10 years in the making: an inside look at NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program with director Libby Jewett

Libby Jewett, Ph.D., Director of the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program, provides insight into ocean acidification. Jewett highlights how she became involved in ocean acidification work, how NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) started, and how we all can personally contribute to combatting this threat to our ocean.

What brought you to this position?

After receiving my Ph.D. from the University of Maryland in biology, focusing on marine ecology in the Chesapeake Bay, I was hired by NOAA to work on harmful algal blooms and hypoxia, or low oxygen levels in seawater. Colleagues started talking about ocean acidification around 2006 as a new important topic that was not well understood and a considerable potential threat to marine ecosystems.

In 2007, I became a founding member of NOAA’s Ocean Acidification Steering Committee. I also became the point of contact for ocean acidification in the National Ocean Service, where I was at the time, and initiated, with other members of the Steering Committee, drafting NOAA’s first comprehensive ocean acidification research plan. When NOAA’s OAP was created, I applied and became the founding director, where I have been since May 2011.

What is ocean acidification? How has the field grown since its discovery?

Ocean acidification refers to the change in ocean chemistry — specifically, a reduction in the pH of our ocean over an extended period caused primarily by the uptake of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Ocean acidification was first discovered in the early 1900s when scientists realized that rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would be taken up by the ocean, causing changes in the ocean’s chemistry. We’ve known that this had the potential to happen for a long time — however, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that NOAA, with other international scientists, detected a change in chemistry in the open ocean, documented with data.

This year marks NOAA OAP’s 10th anniversary. Can you tell us more about how the program got started?

The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009 (FOARAM Act) specifically required that NOAA have a program specifically for ocean acidification. Behind the scenes, there was work happening to plan how we at NOAA would work on ocean acidification. NOAA’s OAP started with just me in 2011, then our Deputy Director Dwight Gledhill, Ph.D., came on board. We then grew by recruiting Sea Grant Knauss Fellows, who contributed to the program and joined the team. The program couldn’t have grown to where it is now without the dedication and commitment from our small but committed staff.

What have been the main accomplishments of NOAA OAP in the past 10 years?

We have created an organized and collaborative program in the past 10 years. Overall, the program is very integrated. Ocean acidification work is done across many of the NOAA line offices. From the beginning, we were determined not to re-create research efforts, but rather build on efforts which were relevant for our collective ocean acidification mission. I feel super proud of our commitment to partnership. We knew that ocean acidification affects the mission of all these other parts of NOAA, so working collectively just made sense.

Monitoring the environment:

I am proud of the observing strategies that we’ve implemented. NOAA OAP has built a monitoring network which includes state of the art moorings outfitted with sensors which take measurements every three hours and transmit the data via satellite. We underwrite research cruises on global class NOAA ships which rotate coasts each year. We also fund instruments deployed on private freight ships which take measurements as they move from port to port. Even more than the equipment, I am SO proud of the scientists across NOAA and our academic and regional Integrated Ocean Observing System partners who do the hard work to build, deploy and maintain these systems and ensure that the data collected is publicly available.

Species sensitivity:

I firmly believe that the greatest uncertainty in the field of ocean acidification lies in how marine species and ecosystems will respond to this stressor. NOAA OAP has made headway on understanding some species’ vulnerabilities in our waters, but we know that we have a lot more to research to understand the impacts completely.

Human dimensions and vulnerability:

I am also proud that we’ve moved in the direction to build in social scientists’ perspectives on how ocean acidification is both affecting or could affect coastal and human communities into our research portfolio. When we started, most of our understanding of ocean acidification was in the open ocean. Closer to the coast, there’s much more variability in carbon chemistry and resilience in marine life; this is the complexity we must keep studying to understand how ocean acidification is and will affect both marine ecosystems and the human communities that rely on them.

What are the biggest challenges that the program has encountered in the past 10 years? How does NOAA OAP plan to address some of these challenges?

One challenge is not having the resources to scale up our research and monitoring enterprise to meet the demand for information from policymakers. We could be even more effective if we had more observing systems to understand better where and how fast ocean chemistry is changing, knew about how ocean acidification impacted even more species through expanded research, and had more models covering more coastal regions.

Another challenge is addressing needs of different coastal areas. There isn’t going to be one answer in solving coastal acidification. There will be many answers about how ocean and coastal acidification will affect society and shape the adaptation actions that we might take.

Adaption is another challenge. Policymakers are asking us what they need to do to adapt. What few options there are are local in scope. So, we also need to be working on a global scale to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and think about other ways to mitigate ocean acidification on large scales.

Based on your experience, where do you see the program and the field of ocean acidification going?

There will be more research on the social science and adaptation side of ocean acidification. OAP is also interested in how marine carbon dioxide removal strategies, a new, hot topic in marine and climate science, will affect ocean acidification. It will be interesting to see how much investment gets put into those efforts.

We are also eager to see the development of new reliable, easy to work with, and ideally low-cost ways of observing ocean acidification, allowing more people to participate. We have already seen some growth in that area in the last 10 years. It will be exciting to see where that technology is in the next 10 years.

What can community members do to combat ocean acidification?

The most important thing for community members to think about is the amount of carbon dioxide they’re emitting and seek approaches in their community to reduce emissions. Looking at buying into solar energy or wind energy is one option.

Thinking about your entire carbon footprint can change the food you eat and the distance you drive. All of that contributes to our impact on ocean acidification on a global scale. You may not feel like small steps you take can make a difference, but it would be a massive difference for our ocean if we all make these changes today.

OAP, NOAA Ocean Acidification Program, 6 May 2021. Article.

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