Effort afoot to ramp up study of West Coast ocean’s changing chemistry
SAN JOSE — Members of a multidisciplinary panel tackling the related problems of ocean acidification and low-oxygen zones off the western shore of the continent conceded Sunday they had little to offer yet in the way of solutions beyond what most of us know: We need to dump less carbon dioxide into the air.
But scientists associated with the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel offered hope in a uniquely collaborative, cross-jurisdictional approach set up to move quickly toward a more complete understanding of shifting ocean conditions that enables direct feedback to government decision-makers who can compel action.
The 20-member panel includes representatives from varied research areas across California, Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, but also has the support of governors of those regions and an urgent desire to develop action strategies, members said during a session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual convention in San Jose.
The idea is to accelerate the already growing body of research on changing ocean chemistry and tailor studies specifically so government regulators, industry and scientific innovators can adapt problem-solving techniques.
“We want to make sure we have the answers while they’re still useful,” said Francis Chan, an assistant professor in the department of integrative biology at Oregon State University.
There’s little room for delay.
The ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is causing rapid chemical change that is already detectable through marine life observation and through testing that shows low-pH hot spots and areas of depleted oxygen from the coast of British Columbia down toward Baja.
Scientists have already been able to observe the effects of the chemical changes on commercial fisheries.
Chan noted that fishermen observing a die-off of crab on the Oregon coast helped bring the issue of low-oxygen zones to the attention of scientists.
Much of the research into ocean acidification has focused on the effects on shellfish, some of which have issues developing or forming shells that can withstand the corrosive nature of low-ph water.
It “is not theoretical,” said Tessa Hill, an associate professor of geology and researcher at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory. “It is already happening and we can actually document these changes in the ocean today.”
Studies also indicate the West Coast, and the California coast, especially, are particularly vulnerable.
The California Current’s delivery of cold water from offshore Canada toward the equator, combined with the coastal upwelling that churns up deep ocean water toward the surface, predisposes these coastal water to low-acid, low-oxygen conditions even without the impact of global warming, Hill said.
It’s a bit of irony that the upwelling also produces otherwise nutrient-rich, productive water and has traditionally been abundant in wildlife, she said.
But with continued warming of the atmosphere and the ocean’s absorption of as much as 30 percent of the atmospheric carbon dioxide, the ocean’s surface is expected to be bathed in acidic water by 2050, she said.
At present, Chan said, the “tool box seems really shallow” — basically “buy a Prius and don’t flush the toilet.”
But he says he has great optimism in human innovation and in the potential or biological adaptation among wildlife.
He and Hill noted Marine Lab scientists using real-time data already are working, for instance, with Hog Island Oyster Co. in Tomales Bay to make operational adjustments depending on the periodic shifts in water conditions.
And, Hill said, continued and improving efforts to reduce stressors on ocean environments where it’s already possible can help make ecosystems more resilient to the changes in water chemistry.
“We need to buy a little time,” she said.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.