Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Ocean Sciences Day 4: River Flux

Day 4 was cool. It was the last day of the conference, and the conference was capped by a special session devoted to Jon Milliman. Jon is one of the godfathers of this special sub-discipline of geomorphology and coastal oceanography focusing on the flux of sediment from land to the continental shelf and deep ocean. It was great to finally meet him and the community of researchers that has formed around him.

While many of the presentations were focused on the world's big and/or particularly productive rivers, they did let a presentation in that focused on the Umpqua, in Oregon. Bob Wheatcroft's presentation was unique amongst the group and, from my standpoint, the most enjoyable because of its relevance to the Elwha. The Umpqua is a relatively small, relatively unproductive (from a sediment standpoint) river that drains the coastal range. Bob was able to show how sedimentation patterns on the shelf in Oregon have changed over the last half century or so, mostly in response to logging. Specifically, they've documented a 2x to 4x increase in shelf sedimentation on the Oregon shelf starting after WWII. There are all sorts of interesting ramifications, particularly ecological. How do benthic organisms adapt to that? Is it a driver of ecological change on the continental shelf? I also wonder if there is a similar observable pattern on, in particular, west end rivers?

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Ocean Sciences Day 3: Poster Time

Well, I was going to write a brief piece on a presentation by Sam Bentley describing the flood through the Bonne Carre spillway in Louisiana that I observed in June of 2011. He described a pretty impressive and audacious project to attempt to restore parts of the Mississipi delta by re-routing flood waters.

But, in the end, this was my day to present my poster on the evolution of the Elwha delta, and that wins out.

And while I must confess that my poster didn't generate a great buzz about the room it was still a lot of fun talking to colleagues and wrestling with the ideas implicit in these data.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Ocean Sciences Day 2: Science communication

Wednesday was the day for plenary sessions at the Ocean Sciences conference - thousands of scientists crammed into a massive hall to listen to the most erudite in the field discuss various subjects. One of the more interesting talks (out of an amazing SIX plenary talks) was by Dr. Chris Reddy of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, who spoke about his perceptions of the scientific response to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Dr. Reddy described his view of the many successes of the scientific response to the spill - very quick mobilization time for cruises, accessing funding quickly, rapid data analysis and modeling - and also the many short-comings. Key amongst those was the difficulties that the scientific community seems to have communicating outside of the sciences, or even particular disciplines. Dr. Reddy described how the pride felt by the scientific community regarding its quick response to the spill was not necessarily shared by the responders (i.e. the US Coast Guard and others) and the media. Not surprisingly, this particular problem of science communication is a key theme of the Ocean Sciences conference as a whole.

Scientists are safe within our disciplines. Essentially, we can talk rather speculatively regarding hypotheses with colleagues because we know that our comments will be interpreted as, well, hypotheses. If a scientists spouts off to another scientist, generally its a fun discussion but all parties know that, without some serious data and analysis to back it up, its all just speculation. Increasingly, though, trained scientists are being asked to communicate outside their disciplines, where the rules of the game aren't so clear.

I am into this. I think it is a good thing. I have colleagues who view this blog as dangerous, and potentially career-limiting. Scientists shouldn't discuss data or speculative ideas outside of the peer-reviewed milieu, they might say. So far its worked out, but that could be because I work in a pretty un-sexy discipline (coastal geomorphology) and have about 2 readers. But that may not always be the case. Lets imagine that in the Pacific Northwest we get a sudden and rapid acceleration in sea level rise (a possibility - far from certain - raised by some recent analyses of sea-level patterns in the Northeast Pacific) which is associated with severe and widespread erosion. Suddenly those of us who work in this discipline could be on the hot seat, and some of the things I have or will write or say could come under uncomfortable scrutiny. On balance, its a risk I am willing to take.

Others are as well. I was recently invited to participate in the University of Washington's School of the Environment "Science Communication Task Force". As far as I can tell I was recruited for two reasons - I work for Sea Grant, which has as its goal the translation of academic science into useful information for communities, and also because of this blog. Through that I've learned others at the University of Washington are very willing to accept the risks associated with science communication, and that the College of the Environment is in the process of putting together a directory of the various blogs and other tools used by those scientists.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ocean Sciences Day 1: Fukashima Radiation in the Ocean

Like most people who frequent science conferences, I have a love/hate relationship with them. You trade hours of sitting in dark rooms, staring at power point slides, drinking too much coffee and eating too many pastries, and wandering through vast oceans of posters for brief flashes of inspiration that can lead you to yhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gifour next great thing. I arrived todahttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gify at the Ocean Sciences conference in Salt Lake City and immediately found two more down-sides: a horrible latte that ran me $4.50 and a HUGE conference hall that left my soccer-sprained ankle screaming just to get across it.

Even before entering the hall to register and hang my poster, though, reports were coming out about some very cool and appropriate research given the discussions we've been having on marine debris. I was struck to see popular reporting of Ken Buesseler's talk on results of a June 2011 cruise that sampled sea water for radiation up to 400 miles off of the coast of Japan.

And what did they find? They did find above background levels of cesium-137, a relatively short-lived but highly radioactive radioisotope created by nuclear fission. But even the highest levels detected in sea-water nearest to shore didn't exceed common environmental standards. Even 20 miles off-shore, where radiation levels in seawater were ~1000x above background, the water was still well below the level that we use in this country to define safe drinking water. In other words, your tapwater might be more radioactive than the seawater off of Fukishima just 3 months after the plant failed.

More to come on this and other topics - the Ocean Sciences conference this year has a lot on the 3-11 tsunami, climate change and acidification and even shoreline erosion...

Monday, February 13, 2012

More on 22 January...

We've recently had the opportunity to recover two cameras set up to record time-lapse photos of the Elwha River delta, both of which were recording during the 22 January high-water event that I've written about previously. In this post I'm simply going to post some of the information from those cameras as well as document some of the impacts of that high-water event on the delta.

Again, the event on 22 January had a few characteristics. First, there was a perigean high tide that day, with an additional "non-tidal residual" of about two feet:

That non-tidal residual was probably driven primarily by low sea-level pressure. Here are the air pressure data (the second panel from the top) from the Port Angeles airport from Jan 22 (from Weather Underground):

The peak low air pressure corresponded almost exactly with the peak high tide. The other interesting part of this event was the relatively strong east wind associated with it, which pushed

The first camera is sited on the west side of the river mouth on private property overlooking the river mouth. The higher berm on that side of the river mouth, combined with the relative protection from east waves afforded by the delta itself, seems to have held off most of the sea's energy. This photo was taken right at high water, and in it you can see that the lagoons formed by sediment movement right at the river mouth are full and the berms surrounding them are probably over-topping them. To the left in the image though the high berm fronting the beach doesn't appear to be over-topped anywhere.

Another camera placed on an old communications tower on the east side of the delta did record some of the berm overwash that was evident after the storm. This beach profile, collected just to the east of Charles road on the east side of the delta gives you a sense of what I am talking about. Between 4 January and 27 January the top of the beach set back at least 5m, while the lower foreshore (below about 2m on the profile) shows little sign of change over the same time period:

And the view from the tower at 1:15pm on 22 January looked like this:

You have to sort of know the delta to see where the over-topping is happening in this photo. It might help if you have something to compare it to. This photo is from the following day at the same time.

The combination of high water and strong east wind and waves are driving water over the berm (which is only about 3.5 m above MLLW along much of this shore)along pretty much the entire stretch between the two clumps of trees on the left and right sides of the photo. Our observations suggest that this wide scale overtopping was associated with lots of erosion on the upper part of the beach, and it appears that much of that sediment was pushed back over the berm in to back beach areas:

and finally, to see the whole storm in action check out the entire timelapse video collected from the tower between December 2011 and February 2012:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Moving to Higher Ground

In this era of climate change and an increasing understanding of our tsunami-risk the coastal communities of Washington have to come to terms with the concept of retreat. One of the only reliable adaptation measures available to us is to move up and out of the way of an encroaching ocean. Some are showing us how to do this. The Quileute tribe, in recognition of the tsunami-risk that they face, came a step closer today to moving infrastructure off of the low-lying Quillayute River delta with a vote by the U.S. House of Representatives.

I am a supporter of Olympic National Park, and guess that there was some concern about the park losing ground. Given its history and how hard-won every acre of the park is, this is understandable. By the same token, I am a supporter of the Quileute and their right to live with a modicum of security. Their present circumstances are perilous, to say the least. Furthermore, over the next century there are going to be more and more cases of coastal communities moving to decrease their coastal hazard risk. Overall I support that trend - its expensive, but in the long run I feel that its the right thing to do. Its impressive to see the Quileute, a small tribe and small community, leading that national movement.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

The new tool...ground-based LiDAR

Over the last few years a new tool has been applied to the problem of measuring topographic change of the Elwha watershed and floodplain. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) uses a focused light source to develop precise measurements of range to an object. With its extraordinary high sampling rate it can be used to develop comprehensive digital terrain models at very high resolutions. Repeat surveys can efficiently identify topographic changes. Amy Draut and Josh Logan of the USGS recently put together this LiDAR derived view of the lower Elwha River and floodplain, which is pretty cool:

I am part of a team that was recently funded to start collecting LiDAR derived data on the morphology of coastal bluffs on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Once we get a few repeat surveys we are going to be able to start calculating erosion rates that are going to be far better than anything we've developed before...

looking forward to it...