USC researchers, Columbia teachers head west to study climate change along Oregon coast
USC researcher Brian Helmuth is hoping some of the simplest sea creatures can teach us about climate change. That’s why the biological sciences professor in the College of Arts and Sciences has traveled to the rocky coast of Oregon for the past 12 years, looking at changes in marine organisms such as sea stars and mussels.
This summer, he took along a group of elementary school teachers to help with research and to bring home their experiences to their students.
“It would be fantastic if we could bring every school kid in South Carolina into the field, but we can’t do it,” Helmuth said. “So how do we translate the smell and feel and touch of all this so we can get kids excited about science?”
The teachers were from Columbia’s Center for Inquiry, a joint venture between USC and Richland District 2. After workshops at USC, the group headed to two research reserves – Strawberry Hill and Boiler Bay – about 50 miles apart on the Oregon coast. A wealth of data from more than 30 years of studies of the areas’ waters and sea life has made it a model for similar ecosystems around the world.
The researchers worked in heavy boots and rain gear, plucking sea stars from tidal pools, measuring them and recording their body temperatures. To get an “organism’s eye view” of the world, Helmuth uses a combination of fieldwork, remote sensing and mathematical modeling to explore how the environment determines the animals’ body temperatures. A major goal of his work, which is funded by the National Science Foundation and NASA, is to predict where and when climate change is likely to have the greatest impact.
For Helmuth, who also is director of the university’s Environment and Sustainability Program, and his fellow researchers, the work is an opportunity to learn more about the complexities of climate change. For example, they have learned that some animals off the Oregon coast have higher body temperatures than those off California, even though the air temperature is warmer farther south. But in California, low tides tend to occur at night, meaning there could be “hot spots” along Oregon’s coast subjecting the animals to warmer water temperatures. That knowledge can help researchers predict when weather trends threaten marine animals.
Wenyuan Xu, a professor in USC’s College of Engineering and Computing, is working with Helmuth to develop a tiny instrument that can measure, record and transmit temperatures in real time to scientists around the world. The device was tested in Oregon and will get another test at USC’s Baruch Institute for Marine and Coastal Studies near Georgetown, S.C.
For the teachers, the images and stories from the Oregon coast are just part of what they will bring back to their classrooms. They also will bring a renewed sense of curiosity.
“The childlike explorative spirit lives in all of us – even as adults – that spirit of investigation that is often left out of the classroom,” said Scott Johnson, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders at the Center for Inquiry. “It’s such a treat to experience it again.”
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