Students at The Northwest School learn about ocean acidification from an expert

On Dec 3, three classes of 8th grade science students at The Northwest School dove into the pressing issue of ocean acidification (OA). Students heard from guest speaker Meg Chadsey, an OA specialist with the Washington Sea Grant, who spoke passionately about how it’s collapsing the shellfish industry in Washington state. The issue has been covered lately in The Seattle Times’ “Sea Change” articles, which are required reading in several NWS classrooms.

The “A” in “OA” is about lowering the pH in the ocean. The ocean is becoming more acidic due to byproducts from fossil fuel combustion. Specifically, when carbon dioxide dissolves in water, this lowers the pH, which can have serious consequences for many forms of marine life.

To illustrate this in class, Chadsey had students blow through a straw into a beaker of Puget Sound water and blue cabbage juice (a pH indicator). The carbon dioxide from their breath changed the solution purple as it became slightly more acidic. Lemon juice, a stronger acid, had a more striking but similar effect, turning bright pink. The demonstration illustrated to students how reactive the ocean is to carbon dioxide.

“Life on Earth is comfortable in a very narrow pH range,” Chadsey pointed out. Upsetting the pH balance has huge ramifications for marine life, something Washington shellfish growers know all too well. “We grow more shellfish here than anyplace else in the country. Our shellfish hatcheries ship larvae all over the world. That industry is already struggling to cope with acidifcation.”

Chadsey said she switched from studying microbiology to OA after reading “The Darkening Sea” in New Yorker magazine in 2006, reacting out of love for the ocean that something had to be done. As for what other individuals can do, she urged students to cut down on their carbon footprint and commit to a more Earth-conscious lifestyle. She said it would take wide societal change, and recommended books about breaking our addiction to acquiring disposable things: “The Story of Stuff” and “The Upcycle.”

Chadsey also has high hopes for “refugia” — cultivated kelp beds which would absorb carbon dioxide and thus “sweeten” our water. Advocating for installing refugia in Puget Sound has made she and fellow scientists finalists in Paul Allen’s Ocean Challenge, which will award money to a team with a good OA-fighting proposal. Chadsey ‘s team will learn whether they have been selected in February.

“This is going to be a part of your adult life,” she said to the students. “To paraphrase former Mayor Mike McGinn, who was speaking about climate change: ‘You are the first generation to know about OA, and [because of its rate] the last that can do anything about it.’ But there are things you can do. And we’re starting to do them.”

If you are interested in learning more about OA in Washington state, read former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Blue Ribbon Panel Report on OA, which Chadsey helped produce in 2012.

This report was submitted by Margie Combs, director of communications at The Northwest School in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

The Seattle Times blog, 19 December 2013. Article.

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