ocean acidification

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

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.

Rita Hibbard's picture

Greenhouse gases are amping ocean acidification, 15-year study shows

If there is any doubt that greenhouse gas emissions have extensive, far-reaching effects on our planet, the newly released results of a careful, long-term study should put any remaining confusion to rest. New research shows the Pacific Ocean is becoming more acidic, weakening shellfish and other marine life at a scarily fast clip - resulting in a 6 percent jump in ocean water acidity over the past 15 years in the top 300 feet of the ocean.

rita_hibbardwebOcean acidification is caused by carbon dioxide from cars, factories and power plants that causes global greenhouse effects and also dissolves in the ocean, writes Seattle Times science reporter Sandi Doughton.

The process makes seawater slightly more acidic, and also gobbles up carbonate, a basic building block of seashells. The higher acid environment dissolves shells, and kills plankton, marine snails and other small creatures that supply food for the rest of the marine ecosystem. Highly acidic water also kills fish eggs.

The result:

The most extensive survey of pH levels in the Pacific Ocean confirms what spot measurements have suggested: From Hawaii to Alaska, the upper reaches of the sea are becoming more acidic in concert with rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

"The fact that we saw this very significant change over the last 15 years is a reminder of how mankind is affecting the oceans at an ever-increasing rate," said report co-author Richard Feely, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

The research teams measured acidity along 2,800 miles of ocean between Oahu and Kodiak in 1991, and returned in 2006 aboard a University of Washington research vessel, analyzing nearly 1,500 water samples over two months.

Activists shine light on issues getting short shrift inside Copenhagen climate negotiations

The scene outside the global climate talks in Copenhagen is a cornucopia of innovative artwork, inspiring panel discussions and provocative characters with fascinating stories to tell, the InvestigateWest team reports.

In fact, there were so many interesting events and people that the sheer number made it hard to focus on any one today, InvestigateWest correspondent Alexander Kelly told me by Skype just now.

But he’s focused enough to know that he will be doing a piece on the critique of cap-and-trade, which many economists and politicians promote but which many environmentalists in Copenhagen this week oppose.

[caption id="attachment_6879" align="alignleft" width="226" caption="In this panel discussion at a symposium known as KlimatForum09, Hanne Marstrand Strong, president of the Manitou Foundation, based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado speaks of her group, which provides land grants and financial support to religious organizations and environmental groups. InvestigateWest photo by Mark Malijan."]In this panel discussion at a symposium known as KlimatForum09, Hanne Marstrand Strong, president of the Manitou Foundation, based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado speaks of her group, which provides land grants and financial support to religious organizations and environmental groups. InvestigateWest photo by Mark Malijan.[/caption]

And he’s considering writing about ocean acidification, which is a big concern to the maritime community of the Pacific Northwest.

Folks -- are there climate-related topics you’d like to hear about that probably are being discussed in Copenhagen?

Superfreakonomics, Schmuperfreakonomics. Solving climate change just ain't that easy.

An economics professor who went on the Jon Stewart Show to flog his book Superfreakonomics the other night has been taking a flogging in the blogosphere. Reason: The book points out ways to fight climate change without reducing consumption of carbon-based fuels. The favorite idea of economist-author Steven Levitt: Pump sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, which has a shading effect (and mimics what happens when a big volcano blows.)

Now, I was an economics minor. I'm open to solutions that make sense, harness markets and save money. This isn't one of them. I'm here today to tell you a bit about why, but also to argue that we are going to need to find technological solutions to global warming, and they might not all be pretty.

[caption id="attachment_5869" align="alignright" width="133" caption="University of Calgary researcher David Keith with his machine, which he says pulls carbon dioxide from the air. Why is he getting so little attention compared to the Superfreakonomics authors? Ken Benditksen photo, courtesy University of Calgary"]University of Calgary researcher David Keith with his machine, which he says pulls carbon dioxide from the air. Why is he getting so little attention compared to the Superfreakonomics authors? Ken Benditksen photo, courtesy University of Calgary[/caption]

Recall that back in economics class, when the professor described an effect, it would only be after first giving the caveat that we were holding constant all the other variables.

New ocean woe: acidification

Alaskan fisheries have a new woe to add to the list: ocean acidification. Research at the University of Alaska Fairbanks indicates Arctic oceans are more susceptible to acidification, reports Douglas Fischer of The Daily Climate. As oceans absorb extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, pH levels drop, making them more acidic. Entire food webs are impacted by changing ocean chemistry – organisms like crabs, corals and oysters are unable to pull minerals out of the water to build shells. Pteropods (tiny swimming sea snails) are already having trouble building shells, and since salmon populations depend on these critters to maintain higher body weights, Alaska's salmon runs could be in trouble. The acidification could affect the commercial industry as well as the environment, since more than 60 percent of the seafood in the United States comes from Alaska fisheries.

In a related story by Mary Pemberton of the Associated Press, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke halted the expansion of commercial fishing in the Arctic until a sustainable plan to support fishing and the ecosystem could be developed. Obama administration officials are set to conduct a public hearing in Anchorage today about national ocean policy to develop protections and restoration of coasts, oceans and the Great Lakes.

– Emily Linroth