Cold ocean chemistry: Ocean acidification turns Alaska’s seas into science lab

Jessica Cross loves ocean spray. The oceanography graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks accompanied two lead scientists and a lab technician to deploy a research buoy in March. The weather in the Gulf of Alaska was fair, and they wore bright survival jackets and hard hats. They released the buoy, went home and waited.

Jeremy Mathis was in Washington, DC in late April when he felt a rough tug from his research in Alaska. His new buoy wasn’t broadcasting. The Gulf of Alaska was silent.

They had tested it in the lab – the new buoy was supposed to stream real-time data about ocean chemistry back to researchers. But nothing, save for spurts of information, was coming in. The buoy is tethered to the sea floor, telling scientists what a location in the ocean looks like at multiple depths, Cross said.

“The buoy should send data everyday automatically,” Mathis said. “When it didn’t, we knew there was a problem.”

In April, the buoy still held the data it was collecting internally, but had no way to back itself up without a satellite link, Cross said. Satellite reception starts going funny at high latitudes like Alaska, she said. The only way to know how to adjust the buoy is to put it in the sea and wait for it to soak. When Mathis returned to Fairbanks on May 2, he set to diagnosing what was wrong and how to fix it.

The buoy is part of Alaska’s response to a flurry of research on what will happen to ocean chemistry in the wake of climate change. If you could put cameras in Alaska’s oceans and fast-forward from 1900 to 2100, you would see life change – ocean temperatures rise, populations of shelled animals flounder and entire ecosystems move north with the sea ice retreat.

Without a drop in carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans will continue to harmfully acidify and warm. They will keep changing even when humans stop contributing to the oceans’ new chemistry because the oceans and atmosphere take time to balance out. Scientists know the oceans will change. The changes will be widespread. They do not know what this means for ocean life as we know it – but something will happen. The life that humans depend upon for food and recreation probably won’t be the same. Alaska’s oceans will become Earth’s guinea pig. Scientists can use Alaska to know what to expect elsewhere, because Alaska will change first and will likely change the most. They can chase these effects up the ocean currents, moving ahead to teach communities what to anticipate. Research today helps humanity mitigate tomorrow.

In the middle of March, three students greeted me at UAF’s Ocean Acidification Research Center in Irving. Cross hoisted herself onto a cabinet counter, motioned with an empty Pepsi bottle, and explained what is happening to the oceans.

Kelsey Gobroski, University of Alaska Fairbanks, The Sun Star, 30 May 2011. Full article.

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