Studying a Dynamic Ocean
Spotlight on CCPO: Research Probes Climate Change and New Sources of Energy

From the chatter around Old Dominion University’s Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography (CCPO), visitors might believe they had come upon a cadre of policy wonks trying to solve today’s most pressing problems.

This would not be far from the truth.

Global warming and its relationship to earth systems dominate the discourse these days at the center. The 30 or so faculty scientists, affiliated researchers and graduate students at CCPO dissect the term “climate change” in many ways, examining how it works, as well as assessing how it might affect Virginia clam fishermen, Adelie penguins in Antarctica or emergency preparedness plans in the flood zones along the Chesapeake Bay.

More recently the researchers have taken on another big problem, the need for new sources of energy, especially sources that can help the United States become less dependent upon foreign oil. Ongoing studies at CCPO are focusing on the feasibility of constructing power-generating wind turbines off the Virginia coast and how coastal shelf currents and Gulf Stream dynamics could be factors in our search for mid-Atlantic offshore gas deposits.

In a word, 2009 has been an especially busy year for CCPO. Its scientists, whose work and accomplishments in the past were known almost solely to fellow researchers at other institutions and laboratories, are more likely now to find themselves in the spotlight. The public in southeastern Virginia wants to know whether global warming will produce more hurricanes, or whether sea-level rise will inundate their neighborhoods later this century.

“CCPO has been instrumental in exploring the fundamental science of ocean circulation since its inception. But what were once primary studies in basic science are becoming increasingly relevant for understanding the role of the oceans in climate change,” said Richard Zimmerman, chair of ODU’s Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.

Science Hits the Headlines

John Klinck, the CCPO director, and Eileen Hofmann, professors of ocean, earth and atmospheric sciences who have been with the center since it opened in 1991, don’t see a drop-off anytime soon in the relevance of the center’s work to the sort of global problems that make Page One news.

“I heard a journalist from The New York Times speaking at a conference say, ‘Climate change is no longer news. What’s news is what we do about it,’” Hofmann said. She said she believes mitigation strategies are increasingly important, and added, “That’s one place we can help.”

Hofmann is also helping by leading an international organization, Integrated Marine Biogeochemistry and Ecosphere Research (IMBER) based in Brest, France, that coordinates global-change studies related to the oceans. She was appointed to a three-year term as chair of the IMBER science steering committee in January 2010.

In fact, Klinck and Hofmann recently launched a project that tackles global warming mitigation in a manner completely new to them. They are partners in a $1 million collaborative research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that for the three years beginning Oct. 1, 2009, will take an exhaustive look at one tight scenario posed by global warming. The study will involve not only oceanographers and biologists, but also experts in social behavior, politics and economics. They are looking into what global warming might do to surf clams on the upper East Coast, and how this could change the lives of the people who have one interest or another in our ability to bring a stable stock of these bivalves to market.

Klinck offers some background. “The way these clams are dredged, you have a 12-hour window for the boats to get them to processing plants. Longer than that, they are in danger of spoiling. Since 1999, there is evidence that the clam populations are moving north of us as the water gets warmer. There are clam boats based in Virginia and processing plants situated in Virginia, and, unfortunately, Virginia may come to be uncomfortably far from the clams. It would be a huge problem to uproot these Virginians, to expect them to move their households, boats and plants to New Jersey.”

The CCPO scientists are helping to develop a mechanistic description of surf clam response to warmer waters, and the model they produce will be coupled with a model of the human response. An ultimate goal of the research team is to explore clam fishery management options based on the predictions produced by the coupled models.

Human Factor Gets Scrutiny

Researchers at Rutgers University are leading the project, including Eric Powell, director of Rutgers’ Haskin Shellfish Research Laboratory and a longtime collaborator with Klinck and Hofmann. The principal investigator is a Rutgers human ecologist who studies the relationship between humans and their natural, social, political and economic environments.

“This is interesting in that socio-economic researchers are over there in the way they do things and we (oceanographers and biologists) are over here,” Hofmann says. But she adds that she believes the two communities definitely need to work together on climate-warming mitigation strategies.

She is on a select committee—made up of 15 scientists and engineers from academia and industry—that prepared a National Research Council report early in 2009 urging the U.S. Climate Change Science Program to expand its investigations beyond the physical climate system to include research about human reactions to a changing climate and how societies can mitigate and adapt to the impacts. Hofmann also is affiliated with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which shared in the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.

Projects from Mid-Atlantic to Antarctic

The surf clam grant is one of about a dozen that are funding CCPO researchers in 2009. Here are some other examples of work recently funded and other accomplishments of the CCPO team:

Chester Grosch, a professor with appointments in the Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (OEAS) as well as the Department of Computer Science, has teamed with Ann Gargett, professor emerita of OEAS, and Guillaume Martinat, a postdoctoral research scientist at CCPO, on a $555,000 NSF project focusing on a circulation phenomenon called Langmuir cells. These are like horizontal rotors in the water, created by wind, waves and tidal conditions. Research by Gargett in 2002-03 found for the first time that the cells do not just affect surface waters, but can stir up sediments and other materials on a sea or lake bottom as much as 30 meters below the surface. The new research project is designed to assess and validate Langmuir data and merge those with large-eddy simulations—a research specialty of Grosch—to provide scientists with an up-to-date model of turbulence-generating mechanisms in shallow waters. This will help with science’s basic understanding of how the ocean mixes, and provide new richness to ocean models used in climate change research.

Klinck and CCPO research scientist Mike Dinniman are supported by a $560,000 grant from NSF to study reasons for the increasing rate of melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS). Their focus is basal melting, which happens on the underside of ice sheets or ice shelves because of warm ocean water. Because the WAIS rests largely on bedrock below sea level, underside melting allows seawater to intrude under it, causing it to float and exposing more ice to warm circumpolar deep water (CDW). The goal of the researchers is to identify the chief driving mechanisms for this intrusion of CDW and create model simulations of the dynamical processes. These tools should help scientists better estimate the effect of oceanic changes on ice sheet movement and melting.

Hofmann, Klinck and Dinniman are investigators on two NSF grants awarded in summer 2009 for research in the Ross Sea off Antarctica. Together, the grants are for $450,000. One project will use a robotic underwater glider to measure such things as temperature and salinity, and will employ satellite imagery, as well, toward the goal of creating better models of when, where and why phytoplankton blooms occur in these waters. The second project continues the CCPO researchers’ work with large Weddell seals that are tagged with sensors that can track their location and measure water temperature, depth and other conditions. With the sensors, the researchers can follow the foraging of the seals while also collecting important oceanographic data. “In light of ongoing climate change, and the dramatic shifts in the extent and persistence of sea ice in the Ross Sea area, it is critical that we understand how predators select foraging locations, and how changes in the underlying water properties may influence their behaviors,” the researchers’ proposal states. Data gathered by these far-traveling and deep-diving seals also sharpen our knowledge of physical oceanographic processes in the waters off Antarctica, especially those that occur when winter’s heavy sea ice precludes most other data collection.

Energy Research Just Beginning

Four CCPO researchers – Tal Ezer, OEAS professor; Larry Atkinson, Slover Professor of Oceanography; and two research scientists, Jose Blanco and Teresa Garner – are working via a contract with Princeton University on a grant from the federal Mineral Management Service to do an environmental assessment of potential impacts of Virginia offshore oil and gas activities. The ODU role will involve the analysis of data about tides, ocean currents, temperatures, salinity, river flows, Gulf Stream dynamics, coastal shelf currents and deep-ocean currents. Also, the researchers will develop a modeling system focusing on the Mid-Atlantic Bight region. Ezer served as a research scholar at Princeton, where he managed the Princeton Ocean Model users group.

Atkinson, Blanco and Garner are leading ODU’s involvement in the Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium’s study of offshore wind-energy potential. The CCPO contingent has now also joined with colleagues at the University of Delaware, University of Maryland, University of Massachusetts, University of Texas and University of Central Florida in an effort guided by the NSF and U.S. Department of Energy to form a wind-energy research center.

Malcolm Scully, assistant professor of OEAS, was the 2009 winner of the Cronin Award for Early Achievement given by the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF). Recent research by Scully focuses on the circulation and layering of saltwater and freshwater in the Chesapeake Bay, which has long been plagued by periods of oxygen-poor, hypoxic water. Although the cause of this problem is often attributed to pollution and excessive nutrients, Scully’s research has shown that lateral circulation caused by wind blowing across the surface of the water has a greater effect on the amount of oxygen in the water than does pollution.

Research scientist Robert Tuleya is continuing at CCPO work he started on hurricane prediction models while with NOAA’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory. Since retiring from the federal laboratory and joining the ODU faculty in 2003 he has often found himself speaking with reporters, and has served as a source for stories in The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Washington Post. Tuleya is outspoken in his belief that a possible relationship between hurricanes and climate adds a new wrinkle to the problem of unabated coastal development in vulnerable places.

Model Forecasts Inundation in Storms

Hofmann and Klinck are participating in a project led by Daniel Dickerson, ODU associate professor of STEM education and professional studies, titled “Chesapeake Bay Watershed Education and Training Program: Science Education Advancing Research of the Chesapeake Bay and Its Habitats.” It is supported by $90,000 from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Elizabeth Smith, a CCPO research scientist, is executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Observing System (CBOS), which is part of the Mid-Atlantic Coastal Ocean Observing Regional Association (MACOORA) and the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS). She also is the coordinator for CBOS’s Chesapeake Inundation Prediction System (CIPS), which is funded by NOAA. CIPS is employing state-of-the-art, high-resolution atmospheric models to predict storm development, movement and intensity. These atmospheric models will be coupled with high-resolution oceanographic models that combine the effects of wind-driven ocean storm surges, waves, tides and river discharge to project inundation overland rather than just estimate water height at the shore.

Atkinson and Smith have been members of MACOORA since its inception. They, together with Blanco and Garner, have participated in observing activities that depend upon such modern tools as undersea robotic gliders and shore-based radar systems that generate continuous mapping of the surface currents in the lower Chesapeake Bay.

Andrea Piñones, a doctoral student at CCPO, received the best student poster award at the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research Open Science Meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia. Her work, together with Hofmann, Klinck and Dinniman, explores circulation dynamics off the Western Antarctic Peninsula.

Quest Winter 2010 • Volume 12 Issue 2