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PORTLAND, Ore. — The waters beneath the mouth of the Columbia River will look like a lunar exploration project over the next five years, with unmanned vehicles crawling along the bottom and sensors collecting and transmitting data — all helping scientists get a continous picture of the complex system.

It’s part of a federally funded project announced Tuesday that is intended to help scientists in the Pacific Northwest get a better understanding of the interaction between rivers and oceans.

The Center for Coastal Margin Observation and Prediction is a $24.6 million venture, largely funded by the National Science Foundation.

The new center, based in Portland, could make the Northwest a leader in the science of understanding coastal margins.

“We understand many ocean processes fairly well already … tides, waves, tsunamis,” said Antonio Baptista, director of the center and professor at Oregon Health and Science University’s OGI School of Science and Engineering. “We have now the opportunity to open windows into underwater worlds and processes that we have barely had a peek at.”

The National Science Foundation selected the Oregon school, working with Oregon State University and the University of Washington, to become the first Science and Technology Center to focus on coastal margins.

There are 17 such science and technology centers nationwide. This is the first to be hosted in Oregon.

The center will study the physical, chemical and biological processes that regulate river-to-ocean ecosystems along the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean. It will primarily focus on microbial life, the most basic of building blocks for the water, to measure how the waters are impacted by internal or external activities.

Coastal margins are among the most densely populated areas of the United States but are also subject to complex and intense stress from natural events and human activities, OHSU and the National Science Foundation said.

A better understanding of these areas can help science and environmental studies. By making the information readily available to the public and understandable, it can also assist in everyday decisions such as when to surf or go fishing, the National Science Foundation said.

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“It’s really compelling,” said Alexandra Isern, program director for the Ocean Technology and Interdisciplinary Coordination at the National Science Foundation. “They are not just studying the coast, but also the river-to-coast transition. That hasn’t really been done.”

Isern said there is a realization within the scientific community that coastal areas of the country are going through massive changes, as indicated by problems seen in Oregon such as altered salmon runs in the Columbia or the so-called dead zone in the Pacific. But there have been few mechanisms to effectively measure the changes.

She said this center aims to change that.

There will be as many as 200 people working on the project, ranging from full-time academic staff to assistance from business or educational partners.

The five-year program could be extended to a $39 million, 10-year program.

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