Column: Federal budget cuts could harm ocean, Chesapeake Bay

NOAA research Potawaugh

Aboard the NOAA research vessel Potawaugh, hydrographer Jay Lazar lowers a ponar into the Eastern Branch of the Elizabeth River on Wednesday, April 9, 2014. The device captures material from the river’s bottom: anything from sand and mud to oysters and oyster shells. The crew was looking for possible oyster reef sites. Photo credit: Steve Earley| The

The past 10 years have witnessed significant progress toward understanding local and global effects of climate change, thanks largely to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. However, we’re now in danger of taking a big step in the wrong direction.

President Donald Trump’s latest budget proposal cuts NOAA’s budget by $1 billion. It eliminates all funding for programs that are important to Hampton Roads, including the Virginia Sea Grant and the Coastal Resiliency Grant Program, which helps prioritize and implement strategies for adapting to sea-level rise.

This is part of the Trump administration’s overall objective to reduce or eliminate funding for NOAA laboratories, cooperative institutes and universities (including Old Dominion University) that advance understanding of the Earth’s climate system, as well as civic partners that help local communities develop strategies to cope with climate change.

Canceling regional coastal resiliency grants jeopardizes the progress we’re making in Hampton Roads to combat major coastal threats such as sea-level rise. Given that we are one of the most flood-prone regions in the nation, and that we support the largest concentration of U.S. naval assets anywhere in the world, federal involvement is critical to help Hampton Roads prepare for a changing ocean climate.

But sea-level rise is just one of many ocean changes threatening the area. Some threats are developing deep underwater, invisible to us on shore. About a third of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere in the past 170 years has dissolved in the ocean, raising the acidity to a point that threatens the health of marine ecosystems across the globe.

Although we are still learning how ocean acidification will affect marine life, research funded by NOAA has already demonstrated that organisms making limestone shells or skeletons — including corals, clams, oysters and plankton that feed important fisheries — may struggle in an acidified ocean. Recently, failures of oyster hatcheries in the Pacific Northwest have been driven by increasing acidification and the double-whammy effects of ocean warming and ocean acidification. This highlights the effects of global warming across the globe.

However, ocean acidification also increases the availability of carbon dioxide for photosynthesis, producing winners, as well as losers, in a changing climate. My own research, funded partly by a NOAA Sea Grant program, has shown that submerged aquatic plants might directly benefit from ocean acidification while simultaneously reducing acid’s effects on oysters and crabs. This is especially true now that NOAA-funded efforts to remove nutrients and restore water quality in the bay are beginning to reap dividends.

This balance between winners and losers will have dramatic effects on ocean life in an increasingly hot and sour sea, and local groups are working hard to get ahead of the curve. Virginia oyster farmers are partnering with NOAA to install monitoring equipment necessary to develop local ocean acidification forecasts like those NOAA already does for Pacific Northwest shellfish growers. These efforts need federal support to succeed, but Trump’s budget proposes a 25 percent cut to NOAA’s ocean acidification research.

Slashing NOAA’s climate research budget will have devastating impacts on its overall mission. Like the interconnected ocean systems NOAA is charged with stewarding, its programs leverage each other, making the most of congressional investments.

In fiscal year 2016, every federal dollar NOAA received for ocean acidification was leveraged to $1.75 through close and effective collaboration with other NOAA programs. NOAA research vessel operations, satellites and National Marine Fisheries Service activities all benefit the work being done to combat ocean acidification.

The result is a growing, carefully planned effort to understand and predict the effects of climate change on our coasts and oceans. Instead of allowing the Trump administration to target climate research for elimination, U.S. Reps. Rob Whitman, Scott Taylor and Bobby Scott must act to fund NOAA’s climate portfolio for the benefit of Hampton Roads and the nation as a whole.

Adequate funding for critical NOAA missions will help prepare our region for today and tomorrow.

Richard C. Zimmerman, The Virginian – Pilot, 19 March 2018. Article.


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