Maybe it's like the Swiss Navy, the punchline for a joke. After all, what does Nicolas Gruber, a guy from Zurich, know about surfing in wet suits? Or the foggy breezes that, for one example. darned near obliterated some of the views of yesterday's closing round of the US Open on a San Francisco golf course? How'd he even ever hear of the California Current that meanders down the West Coast, triggering upwelling of nutrient rich, cold water and feeding vast schools of fish, plankton, sea birds, and the nets of fishing boats? How, a reporter might ask, is he equipped to opine on such things?
But even at the landlocked at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology he knows about such things because he's an ocean biochemist. The team he leads reported in last week's Science that an analysis of the trend in ocean chemistry, chiefly of carbonic acid levels rising as the atmosphere's rising CO2 suffuses into the sea, coupled with the naturally lower-than-average pH in the upwellings tripped by the California Current, concludes that the US and southern Canada west coasts may be within one or two decades of an epochal shift in the saturation rate of aragonite. It seems destined to switch from positive to negative. In a few places, the balance has already turned. This is serious. It means the shells of many creatures turn would rather dissolve than stay hard. They worked it all out and ran it through computer models, those devil-toys of scientists who don't pay fealty to the US Chamber of Commerce. If you have a route through the subscriber wall, read the paper linked in Grist below. It'll scare the wits out you of any West Coast fisherman or fisherwoman (fisher sounds odd to these old ears).
What's most interesting to these eyes is why such waters start off with lowish pH - making them a natural harbinger of what may be coming for the entire world ocean. The rich organic nutrients in the upwelling water stimulate heavy microbial activity, which in turn absorbs oxygen while releasing biogenic CO2 - thus providing a higher baseline for anthropogenic, fossil fuel-derived etc. CO2 to build on.
I doubt that it's really the Swiss Navy effect. Perhaps it's only that ocean acidification is about as catchy as, oh, magnetoresistance oscillations in ferrous alloys. Another is that the topic has been in news steadily, if not prominently, for years so what's really new here? But so few media wrote the news is it striking. Not even large West Coast papers - the Oregonian, Seattle Times, Vancouver Sun, SF Chronicle, LA Times - gave it a line. A few outlets perked up.
- Christian Science Monitor - Pete Spotts: Global warming's evil twin threatens West Coast fishing grounds ; A sober article that includes a reminder to readers what the general topic is and why it matters.
- ScienceNow via Wired Science - Robert Service: Acidifying Ocean Threatens California Coast; ScienceNow of course is Science magazine's own news service. And Service's article on Wired's feed is evidence that it does circulate beyond the journal's in-crowd. The article is serious and emphatic, noting that the forecast puts at risk "one of the world's most diverse marine ecosystems and most important commerical fisheries (with potential to) affect millions of people dependent upon it for food and jobs." Includes an eye-popping video simulation of upcoming Calif. Current conditions.
Perhaps there are more, but they are not easily evident. That's it. Two articles in general media. The whole biome of the West Coast shallows from Baja to BC might literally go sour at enormous cost to biodiversity and the economy, says a study in the world's #1 or #2 (depending..) general science journal. Two stories. But by sheer coincidence, a non-profit of growing influence last week ran a feature story, which it picked up from another small outlet, that puts meat on this news's bones:
- Climate Central/The Environment Magazine - Brita Belli: This Is Your Ocean on Acid, and It's Not Pretty ; Belli is editor of The Environment Magazine, based in Connecticut. The article is a deeply researched look at acidification generally but it's opening vignette is on a mudflat in Washington State. The name of the business in its focus is memorable - a clam and oyster-farming operation called Chuckanut Shellfish. That's a native (Coast Salish?) word, also affixed to a coastal extension of the Cascade Range, for a beach on a bay with a small inlet. Sounds funny anyway. Not funny is that a change in acidity is why no oyster larvae have survived to shellhood for years. Maybe the clams are next. The magazine had this number in its May issue - and Climate Central just last week gave it wider distribution.
Acidification has made the news in the region many times. One reason perhaps is that the head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Jane Lubchenco, moved to DC from Oregon State University. Among stories this year in the area:
- Seattle Times - Craig Welch (Feb. 29, 2012) Ocean researchers dive deeper into Puget Sound's acidification: A strong feature on local research, with a focus on mussels and oysters and the "astonishingly low" pH levels of Puget Sounds water - near or approaching leves at which "Sea urchin larvae change shape, squid metabolisms slow, some brittle stars and barnacles begin to die, and the shells of oyster larvae start dissolving while they form." One also finds a nifty quote from a researcher, describing the embryonic state of the science this way: "The paint is still wet on this picture. We're still trying to see what it all really means."
Grist for the Mill:
ETH Zurich Press Release; Science "Rapid Progression of Ocean Acidification in the California Current System" ;
Last week's is not the only recent paper in Science on acidification. In early March a large research group, its leader Baerbel Hoenisch at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, reported a detailed comparison of today's rate of change in oceanic acid levels and what can be seen in the fossil record as measured in sea floor sediments. It concluded that in the last 300 million years compares to what is happening . Today's shift is far faster, and to levels relatively more acidic. Past extinctions of corals and plankton with shells were profound, but the changes in pH back then were so slow other factors may also have played a part. The implications are dire. "We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change," the paper concluded. That got more traction in media than last week's paper.
Sample stories on acidification in early March:
- Reuters - Deborah Zabarenko: Oceans' acidic shift may be fastest in 300 million years;
- Live Science - Wynne Parry: Ocean acidification worst in 300 millions years, study finds ;
- Bloomberg/Business Week - Alex Morales: Oceans Acidifying Fastest in 300 Million Years Due to Emissions;
- Ars Technica - Scott K. Johnson: Ocean Acidification to Hit 300-Million-Year Max. Fine job from the top down - the lede contrasts attitudes and self-deluded (my term, not his) rationales among climate contrarians toward anthropogenic global warming to the mechanisms of oceanic chemical change. One infers they will need a different sort of logic to wish acidification away.
And another, grand summary of humanity's collision with global limits, with ocean acidification a star player. No Chuckanuts but it does have a nutshell:
- The Economist: Boundary conditions/ the idea of planet-wide environmental boundaries, beyond which humanity would go at its peril, is gaining ground. This story's illus is that helical world map getting manhandled, up to the left.
Grist for this Mill: Lamont-Doherty Press Release ;
- Charlie Petit