New ‘ocean acidification’ monitoring equipment deployed off LaPush

LAPUSH — Scientists are optimistic that sophisticated monitors now operating off the North Olympic Peninsula coast will help them understand acidity levels that are skyrocketing both in the ocean and in Puget Sound and Hood Canal.

To check the composition of seawater coming into the Sound and Hood Canal, a high-tech buoy was deployed Friday about 15 miles off LaPush.

It will keep track of the weather, the atmosphere, water chemistry and plankton growth.

Nearby, a seaglider — a remote-controlled underwater vehicle that looks like a torpedo with wings — will continuously dive and surface to relay data from the depths.

The new monitoring equipment comes as a new scientific study released last week ( ) said that a combination of carbon dioxide, emitted by industries, power plants and vehicles, and nutrient runoff is acidifying Puget Sound’s main basin and Hood Canal as fast as the ocean along the Olympic Peninsula coast.

These water-chemistry changes could have considerable negative impacts on the region’s shellfish industry over the next several decades, according to lead author Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.

In sampling Puget Sound and Hood Canal, Feely and his team discovered that those waters were surprisingly acidic — and in some areas, probably corrosive to shelled creatures like oysters and deadly to oyster larvae.

On the pH scale, strongly alkaline materials such as oven cleaner measure about 13.

Hydrochloric acid has a pH of 1.

Seawater usually measures around 8.1.

In some places, the waters of Puget Sound measured 7.7, similar to some of the lowest measurements taken along the Olympic Peninsula coast.

Parts of Hood Canal were as low as 7.4

Feely and other scientists blamed a combination of natural processes.

One is the increasing acidification caused by oceans’ absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Scientists say oceans are now absorbing more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide an hour. And deep, cold waters typically hold more carbon dioxide than warm, surface waters.

In Hood Canal, poor water circulation and nutrient-rich runoff from pollution and leaky septic tanks stimulates the growth of phytoplankton and other organic matter.

As the phytoplankton dies and sinks, it produces carbon dioxide, which starves the stagnant water of oxygen and lowers its pH.

“These processes combined together to decrease pH further than what we would expect from one or another by themselves,” Feely said.

Feely noted that a previous study showed that corrosive water is already upwelling each summer off the Pacific coast with levels of acidity that scientists had predicted wouldn’t occur until 2050. (See accompanying story.)

Some of that water is making its way into Puget Sound through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Feely said — and that’s where the high-tech buoy and the seaglider come into play.

Jan Newton, a physical oceanographer at the University of Washington who was a co-author on the pH study for Puget Sound and Hood Canal, said the buoy and seaglider comprise the most sophisticated array of monitoring instruments ever put into Washington waters. ( For more information, click on )

Peninsula Daily News, 18 July 2010. Full article.

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