The future of salmon in Denmark (audio)

Beyond the farms and ranches of Denmark, Oregon, the land is wild: mountain and forest, streams and rivers.

Between the Pistol and the Rogue Rivers, there’s Willow Creek and Crystal Creek, the Sixes River, and the Elk.

The emerald green Elk River winds down from the Coast range mountains, past tree-shaded banks. And riding the Elk’s currents to the sea are Chinook salmon.

Wild Chinook, and Chinook from the Elk River Hatchery.

Robin Crisler runs the hatchery for Oregon Fish and Wildlife.

When the fish reach the ocean, though, they’re encountering changes too big and too complex to reverse.

For starters, a lot more carbon dioxide.

Burke Hales: “We’ve naturally got a system that’s poised right on the brink.”

Oregon State chemical oceanographer Burke Hales has studied seawater not far from Denmark, Oregon.

Burke Hales: “We know very precisely how much carbon dioxide has been released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. What we don’t find when we go look at the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is we don’t find all of that – maybe half.”

For a long time, scientists wondered where that missing CO2 went. Then they found it – in the ocean.

Burke Hales: “So the ocean is taking up something like a quarter or third of the human-released carbon dioxide, and we thought for the longest time that was this great thing.”

But what scientists found next was alarming.

Burke Hales: “This is almost sort of chemistry 101.”

Burke Hales says carbon dioxide is reacting with seawater to form carbonic acid.

Burke Hales: “And all this carbon dioxide uptake is changing the chemistry of the ocean. We’re talking about changes in ocean chemistry that we’ve probably never seen in geological record – and the magnitude of the change and the rapidity of the change are such that it’s very hard for these organisms to adapt.”

Mark Hixon: “Animals that have limestone skeletons or calcium carbonate skeletons, those skeletons will start to dissolve.”

Oregon State zoologist Mark Hixon has surveyed undersea life on the ocean floor near Denmark, Oregon.

Mark Hixon: “Oceanographers have started to measure the acidity of seawater around the globe – and astonishingly what they’re finding is some of the lowest PHes – that is, the most acidic water is right off the southern Oregon coast.”

Hixon says the most abundant species at risk out there are sea urchins and hermit crabs.

Chrusty George, OPB News, 9 September 2009. Full article and audio.

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