In our view: Oceans in Jeopardy

If you cringed reading that the enjoyment and safety of Vancouver Lake is threatened by “an enormous plume of cyanobacteria,” as WSU marine ecologist Gretchen Rollwagen-Bollens put it recently, you should be in red-alert state knowing that corrosive changes in the ocean are threatening marine ecosystems.

A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration found that the situation facing North America’s West Coast is far worse than scientists had imagined. Ocean acidification, caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide, is transforming oceans’ pH level. We’ll bypass the big words and scientific descriptions here, but the changing pH is of concern. The level has dropped and is expected to drop another meaningful chunk by 2100. If that happens, it will seriously damage marine creatures’ ability to grow. If corals, plankton and tiny marine snails can no longer form properly, scientists say the whole food chain could be disrupted, from plankton to shellfish to marine mammals. Salmon, mackerel and whales, watch out. And beware commercial fisheries and communities dependent on maritime resources.

The general public and lawmakers’ learning curve on ocean acidification is steep, which is why we welcome legislation promoted by Rep. Brian Baird, Sen. Maria Cantwell and other Washington-based lawmakers. A Baird-backed bill passed in the House and awaits action in the Senate.

The legislation would increase research and monitoring of this phenomenon threatening the ocean’s food chain. That sounds soft, but it is a good first step. We can’t take actions that improve the ocean’s health if we aren’t fully convinced or understanding of its sickness.

What we do know about the ocean’s health is enough to scare almost anyone into due diligence. High levels of acidified water are now present within 20 miles of the coastline in the Northwest. Another study shows corrosive water four miles from the northern California coast. That’s startling. The saddest part of all this might be that for decades, humans cheered the fact that the ocean was absorbing a large part of our mess. It was thought to be an environmental plus that the ocean was taking in up to one-third of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide, mitigating effects of global warming. But automobile exhaust, power plant emissions and industrial belching are too much, even for the sea.

Can sea life such as coral adapt? Many scientists are doubtful. Laboratory studies of ocean acidification’s harm are compelling and ocean acidification is less controversial than global warming as it involves basic chemistry.

Getting our carbon dioxide levels under control is an important part of the process, but as an Oregon State University professor recently told The Columbian, even if our CO2 levels immediately ceased increasing, the ocean would still grow worse.

Scientists say water samples showing high levels of acidity are believed to have been exposed to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere 50 years ago. Still, human changes today can make a difference.

We need to learn more about how human activity affects the world’s oceans and work even harder to change that activity. New legislation studying ocean acidification can give us a useful compass.

The Columbian, 29 July 2008. Article.

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