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Oceanographer Scully Wins Prestigious NSF Career Award

Malcolm Scully, an Old Dominion University physical oceanographer, has received a prestigious Faculty Early Career Development award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) that will support his innovative research of oxygen-depleted areas of the Chesapeake Bay.

The young researcher's work so far with computer models and historical data suggests that bay cleanup efforts have been more successful than many environmentalists have thought. He believes the large "dead zones" that have developed in recent summers may have been exacerbated by physical factors such as wind.

He was awarded $750,000 for a five-year project, "Career: Physical Modulation of Dissolved Oxygen in Chesapeake Bay," that will give him the opportunity to conduct extensive field tests in the bay. ODU is providing matching funds of nearly $70,000 to give Scully access to the university's 55-foot research vessel, the Fay Slover.

"This is a top award from the NSF to junior faculty members," said Mohammad Karim, the ODU vice president for research. "Career development awards were created to accelerate the research programs of the brightest young faculty and high standards are used in the selection process."

Chris Platsoucas, dean of the College of Sciences, added: "The career award to Dr. Scully is more evidence that we are attracting top young researchers to the university and that oceanography is one of our specific strengths."

Scully is the fifth ODU faculty member to receive an NSF career development award since the program began nearly 15 years ago.

Recent research by Scully has focused on the circulation and mixing between layers of salt and fresh waters in the Chesapeake Bay, which has long been plagued by periods of oxygen-poor, hypoxic water, the cause of which is most often attributed to pollution and excessive nutrients.

Nutrients such as sewage or nitrogen-rich fertilizer runoff can cause algal blooms that deny sunlight to the oxygen-producing seagrasses on the bay bottom. When the algae die, they sink and are decomposed by bacteria in a process that depletes the oxygen in the water.

But puzzling findings have come from measurements in the bay during the past decade. Extensive dead zones have persisted even after strides were made in pollution abatement.

Scully hypothesizes that reductions in the extent of hypoxia in the bay haven't accompanied nutrient reductions because of subtle changes in wind patterns.

According to his project summary, wind-driven lateral circulation plays a key role in supplying dissolved oxygen to regions susceptible to hypoxia, and the effectiveness of this mechanism is strongly influenced by wind direction.

A model he has already developed shows that hypoxic zones are more extensive when summer winds blow out of the west and southwest. Winds blowing out of the southeast, on the other hand, help reduce the extent of hypoxic waters. The model shows that winds from the south and southeast are more effective because they force water from the deep hypoxic areas up onto the shoals where it is much easier to add oxygen.

"My research demonstrates that the size of the dead zone is very sensitive to summer wind direction and that over the last several decades the summer winds over the bay have been more favorable to large dead zones," Scully said. "My work also shows that when you account for the variability in summer wind direction, the long-term trend in the observed size of the dead zone each summer is largely consistent with the estimates of nutrient inputs to the bay.

"This is important from a management point of view. It demonstrates that nutrient reduction strategies are helping to improve water quality. My work also highlights the inherent variability that is related to physical processes. Understanding this variability is important to how we make management decisions. For instance, if the public and resource managers feel that regulatory actions are having no impact, their views on how to regulate this resource may change."

The NSF-funded work will also include a major education component. "The public awareness and local importance of hypoxia in the bay make it an ideal socio-scientific issue for a context-based education plan for students and the general public in southeastern Virginia," Scully said.

He plans to develop a Summer Hypoxia/Anoxia Research Program (SHARP) that will provide unique research opportunities for undergraduate students, including underrepresented minorities through a partnership with Hampton University. He will also integrate hypoxia data into the Chesapeake Interactive Modeling Program (CHIMP), a simulator developed at ODU that shows how such things as river flows and wind direction affect the bay. CHIMP will be made available to educators, science centers and museums.

Scully, who is an assistant professor in Department of Ocean, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and affiliated with ODU's Center for Coastal Physical Oceanography, was named the 2009 winner of the Cronin Award for Early Achievement by the international Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation (CERF). His work was described in a CERF news release as a significant breakthrough in understanding the physics of estuaries.

He received his doctorate from the College of William and Mary in 2005. He did postgraduate work at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution before accepting a job at ODU in 2008. His graduate work on sediment gravity flows resulted in six peer-reviewed papers, one of which has been cited 44 times. His graduate and postdoctoral research on estuarine processes has produced another six journal articles.

This article was posted on: June 9, 2010

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