Ocean acidification: the also increasing ‘other CO2 problem’

UI departments host talks on climate change

Scientists predict a 150 to 200 percent increase in ocean acidity by the year 2100, and the effects will be felt strongly by professional and recreational fishers in the Pacific Northwest.

The University of Idaho Sustainability Center and the Department of Fish and Wildlife Sciences began its Oceans, Ice and Climate Change event Thursday night with research ecologist Shallin Busch speaking about the effect of ocean acidification, also known as the “other CO2 problem.”

According to Busch, oceans absorb nearly 25 percent of the total carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere every year. If CO2 levels get too high, the oceans will reach a threshold and the chemistry will change.

“It’s definitely something that hasn’t received a lot of attention, and we haven’t been as quick to recognize the impacts,” said Matt Mumma, a UI doctoral student in fish and wildlife resources who wrote the grant that brought Busch to the event.

Mumma applied for the $2,560 grant from the Sustainability Center to bring more attention to human-induced climate change. He chose Busch because of her focus on fisheries, a topic that might hit home with many Idaho students.

“In Idaho particularly, people are very invested in fisheries and wildlife species,” Mumma said. “The cascading effects of ocean acidification could have serious impacts for ecosystems and fisheries in Idaho.”

According to a 2012 survey by Idaho Fish and Game, 99 percent of Idaho residents said they were interested in wildlife and 61 percent were very interested.

Busch, a research ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, explained her findings from former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Ocean Acidification Panel.

Busch’s study focused on the effect ocean acidification has on shellfish. When oceans become more acidic, organisms have difficulty building and maintaining their shells.

Ocean acidification is especially an issue in the Pacific Northwest, Busch said, because it is where the ocean’s global conveyer belt comes to an end.

“It’s very old water and the animals in the ocean have been breathing in the oxygen and breathing out CO2 so it’s very rich in CO2,” Busch said.

Additionally, cold, deep water is also higher in CO2 and, because the West Coast experiences a number of upwelling events, that CO2 comes to the surface more often.

The Northwest began seeing the first effects of ocean acidification in the form of oyster harvest failure.

“They were influenced the most by these changes and started experiencing it first,” Busch said.

Oyster growers in Washington were having some of the lowest levels of reproduction in seven years and realized their harvests were down as much as 30 percent.

Busch and her colleagues tested the effect of ocean acidification on many types of marine life, from Dungeness crab to pteropods.

Pteropods, which look like small snails with wings instead of a foot, are not particularly well known but an important food source.

Busch tested the survival of pteropods in waters with heightened acidification levels that are predicted for future years. Survival was sensitive to very high treatment and shells were dissolving during the course of seven days.

“Ocean acidification effects on just one species can have big effects on the food web and ecosystem services,” Busch said.

As a result of the panel’s findings, Gregoire signed an executive order in November to mitigate ocean acidification in Washington.

According to Busch, acidification could strongly affect the state’s economy, considering Washington produces 85 percent of the West Coast’s commercial shellfish. The industry brings in about $270 million annually and about 3,200 jobs to rural communities.

“We can’t control it necessarily, but we can prevent further change in what we have and protect our resources,” Busch said. “We need to get people to know what it is and talk about it.

Climate change talks will continue in April with Steven Amstrup, an award-winning scientist specializing in the effect global warming has on polar bears.

Estelle Gwinn, Daily News, 8 February 2013. Article.

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