Top stories of the year: #3 – ocean acidification

#3. EPA policy for addressing ocean acidification through the Clean Water Act

Carbon dioxide emissions don’t just build up in the atmosphere; nearly a third of atmospheric carbon dioxide gets absorbed by the ocean. As carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it produces carbonic acid. On a grand enough scale, this process can shift the pH balance of the ocean. Indeed, as a whole, the ocean is approximately 30% more acidic than it was two hundred years ago. This phenomenon is called ocean acidification. It is a problem which has the potential to decimate organisms with calcium-based shells (corals, oysters) and rearrange oceanic food webs. But, until recently (say, the past five years), the problem went largely unrecognized; even ocean scientists did not fully grasp our ability to alter the fundamental chemistry of the vast ocean.

In mid-November, the Environmental Protection Agency published a memo that put ocean acidification on the federal regulatory map. The memo elucidated the Agency’s stance that changes in the acidity of coastal waters caused (or presumed to be caused) by rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could be listed under the Clean Water Act. The memo was widely hailed as a call to action. But as the memo itself states repeatedly, most states do not have enough data, or even the technological means, to detect ocean acidification impacts in coastal waters (a state of affairs that I confirmed with multiple Massachusetts officials and local scientists). And even if states could prove impairment of coastal waters by ocean acidification, the only way to solve the problem is to reduce global atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide – something well beyond the purview of the Clean Water Act. Still, an EPA spokesperson told me the ocean acidification policy has an important role to play in complementing and supporting EPA’s efforts to regulate greenhouse gases through the Clean Air Act.

EPA is committed to understanding and addressing impacts associated with greenhouse gas emissions, including [ocean acidification] and climate change. The most promising efforts to address these impacts are in the implementation of the Clean Air Act, where EPA already is taking action to regulate and control fossil fuel CO2 emissions–the main driver of both [ocean acidification] and climate change. However, as stated in the Memo, EPA also recognizes that … the Clean Water Act has the potential to complement these efforts … The identification and tracking of waters impaired due to [ocean acidification] over the long term will likely play an important role in understanding the magnitude of the problem and the impacts of actions to address the problem.
Symbolic or otherwise, the EPA memo was an important public nod to one of the most pressing problems facing the ocean. I’ll not poo-poo a call for more effort to be spent on documenting the impacts of rising carbon dioxide levels on ocean ecosystems.
Ocean acidification has not been subject to the same acrimonious debate that has dogged climate change. It will be interesting to see how this ocean acidification policy will fare in the face of determined efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations.

Heather Goldstone, Cape and Islands NPR stations, 29 December 2010. Web page.

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