The oceans’ absorption of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere is causing fundamental changes in seawater chemistry. CO2 reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which makes seawater more acidic. This process, known as ocean acidification (or OA) has a range of potentially harmful consequences for marine life.
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What is Ocean Acidification?
Ocean acidification (or ‘OA’) is a decrease in seawater pH that is primarily caused by the ocean’s uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere. Excess CO2 generated by humans’ use of fossil fuels, and deforestation has been accumulating in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution. About one quarter of this CO2 adsorbed by the oceans, where it reacts with water molecules to form carbonic acid. As aresult, the average seawater pH has already dropped by 0.1 units, a 30% increase in acidity. If atmospheric CO2 levels continue to climb at the present rate, ocean acidity will double by the end of this century. Want to keep learning? Read answers to frequently asked questions about OA; keep current on OA news; find information resources; view real-time OA monitoring data for the Pacific Northwest; and learn about NOAA’s OA Program.
OA in Puget Sound
Our region is experiencing ocean acidification sooner and more severely than expected, due to a combination of human and natural causes. Wind-driven currents along our coast draw deep, naturally low-pH seawater upwards, where it mixes with the surface layer acidified by human-generated CO2. In Puget Sound, this ‘doubly acidified’ water can become even more corrosive when runoff loaded with nutrients (mostly nitrogen and phosphorus from sewage, fertilizer, and manure) promotes the growth of algae blooms that release even more CO2 as they decay. Some of the lowest pH levels ever observed have been recorded in Hood Canal. State and federal agencies, scientists, tribes, shellfish growers and NGOs are working together to address OA in our region.
- Northwest OA Blog
- State Efforts: MRAC, Blue Ribbon Panel, and the Washington OA Center
- West Coast Efforts: C-CAN, WCOAH
What does OA mean for Marine Life?
As ocean pH drops, marine organisms like oysters, pteropods and corals have to work increasingly hard to get enough carbonate ion (CO32-) from seawater to build their calcium carbonate shells and skeletons. This extra effort means that these organisms have less energy to spend on important activities like feeding, growth and reproduction. Juveniles seem to be especially vulnerable to acidification; shellfish hatcheries now monitor seawater chemistry carefully to avoid exposing their larvae to corrosive conditions that can kill them overnight. Even animals that don’t have shells are feeling the effects of acidification. OA has been shown to interfere with some fishes’ ability to avoid predators, and high levels of dissolved CO2 also seems to slow some animals’ metabolism, particularly in the context of ocean warming and hypoxia (low oxygen levels). Through direct and indirect effects, OA threatens the survival of species ranging from the tiny plankton that fuel the marine food web to the shellfish we harvest to our precious coral reefs. Want to keep learning? The Seattle Times and Sightline Institute have both published excellent series about OA and it’s impacts in the Northwest and elsewhere. Hear Taylor Shellfish spokesman Bill Dewey talk about how Washington’s shellfish industry is struggling to adapt to OA. NOAA Fisheries scientists are trying to understand how OA will affect local wild species.
What OA is not….
- Because are oceans are buffered against extreme pH changes by dissolved salts, seawater cannot become truly acidic (i.e. drop below pH 7). The term “acidification” refers to a pH shift towards the acidic end of the pH scale; similar to the way we describe an increase in temperature from -20°C to 0°C (-4°F to 32°F) as “warming”, even though it’s still cold.
- Seemingly small changes in pH are not insignificant. The pH scale, like the Richter scale, is logarithmic; that means pH 7 is 10 times as acidic as pH 8. Because most animals and plants have a narrow pH ‘comfort zone’, even a small change in acidity can disrupt a number of vital functions like respiration and reproduction.
- OA is not a future threat; it is already happening, and having serious impacts on Washington State’s marine resources, and the people who depend upon them.
- OA is not just an “oyster problem.” Like the ‘canary in the coal mine’, the vulnerability of Pacific oysters has alerted us of much broader species impacts. Unless we do something, soon, the marine food web may change in dramatic and unpredictable ways as more and more species struggle to cope with changing seawater chemistry.
OA in Washington State
Our state is experiencing ocean acidification sooner and more severely than expected, due to a combination of human and natural causes. Washington Sea Grant (WSG) has been involved in regional efforts to understand and address ocean acidification since corrosive seawater was first suspected as the cause of unexplained die-offs in West Coast oyster hatcheries. WSG continues to actively engage in OA science and policy at state and local levels.
WSG supports a strong OA research program. Since 2010, we’ve invested almost $1.5 million to improve our understanding of how Pacific Northwest marine species will be affected by OA, and ways to mitigate these impacts.
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The Early Days
The ocean acidification story literally broke here in the Pacific Northwest in the late-2000s, when oyster larvae in Puget Sound shellfish hatcheries began dying by the billions. At first, hatchery managers suspected a pathogen, but a seminal paper published that year by scientists at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory suggested that unusually corrosive seawater might be responsible for the Pacific Northwest oyster crisis. Scientists and shellfish growers determined that unexpectedly high levels of dissolved CO2 in seawater along the West Coast was driving seawater pH down to levels capable of dissolving juvenile oysters’ shells. With funds secured by WA Senator Maria Cantwell, OA sensors were deployed near major Washington shellfish hatcheries, an act that Taylor Shellfish spokesman Bill Dewey likened to “putting headlights on a car.” These sensors allowed hatchery managers to track the approach of corrosive seawater, and temporarily close off their intake pipes to protect vulnerable larvae. Real-time OA monitoring provided Washington’s valuable shellfish industry, which generates about $270 million annually and supports over 3200 jobs, with a short-term solution to OA-induced mortalities.
Washington Takes the Lead
As awareness of threat of OA to Washington’s economy and environment increased, entities around the state began to take action. WSG and partners established the California Current Acidification Network (C-CAN), a consortium of scientists, resource managers and shellfish growers, and also began investing in OA research. Science and environmental organizations hosted forums and campaigns to educate the public about the issue. In 2011, WSG hosted an Ocean Acidification Symposium attended by over 200 scientists, policy makers, tribal leaders and shellfish industry representatives. At this event, former King Co. Executive Ron Sims challenged the diverse audience to work together to address the problem, prompting Governor Chris Gregoire to convene the Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification, making Washington the first state in the nation to tackle ocean acidification at this level. WSG joined the EDF, WA Dept. of Ecology, NOAA and private foundations to fund the Panel, and dedicated it’s own staff to coordinate the process. WSG staff also edited the Panel’s Scientific Summary and authored a review of OA adaption strategies. In it’s final report, the Panel recommended monitoring acidification trends and effects, investigating its causes, building capacity for adaptation and remediation, and enlisting diverse constituencies to addressing the problem.
A Continued Focus
Washington’s next Governor, Jay Inslee, is maintaining state-level momentum around OA and it’s root cause: CO2 emissions. The 2013 state legislature established the Washington Marine Resources Advisory Council to carry forth the recommendations of the Blue Ribbon Panel on OA, and helped create the Washington Ocean Acidification Center at the University of Washington. Washington’s leadership has spawned similar efforts on both coasts: the California Ocean Sciences Trust convened the West Coast OA and Hypoxia Science Panel, comprising experts from California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. Maine and Maryland have each established their own OA Task Force to advise state government on regional OA mitigation and adaptation strategies. WSG has institutionalized its commitment to OA by becoming the first Sea Grant program in the nation to dedicate a Marine Advisory Specialist to this issue. WSG continues to initiate and support research, produce educational resources, and work with partners, state and tribal governments, and the public to address OA impacts in our region.
WSG connects you to scientific information and OA experts, through education, presentations, and classroom visits.
- Bloom! Seattle 2013, a semi-annual “lightning talk” series, featured WSG OA Specialist Meg Chadsey on ways that concerned citizens can raise awareness of OA on a local level.
- WSG partnered with the Puget Sound Restoration Fund, NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, and UW scientists on a proposal funded by the Paul Allen Family Foundation to pilot a novel OA mitigation strategy. The team will evaluate the potential of seaweed aquaculture to ‘scrub’ dissolved CO2 and nutrient pollution from Puget Sound.
- WSG Marine Research Scientist Jonathan Reum and colleagues published a paper that will allow OA researchers to design OA laboratory experiments that more closely reflect real-world conditions.
In conjunction with the 2011 Symposium on Ocean Acidification presented by WSG, KUOW interviewed Brian Baird and Richard Feely about ocean acidification. Listen to the KUOW interview.
- Berkeley Public Radio station KPFA interviewed WSG’s Meg Chadsey on OA and its environmental and social impacts.
- WSG is collaborating with Puget Sound Restoration Fund and NOAA scientists to help Eagle Harbor High School students monitor seawater chemistry near Bainbridge Island.
- WSG OA Specialist Meg Chadsey is partnering with the Suquamish Tribe and science educators to maintain an online clearinghouse of free OA education and communication resources aligned with national Next Generation Science Standards.
- WSG collaborates with NOAA to produce SOARCE (Sharing Ocean Acidification Resources for Communicators and Educators), a monthly webinar that highlight OA Education and Communication resources.
- WSG Social Science Specialist Melissa Poe is collaborating with NOAA/ NWFSC to assess how vulnerable Washington communities are to OA problems that are dependent upon coastal and marine resources — and how well equipped they may or may not be for responding to ocean changes.
- WSG Marine Water Quality Specialist Teri King is a founding member of the California Current Acidification Network (C-CAN), formed in 2010. King sits on the steering committee and helps oversee the dissemination of C-CAN products and information to the west coast OA community via the C-CAN website. C-CAN plans to launch an online OA Roundtable in 2015.
In the News
Due to a combination of human activities and natural factors, acidification in the Pacific Northwest is particularly severe. The region has also become a hotspot for both OA science and policy. Some recent developments:
- As oceans acidify, shellfish farmers respond
High Country News, September 18, 2017
- NOAA Launches Month-Long Cruise Tracking Ocean Acidification Effects – NOAA scientists aboard the R/V Ronald H. Brown lead an extensive cruise to study how ocean acidification is changing West Coast waters. Official NOAA blog: https://westcoastoa.wordpress.com/
- UW part of NOAA-led cruise to study West Coast ocean acidification
UW Today, May 10, 2016
- Cousteau’s ‘Acid Apolcalypse’ to feature Washington youth in ocean acidification project
UW Today, November 18, 2015
- The Mountain-Moving “Mosquito” of Ocean Acidification: Washington Sea Grant’s Meg Chadsey proves the power of one to mobilize action on a very big issue,
Sea Star, Fall 2015
- A risky business? Mussel farming in the face of ocean acidification and warming
San Juan Islander, July 6, 2015