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A Voyage to Unlock Columbia's Secrets

by Michael Milstein, Associated Press
The Oregonian, August 29, 2006

A new center will use high-tech tools to explore how the river and ocean tick

Salmon and seabirds at the mouth of the Columbia River will soon get some high-tech company that would impress even Jules Verne.

Robotic submarines will track water conditions. Tractorlike rovers will scoop samples from the seafloor. Sensors will measure currents with sound waves. And all will chitchat electronically as they take the pulse of the river and nearby ocean.

The new tools will make the Columbia's estuary among the most monitored places of its kind, promising new insights into the river that serves as a major Northwest artery and economic engine.

The National Science Foundation today will announce $19 million in research funding for the OGI School of Science and Engineering at OHSU, Oregon State University and the University of Washington to turn that cutting-edge vision into reality.

The three schools will add another $5.6 million. If the project meets its goals in five years, the foundation will provide another $20 million.

The money will establish an Oregon-based NSF Science and Technology Center focused on sensitive shoreline environments vital to marine life and people alike. The first instruments will go into the water within months, with the rest following over the next several years.

One of the center's leading goals is to understand coastal zones clearly enough that computer models could forecast their underwater workings like weather models predict storms.

It would not only produce immediate information useful to fishermen and others offshore, but would also gauge how the river and ocean react to climate shifts such as El Nino and wider changes such as global warming and escalating human development.

It might help predict the effects of dredging the Columbia, for example, and unravel the mystery behind the eerie "dead zone" that has spread along the Oregon coast for five summers in a row.

The new center's research will reach from Puget Sound in the north to Northern California in the south, but will focus most around the mouth of the Columbia. It will search out some of the tiniest and most basic ocean inhabitants -- microbes -- as barometers of the river and ocean system.

"We really are going to be opening a window into how oceans work," said Antonio Baptista, a professor at OGI and director of the new center.

The idea is that microbes are sensitive enough to reveal changes before more high-profile life, such as salmon, begins to suffer. While the world of ocean microbes has long been difficult to study, scientists can now track them through their genetic details.

The center will be based at OGI in Hillsboro and will move to OGI's new campus on Portland's South Waterfront in five to seven years.

But its mission goes beyond research. Scientists say the center will pioneer new technology for probing the coast, such as underwater sensors that can draw their energy from the waves and unmanned aircraft that can watch the ocean from above.

It will also tie into local schools and businesses such as Intel, which sees an opportunity to link researchers and their instruments to the rest of the world. Fishermen might use real-time data to tell what's happening below their boats and search-and-rescue vessels could find out where currents would sweep someone who fell overboard.

"Having esoteric science that is far ahead of the curve has only so much value," Baptista said. "You need to impact the work force and translate the results into real benefits."

OGI, OSU and UW made up one of six groups that won National Science Foundation funding for a new Science and Technology Center from a field of about 150, said Alexandra Isern, the foundation's program director. She said the strengths of the Northwest proposal included its links to local schools and Native American tribes.

The Portland Science and Technology Center will be one of 17 nationwide to pursue specialized fields ranging from adaptive optics to behavioral neuroscience.

Rivers and coastal zones at the center of the research are some of the most prolific environments around, serving as crucial nurseries for fish, waterfowl and more. More than half of the U.S. population lives in coastal regions, the scientists said. But they are also among of the most sensitive ecosystems, vulnerable to natural shifts in climate and human-wrought changes such as pollution.

OGI already operates an array of monitors in the Columbia River estuary and the mouths of other Oregon rivers.

The new research award will expand and tie the network together with others operated by OSU and UW.

"By linking up, we can get to the whole system," said Jack Barth, a professor of oceanography at Oregon State and another leader of the new center. "I don't think any of our institutions could have won that grant by ourselves. It was the team."

Researchers will invite local teachers to intern at the center and then take science lessons into their classrooms.

Local students will join in real exercises calling upon the center's research, such as figuring out how to deal with a hypothetical oil spill.

"Kids love cool technology, kids love gadgets and kids love the ocean," Baptista said. "This is a way to combine all that and use it as an opportunity to attract kids to science."

The center will use its existing network of monitors while adding new equipment such as unmanned, remote submarines that cost $300,000 to $1.5 million, Baptista said. Remote underwater "gliders" would ride currents through the plume of the Columbia River where it flows into the ocean.

A strength of the system is that its components will communicate, feeding information to one another and to computer models. Robotic vehicles might respond by traveling through the water to gather new information as conditions change, Baptista said.

Michael Milstein
A Voyage to Unlock Columbia's Secrets
The Oregonian, August 29, 2006

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