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Editorial: Forecasting ocean conditions is smart

Published on June 27, 2016 12:01AM

We’re at the dawn of forecasting what to expect from the planet’s oceans. J-SCOPE, a collaboration between the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is showing promise as a sophisticated way of looking into the previously blank slate of the Pacific Ocean offshore Oregon, Washington, Puget Sound and Canada’s Vancouver Island.

What happens in the ocean can have massive impacts on land. The vast area of warmer-than-normal seawater called The Blob brought drought and severe forest fires to the Pacific Northwest in 2014 and 2015, and probably contributed to formation of a toxic algal bloom that disrupted the multi-million dollar recreation razor clam season last year, while also delaying commercial crabbing. Beyond economic considerations, the algae caused untold suffering among birds, marine mammals and other wildlife.

Research published earlier this month shows J-SCOPE is useful in predicting a variety of ocean conditions, including water oxygen, temperature, chlorophyll and pH. Scientists also are working on a forecast of sardine abundance and may extend their efforts to another important fish species, hake, also known as whiting.

What good does it do to know what’s about to happen in the ocean? Knowing, for instance, that July and August water temperatures will be warmer than usual could help with decisions about preparing for fire season. Hydro-system operators might better time releases of reservoir reserves. This foreknowledge could even help communities anticipate the danger of seashore drownings by tourists lured into more comfortable waters. While there is as yet no prospect of being able to intervene and block toxin algal blooms, someday there may be, and knowing ocean conditions are primed for a bloom could be key to managing them.

J-SCOPE is very promising. It deserves our attention and tax-dollar support. U.S. investment in science saves lives and money.


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