Dan Haifley, Our Ocean Backyard: Western states fight ocean acidification

More than 70 percent of earth’s surface consists of water. Nearly all is ocean, our planet’s largest habitat, a primary highway for the world economy, a source of food and half our oxygen that’s produced from plant life.

The ocean also absorbs excess carbon resulting from climate change. But through the years, its capacity to do that has been strained and thereby changing its chemistry. Known as ocean acidification, it represents a slight change in the pH of ocean waters that can have an impact both within it and outside of it.

West coast state governments, thanks to the collaboration of California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird and his counterparts in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification on the eastern Pacific. They convened a group of scientists in 2013 which subsequently proposed initiatives including an effort to further curb the amount of land-based organic pollution that flows seaward.

Previously I wrote about the underwater river that crosses the Pacific’s intermediate depths over 20 to 50 years. It picks up organic material along the way, arriving lower in oxygen than when its journey began north of Japan.

In addition to that oxygen deficiency, ocean waters face chemical stress from land-based pollution and climate change. The California Ocean Protection Council and the Ocean Science Trust have identified lower oxygen levels, known as hypoxia, and ocean acidification as priorities for research and action.

Ocean acidification, evidenced by a minute lowering of the pH level of ocean waters, is a result of the absorption of excess carbon from the atmosphere.

“The ocean absorbs excess carbon from the atmosphere and over the past several decades, it’s been working overtime on that task,” said Secretary Laird, who chairs the Ocean Protection Council. “It’s now having the effect of changing the pH level of the ocean.”

The panel of 20 scientists at work since 2013 released its findings in April. One action proposed is the use of seagrass to pull carbon dioxide out of seawater. “Seagrass beds and kelp forests are among the world’s most productive habitats…,” the report reads. “The ability of aquatic vegetation to influence coastal chemistry … can exceed near-term declines projected from (ocean acidification).”

Another strategy is to reduce the amount of organic pollution that travels through storm drains and rivers to the sea, which by adding to ecosystem stress can exacerbate acidification. Other proposals include improving a monitoring network to provide data to assist in ecosystem and fishery management, and the reduction of habitat destruction, contaminants and invasive species in order to allow organisms to better cope with acidification.

While much of the science community is concerned with reducing greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change, the work in response to ocean acidification is essentially an adaptation to its impacts. In my next column, I’ll discuss how these adaptations are being implemented, including a bill by State Sen. Bill Monning to restore eelgrass to mitigate climate impacts on ocean and coastal waters, proposed Ocean Protection Council actions to implement science panel recommendations, and its work with west coast collaborative of governments to take action in response to acidification.

Dan Haifley, Our Ocean Backyard, 8 October 2016. Article.

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