Tag Archives: ocean acidity

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.

Ocean acidity gets action from scientists and enviros alike

Increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are turning the oceans more acidic, according to scientists who have been raising alarms for years.

The acidity threatens the marine food web, with the most direct effects on the shells and skeletons of shellfish and corals, since their absorption of calcium carbonate is reduced in a more acidic environment.

Let’s take note of a few new milestones, although nobody has a practical idea for responding to the threat without addressing the entire issue of global warming.

First, and none too soon, the first comprehensive national study of ocean acidity was commissioned last month by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. See Oct. 20 news release.

The study followed an international symposium in early October, called the “Second International Symposium on the Ocean in a High CO2 World.” The meeting’s chairman, James Orr of the International Atomic Energy Agency, had this to say in a prepared statement:

“Since the industrial revolution, the acidity of ocean surface waters has increased by 30 percent. This change is greater and happening about 100 times faster than for previous acidification events experienced in many millions of years…

“Published research indicates that by 2030, the Southern Ocean will start to become corrosive to the shells of some marine snails that swim in surface waters. These snails provide a major source of food for Pacific Salmon.

“If they decline or disappear in some regions, such as the North Pacific, what will happen to the salmon – and the salmon fishing industry? And what will happen as ocean acidification increasingly affects coral reefs, which are home to one-quarter of the world’s fish during at least part of their lifetime, and which support a multi-billion dollar tourist industry?”

Finally, the Center for Biological Diversity today issued a notice to the Environmental Protection Agency saying it intends to sue the federal government for failure to respond to the threat of ocean acidification. Last year, the environmental group filed a formal petition asking EPA to impose stricter pH standards for ocean water quality and to publish guidance to help states protect U.S. waters.

A press release from the center includes these comments:

The federal Clean Water Act requires the EPA to update water-quality criteria to reflect the latest scientific knowledge. Since the agency developed the pH standard back in 1976, an extensive body of research has developed on the impacts of carbon dioxide on the oceans.

“Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity’s oceans program. “The EPA has a duty under the Clean Water Act to protect our nation’s waters from pollution, and today, carbon dioxide is one of the biggest threats to our ocean waters.”

It appears the Center for Biological Diversity is launching a flank attack on the global warming issue via the Clean Water Act, which allows citizen lawsuits. A similar flank maneuver involved the effort to get the polar bear protected under the Endangered Species Act as a result of melting ice caused by global warming. See CBD press release.

Clearly, environmental groups are not waiting for a new administration to move into the White House or to see how President Barack Obama might address the threat of global warming.