheries, Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia have implemented extensive systems of pH/pCO2 monitoring sensors to detect these events in real-time, in order to proactively protect shellfish stocks.

In addition to shellfish, the Carlsbad Aquafarm grows several species of algae to sell for fish food and human consumption.

In addition to shellfish, the Carlsbad Aquafarm grows several species of algae to sell for fish food and human consumption.

So far, California, and especially Southern California, has experienced fewer noticeable low-pH events than have its northern neighbors. This is partly because Oregon and Washington have experienced stronger wind-driven upwelling of low-pH waters, and partly because California has a smaller-scale shellfish industry than do Oregon and Washington, so potential OA events haven’t been as urgent of a concern. And although Carlsbad Aquafarm has been unaffected overall by OA influences so far, the growers have noticed mussels sloughing off their byssal threads (the proteinaceous biomaterials that they produce to attach themselves to rocks, chains or other substrates) more during periodic lower-pH influxes, a phenomenon that has also been noted by recent research studies.

The West Coast is predicted to face continued decreases in ocean pH levels in coming decades. Models even estimate that by the year 2050, aragonite saturation levels will be permanently below those that can sustain healthy shellfish growth. So California must be as prepared as the rest of the west coast, and begin monitoring now in order to mitigate and avoid harmful effects in the future.

Thank you to Dennis Peterson, head aquaculturist at the Carlsbad Aquafarm, for a fascinating and informative tour!

Video: Beyond River Mile Five

For nearly 100 years wild salmon populations along the Elwha River, located at the heart of Olympic National Park, have been limited to a five-mile stretch of the 45 mile-long river below the Elwha and Glines Canyon dams. In September 2011 engineers began the Nation’s second largest ecological restoration project; a three-year dam removal process, allowing wild salmon and other anadromous fish populations to return to the upper channels and tributaries of the river. But how effective will these restoration efforts be, and how do we measure success? Kinsey Frick, George Pess, and John McMillan, scientists from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington, in partnership with other federal, state and tribal organizations in the region are working together to find answers to these important questions. Their research will not only help us understand the impacts of dam removal on wild salmon populations and ecosystems in the Elwha and allow managers to manage the recovering system adaptively, but also help inform future river restoration projects throughout the country.

King Tides on the West Coast

Most people these days know about the effects of climate change. Every day the news reports about the change in weather patterns, the increase of extreme events, changes in snowpack, the retreat of glaciers. The list goes on and on. For the half of the US population that lives on the coast, we hear about sea level rise and coastal inundation and what we might expect for the future.

Still, does the average coastal resident really understand how rising sea levels and coastal inundation will impact them?

(Left) A sidewalk is lost to this King Tide near Rotary Park, Olympia WA. Photo by TallJoyClan, (Right) Water creeps up to mid-sign during a high tide event in La Conner WA. Photo by ConwaySuz

Washington, Oregon, and California are taking proactive steps to make sure that coastal residents, planners, and decision makers alike have the chance to see what sea level rise might look like in their own backyards. It’s called the King Tides Initiative, and every winter brings the opportunity to visualize what a rise in sea level might mean for communities and infrastructure along the West Coast.

The concept began in 2009 in Australia by Phil Watson, the Principle Coastal Specialist of

Park in San Francisco during a large king tide event. Photo by sirgious.

the New South Wales’ Environment Department. They used the term “king tide” to define the high tides that occur when the gravitational pull of the sun and the moon is in alignment. Green Cross Australia continues this initiative, and recently launched a disaster resilience portal Queensland that connects climate awareness with disaster preparedness, working with the research community and advanced Facebook apps to empower people to take tailored steps to address hazard exposure.

These king tides, which take place during the winter along the West Coast, create higher than usual high tides that inundate roads, wetlands, water systems, and more. It’s a stunning preview of what we might experience regularly in the future as a result of rising sea levels.

Seawater almost spilling over this seawall at Alki Beach WA. Photo by dcsdiving.

West Coast states created their own King Tides Initiatives, with regional and local public outreach and education campaigns that ask coastal residents and visitors to photograph high tide events and share them on the photo sharing site Flickr®. By documenting and sharing photos, participants are helping create a living record of vulnerable areas of the coast. Because most photos are licensed under creative commons, they can be accessed and used by anyone. This makes king tide photos a resource for anyone, from teachers to planners to scientists, to communicate the impacts of climate change in a tangible way.

To learn more about the King Tides Initiative in California, I spoke with Marina Psaros, the Coastal Training Program Coordinator for the San Francisco Bay National Estuary Research Reserve.

What has been the biggest impact you’ve seen from the California King Tides campaign?

The king tides initiative is such a simple, powerful way to start a conversation about coastal hazards.  We’ve been able to reach a lot of people who don’t know much about coastal flooding and potential climate change impacts.  We recently held an exhibition of some of the photos at the California Academy of Sciences, and it was amazing to see

Home is inundated in Cairns North Queensland. Photo by Witness King Tides.

people’s immediate, visceral reactions to the images.  Concepts like “tidal inundation” and “sea level rise” are really abstract for most people, but a picture of water slamming up against a well-known landmark is immediately clear.

How can these pictures help us prepare for the future?

These images help engage people on the coast in a conversation about climate change and sea level rise. By participating in king tide events, coastal residents are helping to create a living record of areas that are vulnerable to flooding, and an online resource that can be used by anyone to communicate about coastal hazards. Creating new awareness through social media and other outreach, like the California Academy of Sciences photo exhibition, encourages people to think more proactively about the future of their communities. It also helps decision-makers visualize the impacts sea level rise could have on places where we live, work, and play. 

Can anyone get involved with King Tides?

This hotel on the beach in Yamba New South Wales is lost to a king tide. Photo by Witness King Tides.

 If you have a camera and can get to the coast, yes! Just check your state’s website for king tide events in your area, head out to the coast to take pictures of the king tides, and upload your images to Flickr®. While you’re on the Flickr® site, be sure to check out the rest of the photo pool.  We also encourage people to use these amazing pictures for their own communications – the images are available under a creative commons license. You can also get more information on the initiative through this recent Thank you Ocean podcast: http://www.thankyouocean.org/tag/king-tides/.

NOAA tides gauges and NASA satellites have been recording a global rise in sea level for 150 years.  This rise is linked to a number of atmospheric and oceanic processes; including changes in global temperatures, hydrologic cycles, coverage of glaciers and ice sheets, and storm frequency and intensity. Although high tides are a naturally occurring event, it’s a preview of water levels that climate models show might be a new “normal” in 100 years.

This biker makes his way around the seawater in Mill Valley near Stinson Beach CA. Photo by Yanna B.

The motivation to start talking about hazard mitigation and adaptation is king tide photos of washed out roads, flooded homes, and shrinking beaches. We’ve got a lot to prepare for. Perhaps king tides are nature’s way of giving us a head start.

If you want to be part of the King Tides campaign in your state or province, please visit the following websites to see the schedule of tide events:

Washington King Tides (http://www.ecy.wa.gov/climatechange/ipa_hightide.htm)

Oregon King Tides (http://www.climateadaptationplanning.net/kingtides/)

California King Tides (http://californiakingtides.org/)

British Columbia King Tides (http://www.livesmartbc.ca/connect/kingtidephotos/)

Australia King Tides (http://www.greencrossaustralia.org/our-work/witness-king-tides-a-community-photography-project.aspx)

Measuring the Pulse of Puget Sound

Scientists at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, WA are studying the life in Puget Sound’s surface waters—from microbes to fish and jellyfish— to understand this complex living system and shed light on how human activity affects its health . By understanding what groups of species live where and when and why, we can select measurable characteristics that tell us how the whole ecosystem is doing . This information can then be used by managers to protect and recover the life of Puget Sound. From Spring to Fall 2011, principle investigators Correigh Greene, Casey Rice, Linda Rhodes, and Kurt Fresh, and over 20 other scientists, technicians, and volunteers surveyed more than 80 sites from Commencement Bay in the south to Bellingham Bay in the north and Hood Canal in the west, representing of a range of natural conditions and human influence.