The Blog Aquatic » Sarah Cooley News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy Thu, 14 Aug 2014 17:21:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 What Does Ocean Acidification Mean for our Coasts? Thu, 07 Aug 2014 12:30:35 +0000 Sarah Cooley

This post is a collaboration between Sarah Cooley, Ph.D. (Ocean Conservancy) and Meredith White, Ph.D. (Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences).

As we dig deeper into how ocean acidification will affect our oceans, many scientists are also starting to talk about how it affects our coasts. This is a new focus for scientists and one ripe for new learning. In this post, we will give you a window into the coastal factors that are driving acidification and the solutions at hand.

Here’s how it breaks down. When people refer to ‘ocean acidification,’ they are usually talking about changes in water chemistry that happen when the ocean takes up carbon pollution from fossil fuels.  Scientists can see this very clearly at study sites in the middle of the ocean, far away from land. But, ocean acidification is having an impact closer to shore as well. The impacts from acidification to West Coast oyster growers and the losses they suffered are well-known. It’s one of the reasons East Coast states are deciding to act. Just last week, a Maine commission held its first meeting to figure out what the state can do about acidification. Maryland’s task force meets this week. Much of their focus will be on the near-shore drivers of acidification.

Absorption of carbon pollution from the atmosphere isn’t the only thing that affects seawater acidity.  In coastal areas, differences in the makeup or amount of river discharge and heavy pollution from land (e.g., stormwater and agricultural run-off) also change water acidity. Most rivers naturally increase seawater acidity and worsen ocean acidification. Other activities can make things worse by increasing runoff (e.g., from a large parking lot or by melting glaciers) or by changing the natural balance of rock particles carried in the river (e.g. erosion from development projects). These rivers then acidify the coastal ocean at higher rates than before. In addition, fertilizer pollution or sewage runoff can cause huge algae blooms. In the worst case, some of the blooms could be toxic, similar to what has impacted Toledo, Ohio’s water supply over the last four days. When the algae die, they release huge amounts of extra carbon dioxide that also acidify the water. Recent research shows that this makes the water even less able to naturally balance out these disruptions.

In the past few years scientists have started to focus on coastal factors that worsen acidification, as our ability to measure these changes near the shore has grown.  When we started working on ocean acidification about eight years ago, coastal issues weren’t really a focus for the ocean acidification community. But now, addressing these coastal factors is a key part of dealing with ocean acidification. Communities have a lot of options available to them, starting with local actions like reducing coastal pollution and wisely managing polluted runoff. While these coastal factors are critical, they are just a first step. To fully address ocean acidification, we will also need to reduce the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere. By taking care of our coasts and keeping the big picture of reducing carbon in mind, we can ensure that our oceans are healthy and productive.

Meredith White, Ph.D. has been a postdoctoral researcher at Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences since March 2013. Her research focuses on biological impacts of ocean acidification, and she is serving as a member of Maine’s Commission on acidification. She is particularly fond of marine invertebrates, and she has a knack for spotting lobster art with the wrong number of legs. Follow her at @CoastalMer and 

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Alaska in the Spotlight: Supporting Communities Facing the Big Risks From Ocean Acidification Tue, 29 Jul 2014 15:15:31 +0000 Sarah Cooley

The total risk of Alaska’s boroughs and census areas from ocean acidification. Red areas are at highest risk, while blue areas are at lowest risk. Population size (circles), commercial harvest value (dollar sign size), and subsistence fishing significance (fish icon size) contribute to the total risk. Reprinted from Progress in Oceanography.

We know that some people will be more at risk than others as a result of ocean acidification. We have seen this with oyster growers in the Pacific Northwest.  Scientists are now trying to determine what puts certain regions at greater risk than others from ocean acidification. Before I came to Ocean Conservancy, I helped lead a study on this question for Alaska, and it’s just been published in Progress in Oceanography this week.

My coauthors and I found that many of southwest and southeast Alaska’s boroughs and census areas (similar to counties or parishes in other states) face social and economic risk from ocean acidification – namely, many of the foods they eat and sell for income, all coming from the sea, are threatened by changes in the ocean’s chemistry.

A number of factors combine to elevate risk in certain regions of Alaska. The unique oceanography that makes Alaska’s coastal oceans productive also makes them more susceptible to acidification. Commercial and recreational fisheries that rely heavily on crabs and clams—species that are more likely to be hurt by acidification—pose serious economic risk to both individuals and industry. Many of Alaska’s coastal residents feed themselves by harvesting crabs and clams, which means that they may face food security risks as their private harvests decline. And some risk doesn’t even come from the ocean at all. It comes from factors like low incomes, few industries, scarce jobs, limited education, and the high cost of imported foods that are common throughout many parts of Alaska.

By adding all of these factors together, our study showed that southeastern and southwestern Alaska face the greatest overall risk (see figure). At the same time, other factors like nutrient pollution from land, overfishing, and ice melting add stress to marine ecosystems and worsen the effects of ocean acidification.

Now that we know which areas could be hit hardest in Alaska and why, we can start to prevent future losses from ocean acidification. Since the main cause of ocean acidification is atmospheric carbon dioxide, we all need to work towards cutting emissions. But that will take time and many partnerships across the nation. While we work towards that, we can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities against ocean acidification by making them stronger from within.

Programs that help educate Alaska’s residents, attract a greater array of job opportunities, and improve access to affordable, nutritious food will help these communities avoid depending too heavily on natural resources that could disappear. We can also defend Alaska’s coastal communities with environmental stewardship efforts that decrease nutrient pollution, overfishing, and ice melting. Even though ocean acidification seems like an insurmountable problem that lies beyond individual actions, studies like this show that small actions, added up, can decrease the overall risk of communities from global changes like ocean acidification.

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A Modest Pledge Makes a Big Difference for Ocean Acidification Research and Collaboration Wed, 25 Jun 2014 21:30:16 +0000 Sarah Cooley  

The right-hand end of the long, low pinkish building across the harbor houses the International Atomic Energy Agency Laboratory in La Condamine, Monaco, which hosts the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre.

Despite this week’s excited headlines about ocean research and conservation during Secretary Kerry’s “Our Oceans” conference, you still might have missed Prince Albert of Monaco’s Monday announcement that the U.S. State Department and Department of Energy have pledged a total of $640,000 to the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC), based at the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) Monaco lab.

This is great news for ocean acidification research and decision-making around the world. The OA-ICC engages scientists in international collaborative research, education, and advice to policymakers. For example, the OA-ICC and its partners have put out several informational brochures for the public in many languages about ocean acidification, and OA-ICC-affiliated scientists have presented at high-level international events like this week’s “Our Oceans” conference and the past five sessions of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of the Parties. But the OA-ICC’s best known activity among specialists is their news stream, which is a thoughtfully-curated daily feed (available by email, Twitter, or RSS) about ocean acidification news stories, research outcomes, opportunities, and educational materials. The OA-ICC gets a lot done for a small price tag.

The State Department’s support will allow researchers and policymakers to continue to study ocean acidification globally and find meaningful solutions for people and communities impacted. We thank Secretary Kerry, HSH Prince Albert of Monaco, the U.S. State Department, the U.S. Department of Energy, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the Principality of Monaco for their continued support of ocean acidification research and collaboration at the international level.

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Connecting the Head and the Heart: Taking Action on Ocean Acidification Thu, 01 May 2014 11:45:25 +0000 Sarah Cooley Even though ocean acidification is a pretty young issue, scientists and journalists already have developed two distinct storylines about it. Scientists start with the details and describe the impacts of ocean acidification last. Journalists put the impacts up front and fill in the details where they fit in. But to create long-lasting action around ocean acidification, we need to connect the two approaches in a new way. Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’re working on exactly that.

Scientists describe what studies came before, what questions remain, how they did their study, and then what they learned. Typical scientific explanations of ocean acidification start by describing how increased atmospheric carbon dioxide changes ocean chemistry in ways that slow the growth of marine creatures with hard shells and skeletons– from tiny sea snails to massive corals. After lots of detail, scientists point out that coastal communities could see decreased fisheries harvests, leading to hunger or economic losses, or loss of coral reef protection from storms. The big stories that matter to people, about hunger, economic losses, and storm flooding, get buried in the details.

Journalists, on the other hand, start with the hook. Media coverage of the Pacific Northwest oyster collapse often started by profiling shellfish growers who had suffered losses, then described the discovery of ocean acidification as the culprit. These stories often ended with hope, describing possible fixes growers were trying. Stories with heart, about people, helped drive action about ocean acidification in Washington State. Concerned citizens in Maine and Maryland have heard these stories, and are also taking action to understand the local impacts of ocean acidification. Similarly, recent coverage of the latest study showing how quickly sea snails, or pteropods, are being harmed by ocean acidification starts with the scientists’ astonishment at their own results, rather than strictly focusing on the details of the study.

The happy downside of the journalists’ approach is that we don’t have many sad stories about ocean acidification today—but every new day could bring them. The happy downside of the scientists’ approach is that from all of the technical details and reams of data we must sift through, we’ve got lots of evidence about what is likely to happen. The science says more sad stories are coming if we don’t act soon. Ocean acidification has never happened this fast, as far back as we can read Earth’s history. But ocean chemistry changes that developed over thousands of years caused mass extinctions in the past – what will this major change that’s developed over just two centuries do? From the Earth’s point of view, ocean acidification is happening in the blink of an eye, but it’s hard for humans to take action on changes happening over decades to centuries.

Action against global change in the climate and oceans needs more than a single news story or science lecture. We know we need to commit to cutting the carbon pollution we’re putting into the air and ocean. We also know that it’s hard to do this.  To help get us there, we need people speaking out about the waste we’re pumping into our environment and how it’s impacting them or their businesses.  Here at Ocean Conservancy, we are working with partners to highlight these stories, and bring them to the attention of decision makers. We are also distilling the science into nuggets that directly answer citizens’ and decision-makers’ questions. When it comes to communicating about big, global issues in a way that can lead to meaningful, lasting change, both the journalists’ and scientists’ approaches are needed.  Neither the heart nor the head can succeed alone, so we’re connecting the two in a fresh approach.

See more stories of people who will be impacted by ocean acidification. Learn more about ocean acidification. Join the conversation around #oceanacidification with me, @co2ley, on Twitter!

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Ocean Acidification on the International Stage Fri, 04 Apr 2014 14:22:18 +0000 Sarah Cooley The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report this week, addressing ocean acidification head on for the first time.  Ocean acidification is just as big a problem as severe storms, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, crop failures, disease and ocean circulation changes that are driven by global temperature rise. Just as with these other threats, the need for solutions is urgent. The good news is that there are already solutions at hand – all that’s needed is leaders willing to push for them.

Ten years ago, scientists first reported  that sea snails’ shells became weak and vulnerable in acidified seawater. Since then, our knowledge has grown enough and the implications are serious enough to elevate ocean acidification to the international level.

It’s wonderful to see how quickly the science community has been able to gather hard evidence proving that ocean acidification is happening, and that it is a real danger for marine ecosystems. Thanks to the pioneering work of climate change researchers, oceanographers knew where and how to look in the ocean for carbon pollution, and we had reams of historical data that helped us figure out what kinds of new experiments and equipment are needed to study ocean acidification.

Yet it’s clear that the work is not done.

The IPCC’s report also considers which human communities are most vulnerable, and how people can adapt to the changes. So far there are only a few scientifically studied instances where human communities have been harmed by ocean acidification: shellfish growers in the Pacific Northwest, and impacts on fishermen in New England. Yet we know anecdotally acidification affects a huge number of people and seafood businesses around the world.

Scientists are using theory and models to identify who else could be vulnerable and what changes they can make now, knowing that ocean acidification will continue until we address and reduce carbon pollution. States like Washington and Maine are responding in the meantime, putting in place measures that enable coastal businesses to thrive by tackling local pollution that makes acidification worse.

I am optimistic that science and smart policies will help us win this race and avoid problems from ocean acidification before they become more widespread. Even though what we know about how species and communities will respond to ocean acidification is just a proverbial drop in the bucket, our understanding is growing every day. Future IPCC reports will surely have more to say on ocean acidification, as well as the array of actions  available to us. IN the meantime, we have a lot of work to do.

View Ocean Conservancy’s slideshow: Changing chemistry: The people impacted by ocean acidification.

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Youngsters Need Energy to Grow Thu, 27 Feb 2014 02:00:29 +0000 Sarah Cooley

There’s a shift happening in the way scientists are thinking about how ocean acidification affects marine creatures. Originally, when researchers in the Southern Ocean watched the shells of tiny marine snails dissolve in high-carbon dioxide water, they suspected that similar animals with calcium carbonate shells and skeletons would most likely be harmed by ocean acidification. After all, this made intuitive sense: Ocean acidification means there is more carbon dioxide in the water, which lowers the water’s pH. All of this decreases the amount  of carbonate ions in the ocean—the chemical building blocks found in animals’ shells. Wouldn’t decreases in these building blocks rob animals of the very things they need to build their shells?

Ocean acidification biological research has looked at this “building blocks” hypothesis for a while. Many excellent studies have shown that time after time, decreases in seawater carbonate ion levels are associated with decreases in shell building by corals, plankton, oysters, and more. But that clear relationship doesn’t hold for crabs and lobsters, even though they too have calcium carbonate in their shells. And different shell formers respond to different degrees of change. What’s going on?

The newest generation of research points to energy, or the lack of it, as the culprit. Presentations at yesterday’s ocean acidification sessions at the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting showed that algae, red coral, mussels, and even very young Dungeness crabs — all shell builders — are most likely not suffering from a lack of shell building blocks. Rather, the problem is bigger. They’re spending more energy existing in water chemistry that just isn’t very comfortable overall, so they have less energy for growing, reproducing, and surviving. Younger, fast-growing organisms tend to take it harder than older ones, since they don’t have a lot of reserves to draw from. This “energy crisis” hypothesis also helps explain some other ocean acidification response results of higher animals without shells, like squid and finfish.

To understand exactly what’s going on, we need new kinds of experiments to look at the different amounts of energy species need to survive and thrive. That’s the next horizon in ocean acidification research!

Follow the conversation around the meeting on Twitter with the hashtag #2014OSM and by following me at @co2ley

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A Thousand-Yard-Long Buffet Table Tue, 25 Feb 2014 02:02:53 +0000 Sarah Cooley

Beautiful day for some science at #2014OSM. Photo: Sarah Cooley

Reading through the program for the 2014 Ocean Sciences Meeting, starting today in Honolulu, I’m like a hungry person at a buffet. But this isn’t just any buffet. Imagine the longest buffet table you’ve ever seen, loaded with all the dishes you love plus hundreds of interesting-looking new ones. Like that buffet table, this meeting program is packed with presentations about aspects of marine science I’ve always wanted to learn more about, and many that I’ve never thought of.

On my first read-through, I marked everything that looked interesting. And that wound up being about 300 talks, posters and plenary sessions over five days! I made the classic buffet eater’s mistake: My eyes are bigger than my stomach, or in this case, my brain. My selections range widely: Not only did I highlight every ocean acidification item, but I also highlighted things related to long-standing interests, like the nitrogen cycle and marine viruses. (Did you know there are viruses in the ocean? They attack the bacteria and other small creatures at the bottom of the ocean food web, and they’re really important in global carbon and nitrogen cycles!)

But now, I have to make some tough choices. Am I going to spend the afternoon in a session focused on coastal environments or one on policy impacts? How can I load my plate with tiny bites of all the ideas I need to hear most about and still save room for new stuff? Basically, how do I save room for dessert? I’ve still got a lot of work to do to narrow things down! But I’m really looking forward to trying to see it all and sharing some of what I learn here over the next five days. Check back to see how I survive the thousand-yard-long buffet table of ideas this week!

You can see the session list and abstracts on the meeting website: Follow the conversation around the meeting on Twitter with the hashtag #2014OSM and follow me at @co2ley.

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