EPA gives $30 million to Puget Sound; but warming-related acidity attacks the food chain

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced today it's awarding $30 million to efforts to restore Puget Sound. Sounds like great news -- except that it was completely overshadowed by extraordinarily sobering new science unveiled today: Acidity levels in the Sound, driven by the same processes that are unnaturally warming the planet, appear to be dissolving the shells of oyster larvae. And the weak acid is killing plankton at the base of the food chain -- the one that provides sustenance for creatures all the way up to orcas. And people. 

Imagine a world without oysters. It means a lot more than just forgetting about oysters Rockefeller. Oysters are a basic part of the ecosystem, a big part of the processes that make the ocean what it is.

And then, given the news about the plankton, start considering a world without most forms of sea life that we currently know. It's not a big leap. Even for someone who has chronicled bad environmental news for more than two decades, this is an extremely grave development. 

Folks, this is really significant news. News reports from the Seattle Times, seattlepi.com and the Puget Sound Business Journal -- the early accounts that already are on line, at least* -- seem to count this as just one more strike against the Sound. But it's more. We're talking about harmful changes across the ecosystem at the cellular level. This is huge -- and hugely depressing -- news.

Puget Sound, because of natural processes and because of the carbon dioxide slurped up from the atmosphere by ocean waters, already is signficantly more acidic than the worldwide average for salt water. It only stands to get worse as our cars, power plants, factories and so forth continue to spew out the carbon dioxide that become acid in the oceans.

The research is a joint project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the University of Washington and the state Department of Ecology. Neither NOAA's press release nor the abstract of the research published this week in Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science make a causal link between the high acidity and the shellfish and plankton deaths.

But it's clear that's what researchers strongly suspect. And "more acidity = thinner shellfish shells" is not complicated chemistry. Here's what UW oceanographer Jan Newton had to say:

“This is the first time that the combined impacts of ocean acidification and other natural and human-induced processes have been studied in a large estuary like Puget Sound. We are concerned that ocean acidification may be contributing to the recent loss of oyster larvae reported by oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest including within Puget Sound.”

These shocking measurements were taken in 2008. The public wasn't informed until today because the scientists waited until their results were written up, submitted to a peer-reviewed journal, reviewed by said peers, and -- finally this week, about two years after the last measurements were taken -- published.

As for the $30 million being disbursed by EPA, it should be viewed in the context that last year, when the agency's pot of money for Puget Sound was $50 million. But with what's happened to government budgets, this represents a significant ongoing commitment to the Sound by EPA. Here's a map outlining of where the money is going.

-- Robert McClure

*Update 7/13: The Seattle Times' story in the dead-tree product this morning was a definite improvement from the version on the web yesterday, and seemed to grasp that this was pretty scary news. Here is Craig Welch's lede:

The waters in Puget Sound's main basin are acidifying as fast as those along the Washington Coast, where wild oysters have not reproduced since 2005.

And in parts of Hood Canal, home to much of the region's shellfish industry, water-chemistry problems are significantly worse than the rest of Puget Sound.

Scientists from the University of Washington and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warned Monday that the changing pH of the seas is hitting Puget Sound harder and faster than many other marine waters.

That increasingly corrosive water — a byproduct of carbon-dioxide releases from industries, power plants and vehicles — is probably already harming shellfish, and over time it could reverberate through the marine food chain.

One nitpick: Welch wasn't the only reporter who covered this story to fall into this trap, but I've found it's almost always better to not discuss "pH," and certainly you don't want to do it without warning your readers about what you're talking about. If I do bring up the word "pH" rather than simply talking about acidity versus alkalinity, I try very, very hard not to use any actual pH measurements in the copy, because then you have to explain that the pH scale is logarithmic and, well, it makes for less than easy-to-understand copy. (Never say never, of course. Remember Einstein's admonition: Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.)



Thanks, Carol. We aim to keep the public informed about many different aspects of Puget Sound's health, and it seemed that these developments warranted coverage.
Thank you for reporting with such excellent background and context on this critically important issue.