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    Scientists tracking Pacific 'dead zone'

    NEWPORT, Oregon (AP) -- His hand on a toggle switch and his eyes on a computer screen, Oregon State University graduate student Anthony Kirincich uses an array of scientific instruments to probe the vibrant waters of the Pacific.

    He is searching for the absence of life.

    Standing next to him in the cramped cabin of the research vessel Elakha, postdoctoral researcher Francis Chan processes water samples, measuring oxygen and the microscopic plants that are the foundation of the food chain.

    Both are hunting for very low levels of oxygen, a sign of what scientists call the Dead Zone. Researchers think the appearance of such an area that cannot sustain life may be a sign of a fundamental change in the Pacific.

    "This is definitely a cat-and-mouse game," because the dead zone keeps ebbing to and from the shore and changing characteristics, Chan said. "It really takes us almost daily trips to really pinpoint the data."

    Two years ago when local fishermen started hauling up pots filled with dead crabs, scientists figured out that a huge mass of sub-Arctic water with very low levels of oxygen and high levels of nutrients had welled up from the ocean's depths and settled in for the summer on the Continental Shelf off central Oregon.