Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Aquatic Erratics as Refugia

I've spent the past few days going through data, photos and videos from our 2008 dive surveys at Elwha in preparation for a planned USGS report. I've been struck by the role that relief - in the form of reef or boulders - seems to play in enhancing diversity and supporting life. The example shown here is from an area to the east of the river mouth - a region characterized by fairly expansive plains of mixed sediment (shown in the photos) and decreased densities of large invertebrates and algae. Boulders are also rare to the east of the river mouth, but where they do occur they seem to act as islands for the variety of organisms that are somehow reliant on the hard surface, stability or shelter they provide.

The video is a stark example of this. We came across a large boulder in the middle of this plain of mixed small sediment, which was encrusted with kelps and invertebrates (including the giant barnacle, Balanus nubilis). A little cave under the boulder seemed a perfect shelter for a Giant Pacific Octopus, and sure enough there was one in there. The video is poor, but you can make out the mantle and siphon of this mid-size octopus.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"I was gobsmacked!"

So this is a pretty cool story in and of itself for those of the coast nerd variety. What really caught my eye, though was the absolutely wonderful use of the phrase, "I was gobsmacked" by Aussie research biologist Julian Finn. Finn was talking of observing an octopus collecting and transporting coconut shells for later use as shelter. Doesn't seem like much to get too gobsmacked about until you recall that Octopi are molluscs. This only adds to the reputation of octopi as being the smartest invertebrate in the class. They probably have to hide in coconut shells only because they are routinely bullied by the dumber invertebrates in the ocean.

Anyhow, I am presenting tomorrow at a conference in San Francisco, and will definitely be thinking hard today on how to work the phrase, "I was gobsmacked!" into my talk. I love it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thank YOU Russell, Dan and Donna!

Look at that hydrograph. Its been a pretty impressive run of high flow at Elwha over the last week or so.

Since August I've been working with a group of students from Port Angeles to track samples of RFID tagged cobbles over an entire year. Which means that while I'm sitting here in my cofortable office in Santa Cruz they are out for the winter low tides on the Elwha Delta, getting real wet and real cold. So this is the next in what will be an on-going series of thank yous to Russell Means, Dan Brooks and Donna Stanly for braving the PNW winter, all to track some rocks. Science is a funny pursuit that way.

Attached is a photo that Russell shot on the 21st of November, looking west from a vantage point on the east side of the river mouth. You can see just the tiny top of a bar that has grown across the mouth over the last year or two. During most of the summer and fall that bar was a full size island - just to give some sense of what these high flows mean. I'm just conjecturing, but it sure looks like the river channel to the east of that bar has widened over this series of high flows and storms. I think the river is set to shift over to a new channel...

Saturday, October 17, 2009

First flow of the season!

As I stumble further down the path towards the dark arts of geomorphology such things only become more exciting. Its sort of like Christmas Eve...

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Field Work is Coming to an End

Its been a surprisingly exhausting summer, and feels doubly so as I write this at night in a San Diego hotel as we wrap up our last day of field work. For me, its the last day of field work of an intense summer, that included a total of about 30 days in the field in Washington, and another 20 or so here in San Diego. Added on top of a visit to my folks, it meant that I've been at home very little this summer. Not that I'm complaining. The chance to work on interesting projects in coastal environments is part of why I signed on to graduate school. But I must confess that the travel was exhausting this year.

A few photos from San Diego. The project down here is Jon Warrick's, and is focused on understanding the movement and eventual fate of about 1500 dump truck loads of mixed sand and silt dumped on the beach just north of the Mexican border. The dumping of this sediment was an experiment - in the U.S. we typically only allow sand to be dumped on beaches, not fine material like silt. The state park in the Tijuana River estuary wrestles with what to do with sediment that collects in catchement basins and marshes, and have to pay to get rid of it. The idea of using it as nourishment on beaches is attractive, and it was that idea that spawned this project.

For me the project involved daily morning trips in a small boat to the ocean just off-shore of the beach, where we collected data on temperature, salinity and sediment concentration at 18 sites, and collected a water sample from each site. We try to get back in by noon or so before the wind comes up, and then head out to the beach to collect yet more water. Tomorrow we drive back to Santa Cruz with boat in tow and a whole bunch of bottles of water. Looking forward to getting home...


Monday, October 5, 2009

The Samoan Tsunami goes local

Its interesting that coverage of the Samoan Tsunami of September 29th has largely been overshadowed by the Indonesian earthquake, which resulted in greater loss of life. Surprisingly, though, the Samoan tsunami did show up on the west coast and, for that reason, was of particular interest to me. Thankfully, it didn't show up in a BIG way.

When the tsunami struck Samoa I was working in San Diego and found myself extremely intrigued by the tsunami warning that was released for the west coast. It is no surprise that waves generate and travel over entire ocean basins, but I found this one particularly exciting, if only because I was in an ideal position to watch it propagate around the globe, and am now surrounded by people at USGS who get REALLY into these things.

At about 8:30 pm on the 29th I went to NOAA's Tides and Currents site ( and pulled up real-time water level data for San Diego, Monterey and Port Angeles. By about 9:00 pm the waves were visible in the data stream in San Diego, showing up as waves with an amplitude of about 1/2 a foot and a wavelength of about 30 minutes. The same wave signature showed up shortly after in Monterey, CA and just after midnight in Port Angeles.

USGS scientists Andy Ritchie (who, as an aside, is from Port Angeles) was in Santa Cruz on the bridge over the harbor and reported: "at around 9:26 the first (negative) wave appeared. The water surface dropped by about 50 cm over a period of five minutes or so, then rose about 1.4 m from the low over about the next 7.5 minutes. I watched this through another two waves, when the amplitude began to decrease somewhat. It looked like maximum water velocities were somewhere around 4 m/s - which was pretty impressive to me. Other than some surprised-looking gulls and slightly distraught pelicans zipping back and forth on the current, and some impressive turbidity getting kicked up, it seemed like everything stayed put. There were some curious (brave? foolish?) folks in a rowboat that rowed out of sight before the tsunami came, and I imagine they felt a bit like the seagulls and the pelicans."

I was particularly delighted to find the signature of the tsunami in NOAA's water level data from Port Angeles, which you can see here. I can't help but wonder if these relatively small events have any impact whatsoever on geomorphology or coastal habitats on the west coast.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Kelp Mediated Clast Movement

I shot this video at the base of Ediz Hook in 15' of water a few days ago. The current was an estimated 0.4 to 0.5 m/s, and I was struck at the movement of these kelp/clast combinations ripping by. How big of a factor is this in moving material around the Elwha coastal zone?

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Dating the Elwha Bulge

Hugh Shipman of the Washington Department of Ecology posted to his blog a few days ago a few thoughts on an area of sediment accretion on the east side of Angeles Point. I had first noted the feature last summer during a walk along the beach, but without Hugh's historic perspective I thought little of it. I realized, however, that I might have the photos that would allow us to constrain, at least somewhat, the dates over which this feature started to build.

In 2003, when I started working for the Surfrider Foundation, I started a project designed to monitor the Elwha shoreline with simple digital photography. With the help of a few volunteer pilots, I was able to include oblique aerial photography in the project. I went back through those photos and believe that they constrain the date of initiation of accretion. Its all qualitative, but the beach widens noticeably between June 2005 and June 2006, and photos from January 2006 and March 2006 seem to show some slight widening. I've posted here the photo I collected during the June low tide in 2005 (bottom photo in this case) and the photo from the low tide flight in June 2006. The photos below were collected in March 2006. Compare them to Hugh's photos from July 2009.

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Friday, July 31, 2009

Moving to Hollywood

Okay, so I have a brilliant idea for the latest, greatest TV drama. Imagine, if you will, a taut thriller in which a group of very sexy, highly trained COASTAL GEOLOGISTS travel to the world's great beach destinations solving high profile crimes like this one:


The show would, of course, be full of international men and women of mystery, global crime rings, fast cars and cigarette boats. Oh, yes, and the COASTAL GEOLOGISTS.

Its a brilliant whodunnit concept. I've already sent in my headshot to the studios in the hopes of getting cast. I think you will agree I'm a shoe-in.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Peanut Butter and Jelly For Dinner

In March my dad took his 20' pontoon boat on a 16 day voyage down the Intercoastal waterway (ICW) - a trip that left me not a little bit jealous. Not wanting to miss out on the ALL of the fun I made arrangements to visit the east coast, and during a 9 day visit I was able to get four nights on the water. Granted, we didn't quite make it to Florida, but the trip was priceless all the same. Besides, given that the title of this post is an homage to my father's dietary proclivities while journeying, perhaps its for the best that we didn't go longer than four days. I had a serious craving for spinach by day 2, and even hopped off the boat in tiny South Mills, North Carolina (or was it Virginia?) to look for something green. No luck. If we had travelled to Florida I would definitely have had scurvy by the Cape Fear River.

Besides the obvious fun of messing about on boats, the trip provided me with a professional opportunity to observe a coastal landscape so different from any on the west coast. I can't quite fully grasp the processes and timescales that make the east coast so different from the west, but I took endless pictures that, I am sure, will be revisited as my mind masticates. The low swamplands that define so much of the coastal plain through which we passed are incredible - haunted by history, hum with productivity (and, as it turns out, mosquitoes) and form the ideal passage for a small boat.

I took the opportunity to learn how to transfer GPS data to Google Earth, and the novice results are what you see here.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

community supported science

Christine and I have been members of community-supported farms for years now, and now can not think to go a season without a weekly produce delivery. I've been entertaining how to implement a similar concept in science - some sort of structure that seeks to de-centralize science and align it more closely with regionally or locally-based knowledge needs. By decentralizing science I don't believe that we remove science from its current position in large institutions, but instead we grow science to fill more niches and satisfy local demand for knowledge. I and many others have, of course, dabbled in this field before. The idea of citizen-science has become a mainstay for various organizations that I've worked for or been associated with. However, I am talking about taking this sort of endeavor to another level of credibility, and "competing" with institutionally-based science for recognition.

This past week I passed another field session on the beach adjacent to the Elwha River mouth. I've found that community support for my project has been incredible, both in terms of people offering up places to stay and equipment as well as people offering up their time to help with field work. This isn't easy stuff. Days are long and the work is grueling. The weather is frequently...poor. But at this point the list of people who have donated their time in the field is impressive:

Chris Morgan
Adrian Shulock
Suzanne Grey
Linsay Schroemen-Wawrin
Gordon Malarkey
Lisa Brown
Tony Cook (with WSU BeachWatchers of Clallam County)
Yvonne Plantz (with WSU BeachWatchers of Clallam County)
Ann Elliot (with WSU BeachWatchers of Clallam County)
Sam Stout (with WSU BeachWatchers of Clallam County)

This post is a way to thank those individuals for their time and effort. It is not a small thing. It is also an introduction to what I hope is a longer conversation in my life - growing this idea of smaller science that answers big questions.


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

In between times

In between field sessions is proving to be very productive, but not in any sort of exciting blog-worthy sort of way. I spend my days thinking about what I am going to do during my next field session and trying to figure out what to do with data I collected during my last field session. It really just looks like me sitting in front of a computer.

So, in order to make my work feel more exciting than it really is this seems like a perfect time to debut this collection of clips from our summer 08 dive work.


Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The poster as an indispensable tool of science

when I was in 8th grade I put posters up in my room. I think I had one or two of various fighter planes (I did, after all, have aspirations of becoming a fighter pilot. After Top Gun, what 13 year old boy didn't?). I also had a few of scantily clad ladies (I did, after all, have aspirations of one day knowing a scantily clad lady). Somewhere around 17 or 18, however, the poster fell out of favor in my life. Sure, I still have a few covering various subjects. I think one shows pictures of all of the sharks found in North American waters. Another one, I think, has a pretty picture of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary on it. The key point here is that they are all in storage, and none of them ever spent significant time actually hanging on a wall.

All of this has now changed. As it turns out the poster is a critical communications tool for scientists, and vast rooms are devoted to posters at conferences highlighting the most cutting edge science. I must admit that I find it vaguely ironic. Here are people who do work that most of us can not understand, using a communications tool only ever so slightly evolved from the tri-fold science fair cardboard display. But since I am doing my best to fit in as a scientist right now I've jumped right on the poster bandwagon. Just a few weeks ago I presented my first poster at the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin Ecosystem Conference in Seattle, WA. I walked into the big poster room, and tacked my creation up right next to about 150 other posters. Then a bunch of people come in the room and walk around, sometimes with coffee or a beer, look at your poster, and nod and "hmmmm" sometimes. As it turns out, some really nice and inspirational discussions can emerge out of starting at a poster with another person, which made me understand, perhaps just a little, why science has opted to keep them around.

And for those of you who weren't there, here is my poster. The real thing is, at this very second, actually hanging up on a wall right next to me.

Friday, February 13, 2009

The Ultimate Pet Rock: Continued

I've just returned from about 2.5 weeks up in Washington. In doing so I managed to avoid the wet weather that has been going on down here in Cali and get some nice PNW sun. The trip was productive and, in addition to getting the wave gauge in place I also spent a week on the beach tracking rocks and attended the Puget Sound/Georgia Basin conference (more on that in a future post).

A few lessons: First, working along during winter night-time low tides is no fun. A huge thank you to Adrian Shulock, Suzanne Gray and Lindsey Schroemen-Wawren for coming out with me on Saturday and Sunday. My PIT tag reader has a little beeper on it that chimes when I find a rock. During the first four days when I was working alone the repeated ringing when I found tags was starting to drive me a bit batty. Having another soul out there is the antidote.

Next lesson: In the winter, rocks move further and get buried deeper than in the summer. We had a big winter swell, and it makes a big difference. Following rocks around gets a lot harder during a swell.

Despite the hardships I think i collected a nice data set - this week will be spent combing through it in the hopes that this is true.


Monday, February 2, 2009

No Wave Shall Go Unmeasured

Just another axiom of mine. No, just joking. But it is ever so abundantly clear that if one is going to follow rocks around on the beach one should measure the waves. Seems like they might have to do with things. We've been talking with UW faculty Dr. Andrea Ogsten for some time, and she was kind enough to offer us space on one of her upcoming cruises to Elwha. Last week, we got the call so myself and (thank goodness she could help me) Joanne suddenly went into hyper mode to put together an instrument, mooring and get it all up to Washington. In the end I had to drive up, but we put the wave gauge into the water a few days ago. With luck it is happily collecting data down there.