Featured Faculty: David Sutherland

As David Sutherland sees it, although Coos Bay lacks the glaciers of far-off Greenland’s majestic fjords, the nearby Oregon inlet is just as fascinating. Although Sutherland, an MIT-trained oceanographer, has conducted much of his research in Greenland, when he joined the UO Department of Geological Sciences and Environmental Studies Program faculties last September, he “wanted to work on something local and Oregon-centric.” Creating a computer model of the complex estuarine processes in Coos Bay fit the bill perfectly.

The Coos Bay modeling project is just getting underway. The first step is to gather data describing all of the physical variables that affect the dynamics of the estuary, including the seasonal amounts of water flowing out of Coos River, the area’s weather patterns, the tides, and the estuary’s bathymetry, or shape.

Not only are most of these variables constantly in flux, but they all influence each other, which makes creating a reliable model challenging, to say the least. In Coos Bay, Sutherland explains, “The river discharge is extremely seasonal, going from very wet during the winter storm season, to dry during the late summer and early fall. This change in river input has a drastic influence on the salt content of the estuary, and thus, on its currents, or circulation.” In turn, the circulation, which is also affected by the estuary’s bathymetry as well as by tides and winds, “can dictate the estuary’s salt and temperature distribution.”

To create a computer model of the complex interactions of all of these factors, Sutherland is drawing from tide gauges, meteorological observations, bathymetric charts, and weather models. To ensure that the model is accurate, he is also working with a graduate student who is collecting real-life observations in Coos Bay. “No model is complete without observations—you need to initialize it somehow and you need to validate it.”

Sutherland says of the modeling project, “This is not a pie-in-the-sky exercise, as the liquefied natural gas terminals being discussed for Coos Bay might require ships with a deeper draft, and thus, a deeper channel.” This could have environmental impacts that Sutherland’s model will be designed to help predict. “Changing the shape of the channel could alter the salt balance and circulation in the estuary,” which has the potential to drastically affect the habitats of aquatic species.

In addition to the Coos Bay project, Sutherland is also working on two projects on fjord circulation in Greenland, one funded by the National Science Foundation and the other by NASA. “It’s time-consuming planning for fieldwork in Greenland. But it’s extremely rewarding, both scientifically and from a traveling point of view. It’s a beautiful part of the world!” he says.

In the near future, Sutherland would also like to begin doing glacier-fjord system research in Alaska. “Ironically,” he says, “it is easier to obtain funding to work in Greenland than in Alaska even though the systems are very similar in terms of physical processes and travel to Alaska is much cheaper. The Greenland Ice Sheet is a bigger player in terms of potential sea level rise and is much less explored.”

When asked to reflect on his first year at the UO, during which he taught two large lecture courses in addition to conducting his new and ongoing research projects, Sutherland exclaims, “It’s been a whirlwind!” Of the environmental studies course he taught he says, “It was an amazing introduction to the Pacific Northwest environment and I learned a ton about the natural environs of the Willamette Valley through my interactions with the Environmental Studies Program.” He especially appreciated the opportunity to interact with his students outside of the classroom during the class’ Campus-Community Connections volunteering events.

Looking toward the future, Sutherland will be developing an advanced course in coastal oceanography, and hopes one day soon to teach a course on scientific writing or documentary filmmaking. “This is an area that we, as scientists, need practice in—communicating our results with the public. So we might as well start teaching it to our students too!”

In the long term, Sutherland dreams of using autonomous underwater vehicles called ocean gliders to further investigate Greenland’s fjords. “This would allow us to get data on water properties underneath ice where ships cannot go.” Sutherland also envisions developing “novel technologies for observing the ice-ocean interface in these glacier-fjord systems. Iceberg trackers, tagging marine mammals, etc. are all on the table!”

Most exciting, though, is that Sutherland and his wife, Kelly, who is also an oceanographer and UO professor, just became new parents: Marin Ashley Sutherland was born on November 27th. David jokes, “We’re hoping to raise a little salty Duck.”

Read about other Environmental Studies Program students and faculty members here.