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Scientists Urge West Coast to Prepare for Approaching Acidification

Doug McKnight

A group of scientists is warning that West Coast waters are quickly growing more acidic. They issued a report this week urging coastline states to adopt a plan to deal with the ocean’s rapidly changing chemistry.

Seawater grows acidic when carbon dioxide seeps in from the atmosphere. The change can disorient fish, dissolve shells, and alter ecosystems.

Ocean biologist Dr. Francis Chan of Oregon State University was one of 20 scientists charged with preparing the West Coast for the increasing threat of ocean acidification. The panel began in California three years ago, but quickly grew to include Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. I reached Chan at his home in Oregon.


Francis Chan (FC): The interesting thing is ocean acidification is such a new challenge it literally was something that we discovered in the scientific community within the past decade.  This really is a rapidly emerging issue none of the policies we have in place to protect and manage the ocean, well they’re all blind to this problem.  But what we are all hopeful for with the release of our report is that going forward, that doesn’t have to be the case.  The next generation of ocean policies will actually be very, very aware and very informed by the challenges ahead.

Brendan Bane (BB): And ocean acidification is not the only challenge, the report points to a second problem called Hypoxia where seawater is starved of oxygen.

FC: Now that’s a natural condition, but what we are concerned about is that there seems to be a trend of lower and lower oxygen level in the world’s ocean and a hyposisis is this is a product of the changing climate. So the problem for a place like the US west coast is that the water that is lowest oxygen also tends to be the most acidified, so the organisms and people on the coast, we are looking at a double whammy.


BB: Can the problems be reversed?

FC: At the very big scale, at the scale of the Pacific Ocean or the global ocean, we can reverse it. Unfortunately not, probably not in my lifetime, but what we're looking at and these are the very important next steps.  So we can try things like replanting seagrass beds, which naturally draw down carbon dioxide to really buy us time to give us a little more breathing room before ocean chemistry changes really start to intensify further.

BB: Another recommendation in the report entails genetically modifying marine creatures so they can cope with their changing environment. What would that look like?

FC: I’ll walk that phrase back a little.  When we talk about genetic modification it can be something as old fashioned as breeding where you see something that did a little better and that’s the one you pick to be in the gene pool and farmers have been doing that for 10,000 of years. People who farm marine life they also do that.  So that’s one form of very old fashioned genetic modification.  The other is when you actually go in and manipulate the  genetics of organisms, and that poses a much bigger societal, ethical questions, and that’s something that I think needs to be addressed.  Not within the scientific context, but really with all the stakeholders that are involved.

BB: The panel made 14 recommendations for coastal managers.  Which recommendation will bring the biggest bang for our buck?

FC: There’s really not a silver bullet out there to address this big problem, but the way to think about it is let’s take a series of actions any one of them might not solve the problem, but they will start to tackle parts of the problems and when you add up all those pieces that is going to get us to a much more prepared position than if we do nothing and wait and see.

BB: In a worst-case scenario, where the report’s recommendations are largely ignored, what would happen?

FC: The worst case scenario is that we get to see if science is right. We will do nothing and we will get to see if in fact we are going to see bigger and more severe changes to the eco-system with bigger and more severe impacts to coastal communities that depend on the health of our ocean.

Dr. Francis Chan is an associate professor at Oregon State University’s Department of Integrative Biology, where he studies the influence of biogeochemistry in aquatic environments.  

About the Interviewer: Brendan Bane is a science journalist from the UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program. Follow him on Twitter @brendan_bane.