Science & Environment

How the gray whale population busts and booms, clean snow means more snowpack, and more

By Jes Burns (OPB)
Dec. 18, 2023 2 p.m.

Five of the top illuminating, inspiring and just plain cool Pacific Northwest science stories from “All Science. No Fiction.”

A gray whale breaching in the Pacific Ocean.

A gray whale breaching in the Pacific Ocean.

Courtesey of NOAA

Seeing whales on the Oregon coast? Thank the Arctic

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Every December and January, thousands of gray whales swim south along the Northwest coast on their way to Mexico. The whales nearly went extinct because of whaling, but now they’re apparently hitting a ceiling on how many the ocean ecosystem can actually support. The whales have experienced several significant population declines (15-25% drops) and recoveries over the past few decades. In fact, we’re in one of these cycles right now.

Using long-term population data, researchers at Oregon State University, and Cascadia Research Collective and SeaLife Response, Rehabilitation, and Research in Washington have figured out the root cause of the booms and busts: conditions in the Arctic Ocean.

Gray whales go to the Arctic to feed, but when food is scarce and there’s too much sea ice, they can’t physically access enough ocean floor to get enough to eat. The researchers say these kinds of Arctic conditions caused population drops in the 1980s, 1990s and the more recent bust that began in 2019.

However, loss of sea ice due to climate change likely won’t be a boon for the whales either, say the scientists. The tiny sea creatures on the bottom that the whales eat rely on algae that grows under the ice to thrive.

Read the paper from the journal Science here.

Treating OCD and epilepsy

Thousands of people in the United States use deep brain stimulation each year to treat disorders like Parkinson’s, epilepsy and essential tremor. The treatment involves implanting electrodes in the brain and using mild electrical stimulation to control abnormal brain activity. It’s been life-changing for many.

Researchers at Oregon Health and Science University have published a first-of-its-kind case study of an Oregon woman who received a responsive neurostimulation system in 2019. The patient suffers from epilepsy and obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. When planning surgery for a brain implant targeting her epilepsy, she requested that the surgeon position it in a way that would help control her OCD as well.

Years later, the seizures are controlled, and the symptoms of her OCD are much less extreme, allowing her to live independently. The patient reported in the case study a reduction in the time she spends performing compulsions from 8 hours to 30 minutes per day.

This was the first time a single deep brain stimulation device was implanted and effective in treating both of these disorders.

Read the results of the case study in the journal Neuron here.

Klamath dam removals will help salmon

The largest dam removal and river restoration project in the world is happening right here in the Pacific Northwest. Four dams on the Klamath River will be dismantled by the end of next year, opening up hundreds of miles of habitat on a river that once boasted some of the largest salmon runs on the West Coast. It’s not often that dams come out, so there are still many questions about how much it’ll help the fish.

Researchers from Oregon State University, the Yurok, Hoopa Valley, Karuk and Klamath Tribes, and state and federal agencies brought together the available data to try to figure out the answers. Based on what they’ve found, they predict dam removal will indeed benefit salmon runs on the Klamath River.

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The scientists looked specifically at often-deadly fish parasites, including C. shasta, which have major impacts on salmon in the system.

The bad news: With dam removal, salmon will likely be spending more time in the river as they move into previously-blocked habitat upstream. Consequently, they’ll be in proximity to the native parasites for longer stretches of time.

The good news: Changes to water temperature cycles will help reduce the overlap between salmon and parasite populations thriving in warm water. In addition, without dams, river flows will become more dynamic and will help flush out parasite hotspots.

The scientists predict the good will have a more substantial impact, thus dam removal will be a net benefit to the fish.

Read the research in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution here.

Feeling guilty?

When was the last time you called your mother?

If that question churns in your belly like an under-chewed carrot, you probably intuitively understand the power of guilt.

But a recent analysis out of Washington State University shows that not all guilt is created equal, especially when trying to use that guilt to motivate people into action.

The researchers found that guilt is a more powerful motivator when it doesn’t get personal. Making someone feel personally responsible for a problem isn’t that effective.

But appealing to their larger desire to create a better world yielded better results. The researchers saw this particularly held true for issues like the environment, disaster appeals, social justice and education. It also helped to pair the guilt-based appeal with concrete actions that could be taken to fix the problem.

Read the paper in the journal Frontier in Psychology here.

The dark particles in dirty snow (right) absorb more sunlight, causing that snow to melt more quickly than cleaner snow.

The dark particles in dirty snow (right) absorb more sunlight, causing that snow to melt more quickly than cleaner snow.

Sara Levine / Courtesy of Pacific National Laboratory

Cleaner snow = more snowpack

Climate change spells trouble for snowpack in the Pacific Northwester. A large portion of the water we drink and use comes from snowmelt, and climate change means more of our precipitation will fall as rain rather than snow.

But researchers at the Pacific Northwest National Lab say the outlook for snowpack in the West isn’t quite as dire as we thought. The reason is that our snow is expected to get cleaner in the future. Even as our carbon emissions continue to rise, we’re emitting less particulate pollution into the air — specifically black carbon from the incomplete burning of fossil and other fuels.

The researchers found that black carbon contributes significantly to snowmelt because the dark particles landing on the surface absorb heat instead of reflecting it like clean, white snow would.

Looking at two future climate change scenarios, they calculated that cleaner snow will decrease overall expected snowpack loss by about 8%. And in a warmer future, 8% more snowmelt could make a big difference for farms, fish and people.

Read the research published in Nature Communications here.

In this monthly rundown from OPB, “All Science. No Fiction.” creator Jes Burns features the most interesting, wondrous and hopeful science coming out of the Pacific Northwest.

And remember: Science builds on the science that came before. No one study tells the whole story.

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