Why ocean acidification matters to you

Carbon pollution harm to our oceans is especially dramatic in the BC region. First in a series.

Every day, the oceans do us a huge favor. Across the planet, they absorb nearly one million metric tons of carbon dioxide each hour, removing about a third of the greenhouse gases from the atmosphere that would otherwise speed up global warming. This seems, at first, to be a massively beneficial service.

But the oceans haven’t been able to soak up the extra carbon pollution without a cost.

The basic chemistry is simple: as oceans absorb more carbon dioxide, they become increasingly acidic and potentially harmful to a wide swath of sea life, from giant clams to tiny plankton that play a role in the diets of most things you might see at a local aquarium. Many of those species wind up on fishing boats, processing plants and dinner plates around the world.

Marine life — from clams to king crab, sea urchins to salmon — has supported the ecosystem of the region stretching from Oregon up to Alaska, and its human inhabitants, for centuries. (For the purposes of this series, we’re calling that region the Northwest). But a mix of ocean currents and chemistry has put local waters on the leading edge of ocean acidification, a phenomenon that could produce profound changes to the marine food web and industries built upon it.

Here’s how Terrie Klinger, an associate professor at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, described in a Congressional hearing the uncertainties and possible effects of ocean acidification:

“We won’t see a total collapse of the food chains, but we will see substitutions… We may end up with food chains or food webs that are highly undesirable and not productive for the means that we use them today.”

There’s a lot riding on how marine creatures will adapt to acidifying oceans. The animals that dissolve in more corrosive sea water range from oysters, a bedrock species in the Northwest’s lucrative commercial shellfish industry, to krill and pteropods, tiny sea snails propelled by wing-like feet that make up more than half of the diet of some young Alaska pink salmon. A recent study found that larvae of British Columbia’s northern abalone died or grew abnormally in more acidic water, offering some of the first direct experimental evidence that changing sea water chemistry is negatively affecting an endangered species.

Jennifer Langston, TheTyee.ca, 14 June 2011. Full article.

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