Thursday, April 29, 2010

Let's Get Real Here -- Ocean Acidification is the Testament to Humanity's Role in Climate Change

By Paul K. Haeder

Reality check – seawater’s lower pH will effect more than vibrant, highly evolved marine ecosystems and all the glorious species that inhabit reefs, mangroves, sea mounts, and island kelp forests.

We’re looking at a 30 percent increase in the ocean’s acidity, something that hasn’t happened for millions of years. The amount of carbon dioxide we’re spewing into the atmosphere is 100 times more than 50 million years ago, and some like University of Washington’s Peter Ward, author of “Under a Green Sky,” believe that it’s more like 250 million years ago when that much CO2 was being released through volcanoes, and, the effect of that over a few hundred years was extinction of over 90 percent of all species.

This acidification of the oceans holds primacy as a topic so closely linked to global warming with the immediate negative effects on human culture and our very existence one would surely expect scientists speaking before the U.S. Senate to hold sway over that audience.

Three years ago, there was no government effort to fund research into carbon dioxide’s effects on the oceans, including calicifiers like clams, scallops, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, and coral reefs. Scott Doney’s talk, “Effects of Climate Change and Ocean Acidification on Living Marine Resources,” was impressive on many levels, giving the Vermont Sen. Olympia Snowe and other members of the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries, and Coast Guard, a primer on the effects of global climate change on the ocean.

Scott Doney and Richard Feely (who will be at Spokane Community College’s Lair May 4, speaking at 7 p.m. about his and others’ work on ocean geochemistry and biochemistry) explained to lawmakers in as simple of terms as possible, but with a powerful confidence in his science’s elegance, the following topics to hook that stodgy audience:

  • Greenhouse Gases and Climate Change;
  • The Changing Ocean Environment;
  • Climate Change and Ocean;
  • Acidification Impacts on Marine Ecosystems;
  • Knowledge Gaps and Ocean Research Priorities;
  • Climate Adaptation, Mitigation, and Ocean Management
On one level, the discussion on how all that acidification tied to human activities (mostly centered around greenhouse gas emissions) already points to threats on those organisms that depend on a narrow range of ocean pH levels that allow them to make new shells and skeletons.
Feely told me in a KYRS-Thin Air interview April 28 (rebroadcast, 6 a.m. Friday April 30 – 92.3 FM or that acidification goes right to the core of ocean geochemistry. Hands down, the senior scientist with NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory was liberal enough in his admonitions against any back-peddling or junk science malarkey that tries to dissuade people to understand how tied human carbon footprints are to global warming.

Eighty percent of the globe’s warming ends up in the world’s oceans. The world’s oceans account for cloud formation (weather), for great agricultural abundance along the coasts of France and Spain (warm Gulf Stream current), and for a majority of the protein several billion people depend on.

Harvesting and aqua-farming of mollusks (clams, oysters, mussels, scallops) is $2 billion a year industry in the US, and more than $100 million a year for Washington, Oregon and California, but already the ocean’s carbon cycle has been disrupted to the point of lowering the levels of aragonite, essential to the growth of mollusks, crustaceans and corals.

Unfortunately, the calcifiers are part of a larger food-web, so, when we see that the US commercial fisheries’ $4 billion harvest made up of 24 percent of cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, octopus, snappers, sole, striped bass, and flounder – all predators of calcifiers – the effects of acidification hits close to home.

Now, remember sixth grade biology: that food chain moves into a top predator category – accounting for more than 26 percent of the US fisheries’ overall take. It’s basic food web science as those barracuda, marlin, salmon, shark, swordfish, tuna and squid depend on the above calcifier predators.

“What goes around comes around,” said Sarah Cooley, postdoctoral researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Her research is tied to the socioeconomic costs of ocean acidification. Obviously, commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, and the protection coral reefs provide shorelines are somewhat easy to calculate – the so-called “ecosystem services” biologist and sustainability filmmaker David Suzuki once calculated on a global scale to be $7-9 trillion each year.

Cooley sees the shoreline protection by coral reefs to be $9 billion a year, but add to the equation 25 to 30 percent of fish who live their juvenile lives in the reefs seeking protection, and the figure jumps to $30 billion a year.

What Scott Doney and Richard Feely were trying to illustrate three years ago was that ocean acidification, ice melt and rising ocean temperatures were already happening, and the ‘business as usual’ approach is more than just misguided; it’s catastrophic and dangerous.

“We have an opportunity now to limit the negative impact of climate change and acidification in the future. This will require a comprehensive ocean management strategy incorporating scientific understanding of climate change and acidification from the start.

"This strategy will also require a balance between adaptation to climate change and acidification that are unavoidable, and mitigation to reduce the rise in greenhouse gases and resulting impacts,” Doney told the Senate working group.

As members of the U.S. Carbon Cycle Science Program Scientific Steering Group, U.S. Community Climate System Model Scientific Steering Committee, the U.S. Ocean Carbon and Climate Change Scientific Steering Group, and the U.S. Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Scientific Steering Committee Feely, Cooley and Doney should be holding our political leaders’ rapt attention.

Feely is seeing more funding for ocean research lately, and while ocean acidification was first observed and studied a century ago, this area of human-induced biogeochemical changes is new. Earth scientists have been complaining the past few years (decades, really) about the lack of funding for or defunding of programs in favor of billions into space exploration, “man in the can trips” and pie-in-the-sky lunar colonizing scams.

So much we don’t know about life on earth is in the oceans. Oceans are being studied intensely by many disciplines and from various camps. Collapsing fisheries because of over-harvesting is just one huge multi-disciplinary realm of study looking into humanity’s over-consumption and over-capacity of harvesting.

Way too many fast, big vessels with high-tech gear are rampaging through fisheries and bringing some to near collapse. Eight of the world’s nine largest fisheries are closed and critically near collapse. Some experts say without laws and tough mitigation efforts, the world’s ocean fisheries could be near collapse by 2040.

Do we forget about oceans rising because we’re in Spokane? The president of the Maldives and others looking at island nations’ futures are greatly concerned about the impact of ice melt and thermal expansion on their cultures’ and nations’ futures. Mohammed Nasheed held an underwater summit last year to bring attention to ocean rising tied to climate change and anthropomorphic causation.

As I mentioned to Feely, all marine disciplines need to get on board and couch these issues so average citizens can understand and connect to their lives. In that regard, I referenced one of the leading turtle experts, Wallace Nichols, who brings the idea of our negative effect on oceans this way – it’s what we put in, take out and do to the edge that’s harming the oceans and killing his Riddley turtles. He’s young, uses the Internet effectively, cuts songs, and does snappy presentations and films about the oceans in peril.

Turtles, it turns out, are emblematic of a lot that is wrong with our consumption patterns tied to the seas.

While the hour talk with Feely broached a lot of topics, we didn’t get into the so-called giant garbage patch, or Pacific gyre. Much research on plastics affecting the food chain has been conducted, and that plastic swirling garbage vortex bigger than Texas is axiomatic of humanity’s prodigious waste stream. Looking at the complete water column, researchers are finding six times plastic matter than organic matter.

Throughout the marine ecosystem, on shore, in the middle of the ocean, following currents, thousands of sea birds are dying because they consume colorful plastic bits. Capt. Charles Moore is working on publicizing our plastic addiction and the connection to collapsing marine systems. The question needing to be posed is obvious: “What does the plastic in fish flesh do to humans after we as apex predators eat the stuff?”

Chris Jordan the well-known “environmental” and human ecology photographer is also working on plastic’s effects on animals, the oceans, us.

This is a topic dear to me since I started off 40 years ago learning how to scuba dive and eventually I ended up majoring in marine biology and worked hard on being a journalist-dive-bum-photographer. Travelling throughout Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the Pacific Baja, the Yucatan and Belizean coasts, and then in Thailand, Vietnam and the Red Sea, I’ve seen first-hand collapsing ecosystems due to man’s greed, waste, and pollution.

Ghost nets miles long – monofilament drift nets – have snagged millions of fish and air-breathing mammals like sea lions, small whales, turtles. Several billion tons of sardine and anchovy stocks are netted and ground up each year to feed an unsustainable farmed salmon industry. Taking those species out of the mix has major effects on the food web.

Calderon dolphins by the thousands are being beaten and stabbed to death by the Danes in a bizarre manhood ritual. The Japanese kill 23,000 dolphins a year in Taiji as part of the dolphin theme park and petting industries (highly recommended, watch the 2010 Academy Award-winning film, “The Cove”). Even the Obama Administration is weighing in on considering dropping the ban on whaling.

In a world where a beached sleek bottlenose or sturdy orca whale is considered a bio-hazard due to the lethal levels of PCBs and other persistent chemicals, we have to more than shudder at man’s huge footprint on everything.

One angle is the socio-economic model Cooley studies: “The world is probably going to march on without these species, but it might be darn uncomfortable. “The natural communities are going to be very, very different. And different might be OK—maybe. There still is an ecosystem to be had. But a lot of the things that we really enjoy, that our communities depend on, are not going to be there. We may be able to find other awesome things about the new communities, but chances are, options will be limited.”

The more important angle for me and others, however, is that we can’t put a monetary price on a whale or coral reef and all its non-human inhabitants. It’s the intrinsic value we have to embrace and consider; that this earth has these complex ecosystems and niches for reasons, and taking one out, or a dozen, makes no sense if we are to regard biological life as highly unique in this universe and beyond.

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