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17Sep 2013

Seattle Times: Story as broad as the sea - 3-part series on ocean acidification

Charlie Petit
Seattle Times: Story as broad as the sea - 3-part series on ocean acidification

  Huzzahs for an old-time big city newspaper series on a big topic: ocean acidification. But, and there is a but, this one came together only with outside charity. Egad, it took a $12,000 grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to get the newspaper off the dime, which may be all it has in its own travel budget. Does anybody, new media or old, have a fat travel budget anymore that is accumulated from revenue generated by publishing the news itself?

   Nonetheless, here we have an old-fashioned, serious and heavily-researched feature series on something that matters and has gotten scarce attention outside science and environment-wonk circles. The accompanying videos and graphics are terrific too.

   Welch is an exprienced hand, having covered enviro news for 13 years with the Times. Ringman, at the Seattle paper for 18 years now, I know first-hand - having seen him in action in the 1980s when he was the star of the San Francisco Chronicle's photo squad. The series started Sunday and finished today. Welch and Ringman open it in Papua New Guinea with a visit to a remote reef where natural CO2 seeps have already changed the acid level in some spots to where, in coming decades, basic chemistry all but guarantees the pH level will fall. They then accompany crabbers out of Dutch Harbor, Alaska to witness first hand the crappy weather and crazy dangerous work conditions that Discovery TV's Deadliest Catch series has brought to public awareness already. Various species of  king crab, it says here, might well crash soon as increasingly acid waters short circuit its reproduction. Today's closing installment reviews the tumult into which their home state's oyster farm industry has been cast by sour waters surfacing from deeper layers along the coast and flat-out killing juvenile oysters.

   The newspaper includes an informative behind-the-scenes explanation of what went into it: How we did the project. One assertion jumps out: "Nearly every important peer-reviewed study available - hundreds in all - was examined for the project." That's diligence. Some 150 people got interview. The two newsmen visited not only the places listed above but labs, hatcheries, and research labs in four states.

   The story gets the basics (and acidics) of this slow-moving, insidious disruption of the essential chemical bath in which sea life has evolved. I had to read it somewhat hastily, for the paper puts a limit on how many stories one may see per month before hitting a subscription wall. So perhaps I missed it. If not, then the story might have declared that while ocean acidification hasn't the easy immediacy of global warming as an understandable peril, it does have the advantage of slum-dunk inevitability. The oceans absorb most of mankind's extra infrement of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In sea water, that generates carbonic acid. No fancy multilayered and boundary-guessed computer models are necessary to project the general result. And while the models used by climatologists to chart how weather and temperature will likely change are in fact rather well-proven and robust, climate contrarians have an easier time chortling at them than they would trying to laugh off the chemistry of carbonic acid.

   For all that, the series makes clear that, so far, effects of acidification have been limited (Pacific Northwest oyster farmers might disagree). Good as this series is one suspects that the souring of the sea will need a good deal more media and political attention before any more than a tiny sliver of the public gives a ratfish's ass about it.


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