CO2 research at Round Bay – Introducing “acidification”

Close to one-third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air created since the 1860’s industrial revolution has kindly been sponged-up by the earth’s waters, exemplifying yet another way mother nature takes care of us.

“The ability our oceans have to absorb CO2 from the air is a good thing in that it slows the rate of climate change,” says Dr. Tom Arnold, professor at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, “but there’s a price for it.”

The price is a change in pH levels and is called ocean acidification (and it doesn’t mean your fingers and toes will incinerate). The support of the Round Bay Community Association is enabling Tom and his team to research the impact that lowered pH levels due to increased CO2 might have. In the Chesapeake Bay area, the focus is on the health of our oysters, crabs, and sea grass.

“Changes in pH levels prevent organisms like oysters, mussels, scallops, clams, crabs, etc., from making shells and skeletons,” Tom explains, “and that’s a problem. The concern is young oysters, crabs, etc., just won’t grow, which will decrease the availability of them. Prices will go up and industry owners are at risk of going out of business.”

While the concerns are multi-faceted and interconnected, the focus of Tom’s research is sea grass, which is prime underwater real estate.

“Sea grass beds are nursery grounds for shellfish and other organisms,” Tom explains. “Crabs, juvenile rock fish, etc. all of the important species in the Bay live in these grass beds at some point in their lives.”

With participation from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in Edgewater, Tom’s team of Dickinson College students used the Free Ocean Carbon Enrichment (F.O.C.E.) machine they built to simulate possible conditions in the next 50-100 years. The machine isolates a bed of sea grass and pumps a combination of river water and CO2 into an underwater dome, suggesting an “off the chart” CO2 level. Behavioral comparisons of the plants are documented over a period of time, and accumulated data is then shared with the scientific community and later published.

Raised in Pasadena, Tom learned how to swim in Solomon’s Cove in Severna Park where his grandparents currently live. Hence, his interest in Chesapeake Bay health is deeply rooted.

“My involvement is part science to me,” says Tom, “and it’s also, you know, kind of my backyard. I know it means jobs, and bushels of crabs might be more expensive, but I care beyond that. There’s something about the Bay that’s personal.”

“We’re boaters,” says Round Bay resident and Community Association member John Stephancik, “on the water two times a week, and we are extremely concerned about the health of our waters. The rivers and the Bay are one of the reasons why we live around here.”

Fortunately, the proactive research done by Tom’s team in Round Bay this summer, including a science camp presentation to the Round Bay youth, can help identify what might be coming down the pike. Still, it’s difficult to describe how the Chesapeake Bay area integrates its environmental wealth and beauty with our local economy, recreation, and overall quality of life. What would life be like for us without its bounty?

To learn more, visit

Severna Park Voice, 10 August 2011. Article.

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