Gonsalves: hard sell for hard shells

Just in time for football season, the big news in science over the weekend was the Martian touch-down scored by the robotic explorer Curiosity.

For the next two years, Curiosity will search for microscopic life on the red planet, which is why NASA chose a landing site near the Gale Crater — thought to be rich in minerals, remnants of ancient seas.

As scientists have long known, water is an ideal biosolvent uniquely suited to support life. So this new Mars mission is exciting stuff.

Meanwhile, closer to home, the big (though not quite as sexy) news this week in Earth ocean science is the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s science expo on Wednesday. Called Ocean’s Acid Test, it’s designed as a public crash course in the very real global problem of ocean acidification.

Big deal, you say? I’ll let WHOI marine chemist Sarah Cooley tell you why it’s a big deal, especially for those whose livelihood or quality of life is tied to shellfish.

First, “one of the most fundamental reasons the ocean is important is that it really helps create the conditions on Earth to be favorable for life,” Cooley explained.

The oceans, she said, help control Earth’s temperature, the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere, and they also help absorb carbon dioxide. So, if we drastically alter the chemistry of the oceans, it can dramatically impact the delicate conditions that make life on Earth possible.

Yes, I said, “if we ….” Unlike the global warming debate, where there is some question how much is caused by human beings, there’s no disputing human-induced ocean acidification. It occurs when excess CO² in the air dissolves in seawater, converts to corrosive carbonic acid, and puts the lives of many marine organisms at risk.

“We have very good evidence showing that ocean acidification is happening. We’ve got stations all over the world, looking at the ocean over time, and we can see these changes happening. And we can’t explain these changes unless we include the influence of humans,” said Cooley, whose expertise is in how changes in ocean chemistry affect human communities.

Now, if you’re like a lot of non-scientists, talk of ocean chemistry makes your eyes glaze over, thinking about high school chemistry.

And that’s why Cooley is starting to take a different approach: communicating research with the lay public.

She and her colleagues want to relate changes that seem very abstract to things that people value in their everyday lives — like, seafood.

Or, as she often gets asked, “Am I going to be able to take my kids clamming?”

There have been short-term success stories in dealing with ocean acidification and the return of shellfish habitat, especially in the Puget Sound area of northwest Washington.

Still, Cooley said, “as the ocean chemistry changes we think life is going to get harder for certain organisms in the ocean. Some of those organisms are things we directly value — scallops, corrals, clams, things that have hard shells.”

What she means is that too much carbon dioxide in the water makes it difficult for shellfish to exhale or form shells.

Not only are these organisms valuable for human nutrition and economies, she said, but also for the other animals that eat them.

“So we are also concerned about how these effects could trickle up,” Cooley said.

If you were a scallop reading the Mollusk Standard-Times, the headlines would say: “Hot, Sour and Breathless,” Cooley said, noting the current convergence of global warming, low oxygen and ocean acidification.

“Those are three big stressors that we think are going to be playing out for marine environments everywhere,” she said.

A self-aware mollusk would say “Man, the future doesn’t look good.”

But Cooley is optimistic. “Something we don’t know well enough yet is what the actual resilience of each of these organisms. There may be silver linings. I hope we are all wrong in worrying about acidification.”

But, Cooley said, acidification can’t be ignored.

“If we don’t study it, we’ll never know if this could be a big player, if there’s a big n shift in an ecosystem that we depend on,” she said.

What can be done about ocean acidification? You’ll have to go hear Cooley and the other panelists presenting Wednesday’s “acid test” — WHOI president and director Susan Avery, WHOI senior scientist Scott Doney and associate scientist Anne Cohen.

Mars news may be cooler in a futuristic sort of way. But, there’s plenty of important science to be done, right here in our own backyard.

“We’ve only explored a fraction of the deep ocean,” Cooley said. “The earth we know about it is such a thin veneer of our planet. There are parts of the ocean floor that are just completely a mystery to us.”

Sean Gonsalves, Cape Cod Times, 7 August 2012. Article.

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