Tag Archives: Ocean acidification

Washington leading on ocean acidification

Ocean acidification is hitting Washington’s shellfish industry even before we begin to experience the full effects of climate change, and Gov. Chris Gregoire placed this state in the forefront of action Tuesday when she signed an executive order on the issue.

The order supports the findings of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification. Check out the story I wrote for yesterday’s Kitsap Sun.

The panel released the report during an hour-long presentation of the findings. If you have time, I recommend watching the informative presentation, provided by TVW in the player at right.

The executive summary of the report, as well as the full report, its appendices and the governor’s order, can be downloaded from panel’s webpage on the Washington Department of Ecology website.

Gregoire’s order is considered the first state-level action on ocean acidification — and that has attracted attention from across the country. For example, stories were written by environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin of the Washington Post and by Virginia Gewin of Nature magazine.

Ocean acidification has been called the “evil twin” of global warming, because the effects can be more swift and more severe than gradual warming of the Earth. That’s not to discount other serious effects of climate change, including increased frequency of severe storms, sea level rise with increasing flooding, and heat waves with crippling effects on agriculture. But acidification affects organisms at the base of the entire food web.

The effects of ocean acidification will not be reversed for a long, long time, even if greenhouse gas emissions are brought under control. The upwelling of old water along the coast brings this problem right to our doorstep now and for the foreseeable future.

The shift from coal to natural gas, along with the downturn in the economy, has significantly reduced emissions of carbon dioxide in this country the past couple years, but the levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases continue to go up.

“Climate change is taking place before our eyes and will continue to do so as a result of the concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which have risen constantly and again reached new records,” said Michel Jarraud, secretary-general for the World Meteorological Association, in a press release issued yesterday.

The WMA reported that the years 2001–2011 were all among the warmest on record, and it appears that 2012 will continue the trend, despite a cooling influence from La Niña early this year.

“Naturally occurring climate variability due to phenomena such as El Niño and La Niña impact on temperatures and precipitation on a seasonal to annual scale,” Jarraud said. “But they do not alter the underlying long-term trend of rising temperatures due to climate change as a result of human activities.

“The extent of Arctic sea ice reached a new record low. The alarming rate of its melt this year highlighted the far-reaching changes taking place on Earth’s oceans and biosphere,” he added.

Environmental correspondent Alister Doyle reported today for Reuters that the United Nations Panel on Climate Change now believes that it is more certain than ever that humans are the primary cause of global warming.

In its 2007 report, the panel pegged the certainty at more than 90 percent. Now, it appears likely that the scientists will increase that certainty in the next report in 2013, said Rajendra Pachauri, head of the panel who spoke with Doyle at a climate conference in Qatar.

“We certainly have a substantial amount of information available by which I hope we can narrow the gaps, increase the level of certainty of our findings,” he said, adding that analyses also will increase the predicted rate of sea-level rise.

Meanwhile, the “Draft National Ocean Policy and Implementation Plan” is still undergoing review by the National Ocean Council. The report contains a chapter called “Resiliency and Adaptation to Climate Change and Ocean Acidification” (PDF 732 kb). That chapter contains some of the same recommendations offered by Washington state’s Blue Ribbon Panel, but the state plan is more specific and comes with a recommended $3.3 million budget to begin work on the problem.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, is attempting to derail the plan, saying it creates an unnecessary bureaucracy and asserts federal controls not approved by Congress. Read the news release about House action against the plan.

I have not talked to anyone on the council lately, but it appears that President Obama’s election campaign over the past year effectively derailed any movement on this issue. In his first press conference after the election, he pledged to jump-start the climate-change effort, but no mention was made of the ocean policy. Review the video below at 42:20.

Ocean acidification effects noted in Hood Canal

I was caught off guard yesterday when scientists studying Hood Canal and Puget Sound announced that ocean acidification could be worse in inland waterways than in the ocean. I received a quick chemistry lesson from Richard Feeley of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Experimental Laboratory and rushed a story into today’s Kitsap Sun.

I have written about ocean acidification in Water Ways in the past. (See June 2, 2009; July 9, 2009; Jan. 22, 2010; March 18, 2010; and April 19, 2010.) I’ve also written about the troubles in oyster hatcheries with the bacteria Vibrio tubiashii (Kitsap Sun, June 18, 2008). But now growing evidence is revealing a close relation between these problems and a threat to some vital critters at the base of the food web.

Jan Newton, an oceanographer who has studied Hood Canal for years, along with her colleagues at the University of Washington have patiently helped me understand the science behind the low-oxygen problems in Hood Canal. I’ve passed much of that information on to readers of the Kitsap Sun and Watching Our Water Ways.

I asked Jan yesterday if she was ready to guide me through this new science behind ocean acidification in Hood Canal and the double-whammy effect connected to the dissolved oxygen problem.

Dick Feeley pointed out a basic problem facing aquatic animals, almost all of which require oxygen to survive. As carbon dioxide levels increase, the rate of respiration increases to obtain enough oxygen for the animals to go about their lives. If oxygen levels are low, the animals will expend more energy just to survive. Some of them may become more sluggish and unable to increase their food intake at the very time they need to replenish their energy reserves.

These kinds of subtle — or not so subtle — effects need to be examined to understand the risks to the entire food web of Hood Canal and Puget Sound.

As for critters with shells, ocean acidification can inhibit shell growth when the animals are tiny and in their free-swimming larval stage — the most vulnerable time of their lives.

I have many questions to explore in the coming weeks and months, as researchers examine new data they are gathering. I’m still reviewing the research report published in the August issue of “Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science.” which can be purchased online for $19.95. Stay tuned for more.

Study shows increasing acidity in Northeast Pacific

For those of us concerned about sealife, the issue of ocean acidification is beginning to be at least as worrisome as rising ocean temperatures.

The first direct evidence of ocean acidification across a broad expanse of ocean was revealed this week in a new report detailing an ongoing study focused on waters between Hawaii and Alaska.

Ocean acidification, related to the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is believed to be affecting the ocean’s food web, beginning with creatures that form external shells of calcium and carbonate.

A new report, based on direct measurements of acidity at the ocean’s surface, as well as biological changes down to half a mile, show an increase in acid concentrations. Principal investigator Robert Byrne of the University of South Florida said there is no longer any doubt that increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere are affecting the world’s oceans.

“If this happens in a piece of ocean as big as a whole ocean basin, then this is a global phenomenon,” Byrne said in a news release.

Scientists from 11 academic institutions and two labs operated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are taking part in a long-term study of ocean conditions in the Northeast Pacific Ocean, where changes are happening rapidly.

Christopher Sabine, one of the leaders of the investigation, commented in the news release:

“It is now established from models that there is a strong possibility that dissolved carbon dioxide in the ocean surface will double over its pre-industrial value by the middle of this century, with accompanying surface ocean pH decreases that are greater than those experienced during the transition from ice ages to warm ages. The uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide by the ocean changes the chemistry of the oceans and can potentially have significant impacts on the biological systems in the upper oceans.”

We have talked before in Water Ways about ocean acidification, but in a more speculative way. More information is coming out all the time. An excellent synthesis of current knowledge can be found in the latest issue of the journal “Oceanography.” Although somewhat technical, the subject is broken down into focused articles that are easy to get through. I recommend that anyone who cares about the oceans spend a little time with this online information.

For a more general description, check out the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory’s page on Ocean Acidification including a brief fact sheet (PDF 280 kb) on the topic.

Sandi Daughton, science reporter for the Seattle Times, wrote about the latest findings in a story on Wednesday.

Ocean acidification deserves more research attention

Ocean acidification off the U.S. Pacific Coast is likely to get increased attention and research dollars with Jane Lubchenco heading the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Lubchenco, a marine ecologist from Oregon State University, has served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and is well grounded in basic research.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Lubchenco discusses some of her priorities, including how NOAA is addressing climate change, along with a report released by her agency in June called “Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States.”

While I was disappointed that the climate report did not include more about the growing concerns related to chemical changes off the coasts of Washington and Oregon, Lubchenco stated clearly in this interview that she believes more research is needed regarding ocean acidification:

“The oceans are indeed becoming more acidic, as a result of absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and that acidity represents a very real threat to much of the life in oceans, ranging from the smallest microscopic plants, to coral reefs, to things that form shells — mussels, oysters, clams — but even things like lobsters and crabs.

“We’ve only begun to scratch the surface in terms of really understanding the full range of the impacts of ocean acidification, and it also affects physiology, not just the making of shells and skeletons.”

Specifically about the Pacific Northwest:

“NOAA has been in the forefront in the research on ocean acidification, and is working in close collaboration with the leading academics on this issue. And we have identified the urgent need to have more instruments in the water tracking and measuring the changes that are underway, so we can better understand the dynamics. And, as you point out, along the West Coast where there is upwelling, there appears to be an area that is already significantly affected, and we’re seeing much greater changes than I think anyone anticipated.

“They’re seeing very low pH levels and the other chemistry that goes along with that, it’s not simply a matter of pH. There are other chemical changes in the ocean water that affect plants and animals, and the rate at which they can make shells, or the rate at which shells are dissolved.

“I just learned today of some very interesting work being done by NOAA and some academic scientists looking at some deep-sea volcanoes in the western Pacific where there is carbon dioxide that is bubbling up from beneath the ocean, and likely causing lower pH in the immediate vicinity of the areas where the bubbles are emerging. And so there are places where it is possible to investigate the consequences of lower pH on the immediate biota in the area. But setting that aside, I think there is great urgency in significantly ramping up research monitoring and research programs on ocean acidification.”

I believe you may find the entire interview worth reading. As an environmental reporter, I think it will be important to follow how research dollars will be spent in the Northwest to investigate these potential life-and-death changes.

Attack of ocean acids could be the basis of a scary movie

I would like to confess something here: I am more afraid of the oceans growing more acidic than any of the other consequences of climate change — including drought, floods, reduced snow pack, sea level rise, arctic ice disappearing…

I’m not sure why ocean acidification scares me, but it probably has to do with the fact that I am not very grounded in the science. I need to learn more about the chemistry of the oceans and what concentrations of acidic compounds cause severe problems.

I remember learning, during my school days in chemistry lab, how strong acids can dissolve almost anything but glass. I still can hear the hissing sound and and see vapors rising during acid-base reactions. On an emotional level, I don’t want to be swimming around in acid, and I don’t want our friends, the sea creatures, to be doing so, either.

If you want to produce a scary movie, forget about violent encounters with giant squid and surprise attacks by a great white shark. Here’s how I would write the movie trailer:

Scene: The dark surface of the wayward sea.
Cue the ominous music, then the announcer: “Sea life cannot survive without water, yet something strange is lurking beneath the waves. Do you dare touch the water, knowing that the water itself can bring death? What can anyone do against this growing menace we call ACID?”

Water should be neutral, a pH of 7.0. OK, I know this doesn’t happen in real life, but I don’t want the oceans’ acid levels to stray too far off that mark.

Seriously, notable scientists are telling us that ocean acidification may be starting to affect the entire food web, because of its effects on certain plankton and all sorts of shelled critters. If what they say is true, ocean acidification really is quite scary.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported that the Center for Biological Diversity is suing the federal government to protect the oceans under the Clean Water Act. (See Water Ways, May 15.) Washington was chosen as the test case, because upwelling of ocean water makes the West Coast especially vulnerable to acidification. We’ll see how this lawsuit works out in court, since the data remain a bit sketchy.

Yesterday, at least 70 “Academy of Sciences” groups from throughout the world warned that ocean acidification is not getting enough attention and should get more of a focus in international discussions — including a December meeting in Copenhagen. (Check out the InterAcademy Panel’s announcement about ocean acidification.)

Chen Zhu, minister of health in the People’s Republic of China, and Howard Alper, chairman and president of Science, Technology and Innovation Council, Canada, are serving as co-chairs of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues. They said in a statement:

“There has been much talk among the science community over the past few years about ocean acidification and its potentially catastrophic consequences, but it has failed to receive the political attention it demands. Its absence from discussions to-date is of immense concern, and we call for its immediate inclusion as a vital part of the climate change agenda.”

At the same time, a new study by Sarah Cooley and Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported that ocean acidification and its effects on marine organisms will have direct and indirect effects on the U.S. economy and its $3.8 billion in annual commercial harvests. The report was published in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” (PDF 381 kb).

Publications covering this story include:
The Guardian, The New York Times — Greenwire, and The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

Washington state faces lawsuit over ocean acidification

Washington state has been established as a test case for regulating greenhouse gases through the federal Clean Water Act.

A lawsuit brought yesterday by the Center for Biological Diversity is the first legal case to assert that the Environmental Protection Agency must take action under a water law to reduce carbon dioxide in the air and ultimately save sea creatures.

“Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “The EPA has a duty under the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waters from pollution. Today, CO2 is one of the biggest threats to our ocean waters.”
Click here to download the legal filing (PDF 192 kb).

Sakashita told me that Washington state was chosen as the first case because studies have revealed particular problems with ocean acidity along the West Coast. Also, the Washington Department of Ecology recently updated its list of impaired water bodies without mentioning the acidity problem. And EPA endorsed that list.

A study published in the journal “Science” suggests that the upwelling of ocean waters along the West Coast could increase acidification faster than other parts of the county.

A separate study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences confirms links between acidity in the ocean and atmospheric carbon dioxide. That study also describes effects on the ecosystem, including a bleak future for shelled organisms, including mussels.

“Our results indicate that pH decline is proceeding at a more rapid rate than previously predicted in some areas, and that this decline has ecological consequences for near-shore benthic ecosystems,” states a summary of the report.

Scientists have expressed concerns that ocean acidification could have serious consequences for a variety of shelled creatures, including corals, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins and some plankton. High acid levels can prevent the formation of shell material and could disrupt the food web.

For background information, see a EurekAlert from last May. I also discussed the issue in a Water Ways entry in November.

The Clean Water Act requires states to identify impaired waters that fail to meet water-quality standards. In Washington, the Department of Ecology assumes jurisdiction over enforcement of the law. In January, EPA approved Washington’s list of impaired waters, also called the 303(d) list, without mentioning acidification.

“Ocean acidification is not some distant threat that can be shunted off to future decision-makers; it has already arrived, and we have to acknowledge and deal with the problem right now,” said Sakashita in a news release. “EPA has all the evidence it needs to act to begin protecting our waters from ocean acidification. Further delay is simply not justified.”

Sandy Howard, spokeswoman for Ecology, said her agency is not ducking from the issue. In fact, Gov. Chris Gregoire is one of the nation’s leaders on climate change. The problem, she told me, is that the agency never received the precise data to show that the oceans are impaired by acidity.

Ecology’s response to Sakashita’s letter (PDF 16 kb) includes this comment:

“Our state law requires that actual data be used for 303(d) listing purposes, rather than broader studies and assumptions about the status of waters. Ecology reviewed the studies that were submitted in previous correspondence and could find no monitoring data relevant to specific marine water body segments in Washington.”

Some of the more recent studies, which are still fairly general, may not have been available when Ecology completed its list, and ocean acidity is not easy to measure. Howard said Ecology is open to reconsidering the acidity issue for its next impaired waters list.

When a water body is listed as impaired, Ecology normally proceeds to identify the sources of pollution and establish limits for each source or group of sources. In the case of acidity, the state faces a major problem, Howard noted, because many of the sources of carbon dioxide are likely to be in foreign countries, where the state has no authority to act.

Sakashita argues that under the Clean Water Act, the EPA should take steps to limit the amount of carbon dioxide going into the air.

Sakashita’s letter to Ecology — as well as other letters and responses — can be found on a Web page addressing Ecology’s Water Quality Assessment.