Editorial: The Times explores a Sea Change in ocean chemistry

Ocean acidification is transforming the world’s oceans at a rate that alarms scientists who measure the change and inventory the toxic effects.

The economic and technological changes of the Industrial Revolution come with a 220-year legacy of carbon-dioxide emissions that are transforming the world’s oceans.

The resulting hazards, challenges and unavoidable need for remedial action are revealed in The Seattle Times’ series of stories and images, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn.”

Starting in Sunday’s editions, Times reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman present a detailed and harrowing explanation of what lies ahead.

Welch and Ringman spent months and traveled thousands of miles from Dutch Harbor, Alaska, to Papua, New Guinea, to explore a destructive reality known as ocean acidification.

The oceans absorb 25 percent of all the carbon dioxide put into the atmosphere. The chemistry of acidification — the lowering and intensifying of pH levels — is the process, not the end state. It is measurable and observable and occurring at a rate that alarms scientists.

The West Coast, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, is particularly vulnerable because of ocean currents, weather, wind patterns and geography. The movement of carbon from the atmosphere to the ocean has sped up in the past two decades.

Scientists report dramatic changes in ocean conditions. Related and variable impacts on sea creatures, plant life and food cycles are happening at an accelerating rate that might not give the ecosystem time to respond.

As more CO2 is absorbed into the seas, the lower pH attacks shells and skeletons. Depleted carbonate ions rob Washington oysters and Alaskan crabs of the ability to build their protective coverings. They perish before they get big enough to be harvested as part of the human food chain.

Welch and Ringman, who took diving lessons to prepare for their assignment, describe a scientist’s discovery of how high CO2levels impair the food-seeking and danger-warning senses of sea life.

The erosion of sea coral from acidification has impacts for the erosion of beaches and land protected by healthy formations.

The Pacific Northwest’s lucrative and productive shellfish industry learned about ocean acidification when the upwelling of CO2 from the depths created a toxic environment for aquaculture in Netarts Bay in Oregon and Willapa Bay in Washington.

The science of ocean acidification is understood and that base of knowledge is being constantly expanded and documented. The existence and impacts of ocean acidification are beyond assault by pseudoscience.

Scientists are also concerned about a general lack of awareness among members of the public and policymakers about ocean acidification and the need for action to arrest its spread.

Speed is of the essence. The longer the fossil-fuel-burning world waits to act, the longer it will take to undo the damage. Environmental impacts compound over time.

Welch and Ringman present an extraordinary window on a scientific fact: The oceans are rapidly acidifying with profound consequences for the seas and all of us who depend upon them to help sustain life.

Seattle Times Editorial, 13 September 2013. Article.

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