From climate mysteries to dead zones, an evolving computer model tackles Puget Sound’s eco-riddles

B8D6428F-17CC-4B91-A760-6B103AC015EDThe local population of Puget Sound orcas is in decline, having dropped to 73 animals. A computer model built by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is helping scientists studying industrial pollutants, one of the key threats to the killer whales’ survival. (NOAA Photo)

Lisa Stiffler, GeekWire

“Puget Sound — Washington’s inland sea — is a mysterious place. It’s the southern-most fjord in the lower 48 states. It’s fed by rivers that create shallow, mucky tideflats. In other spots it plunges more than 900 feet deep, giving it oceanic traits, but it doesn’t flow freely in and out of the Pacific Ocean. The main entrance and exit into the Sound is relatively narrow and shallow, creating a sort of bathtub that curtails the exchange of seawater and wildlife.

“The Sound is facing serious challenges. The beloved local orcas are in alarming decline, the human population and its polluting cars, roadways and buildings is growing, and the damaging effects of climate change loom large.

0FD5425D-F437-4B15-9260-706FDF189EFA“PNNL program manager Tarang Khangaonkar explains his research into the effects of climate change on Puget Sound. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)”

“But scientists are employing a sophisticated computer modeling tool to unravel some of the Puget Sound’s complex puzzles and trigger actions that can help safeguard the iconic Northwest waterway.

“We now are in a position where you can address some really important questions in Puget Sound,” said Joel Baker, director of the University of Washington’s Puget Sound Institute.

“One of the more surprising and hopeful results comes from a recently published study on climate change. It predicts that the Sound could in many ways fare a bit better than the Pacific Ocean when considering the damaging effects of a warmer world.

“The Salish Sea Model was built by scientists at the Seattle office of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), part of the U.S. Department of Energy. PNNL program manager Tarang Khangaonkar launched the project in 2008 in partnership with the state Department of Ecology. Their goal was to create a model that’s widely useful and built in a collaborative, transparent process…”

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