Bay conference weighs tides of global change

Posted: Monday, April 22, 2002

Scientists from California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alaska gathered the weekend of April 12-14 to quantify, qualify and generally discuss the indicators and methods of measuring the changes in our global, regional and local environment.

The Kachemak Bay Science Conference unfolded like any good conversation, with many tough questions asked and some thoughtful answers offered, with people of different backgrounds sharing experiences both technological and aboriginal. The focus was as close as a single tide pool and as broad as the Pacific.

There were chemical and physical oceanographers, forest ecologists, marine, estuarine, terrestrial and fisheries biologists. And in a departure from traditional science, the Native community contributed their environmental observations.

A departure from most forums of its sort, the interdisciplinary approach illuminated areas of research that were both vast and small, foreign and familiar.

"The truth will come from a collective effort," Oregon State University oceanographer Ricardo Letelier concluded. "It is not going to come from one single data set or one single experiment."

In the end, the presenters produced an image of a planet of remarkable interconnectivity and stunning complexity.

During his closing address, Tim Barnett of the Scripts Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, Calif., described how the global climate trends he has measured affect the northern Gulf of Alaska and Kachemak Bay.

In 1998, Barnett said, an El Nino-generated pulse of ocean rode the coastal currents of the Pacific Northwest, carrying warm-water fish far to the north. Striped marlin were caught off British Columbia, great whites off Yakutat, giant sunfish in Cook Inlet, and yellowtail off Kodiak.

"This coastal current is a one-way street for these fish" and when the winter comes they die, he said. "Nonetheless, this is a message that's come 13,000 miles."

Barnett also explained another major periodic temperature shift, called north Pacific oscillation. Working on a 20-year time scale, it complicates climate research as it overlaps the months of El Nino and other global warming trends.

The north Pacific oscillation has proven to greatly affect Alaska salmon catches, Barnett said, with good returns typically coming during the warm cycle. Unfortunately, he added, it appears that the phenomenon has just shifted into a cold cycle, meaning Alaska salmon fisherman should expect weak salmon runs over the next 20 years.

Barnett produced a stack of data supporting a global warming trend, largely thought to be the product of rapidly increasing amounts of human-produced carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases trapped in the earth's atmosphere.

Despite what his computer-generated predictions clearly show, one stunning revelation Barnett made was the result of a bit of grass-roots research at Homer Airport.

Using snowfall and temperature averages over 10-year periods from the airport logs, Barnett presented the audience with a startling graph. Over the past 50 years, Homer's winters have been warmer, shorter and with less snowfall.

With about 250 people attending, including a solid showing from the general public, the event "went better than my expectations," Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies executive director Marilyn Sigman said.

Many of the scientists were doubly glad to be attending, as the event, originally scheduled for mid-September, was canceled following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"We basically had to plan the conference twice," Sigman said.

The center, along with the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve, organized the three-day event, which involved a host of science talks in Homer High School's Mariner Theatre on Friday and Saturday, followed Sunday by a round-table discussion and luncheon at the Otter Cove Resort.

The Otter Cover session deliberated the role of science in the more populist sense how can science, in searching to explain the function of the natural world, best serve the public?

It is important for science to make its findings available and understandable to the public, participants concluded.

"It was very invigorating to see how the people of Homer came out to participate in this and to see how connected they are to what is around them," Oregon State University oceanographer Scott Pegau said as he gestured in the direction of the Bay and the hazy Kenai Range beyond.

"I think that most of us will take as much inspiration from that as we will from the (science)."

Sepp Jannotta is a reporter for the Homer News.

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