I’m a scientist, and I’ve dedicated my life to finding solutions that help people and coastal communities. It may sound complicated, but really, it’s simple—if you add carbon emissions to seawater, the ocean turns more acidic. I’ve visited with shellfish growers and coastal businesses across the country, and I’ve seen firsthand the impacts of acidification.
So you can imagine my surprise, when Scott Pruitt—the nominee for the head of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)—was asked directly by Senators about ocean acidification, he wasn’t even willing to admit that ocean acidification is happening.
This week we’re celebrating all things coral! It’s no secret that coral reefs are spectacular ecosystems, but we wanted to do a deep dive into what exactly makes corals so special. Check out nine ways corals are even cooler than you thought:
1) Corals are like speed bumps. They slow down waves and lessen wave energy. This protects coastlines from hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis. Coral reefs protect the shoreline in 81 countries around the world, sheltering the 200 million people living along those coasts.
Reef-building corals find refuge from climate change in mangrove habitats. Photo credit: Caroline Rogers, USGS.
Dr. KimberlyYates will be a panelist at an ocean acidification roundtable we are hosting in Miami this week. There, she will join other scientists, Florida elected officials and local businesspeople in discussing what ocean acidification has in store for Florida’s marine life and its coastal communities. Follow the meeting on Twitter via #FL_OA on Friday, June 17!
OC: Your research focuses on several marine habitats in Florida: coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves. How are they coping with ocean acidification?
Dr. Yates: Most of what we know about how ocean acidification is affecting these environments comes from experimental research. We know some marine organisms will be negatively impacted, and some may benefit. For example, some species that form their skeletons and shells from minerals made of calcium carbonate, like corals and some shellfish, are negatively impacted. Ocean acidification slows the rate at which they grow their skeletons and shells, and can also cause calcium carbonate minerals to dissolve.
Other species like seagrasses and some marine algae benefit from ocean acidification because it increases their growth rates. Coral reefs have been degrading rapidly over the past few decades, and recent research shows that some reefs in the Florida Keys are beginning to dissolve during certain times of the year from ocean acidification…which was not expected to happen for another few decades. Estuaries and mangrove wetlands support many species of shellfish, and ocean acidification may negatively impact those species and the economies that depend on shell fisheries. We are still learning about how changes caused by ocean acidification are impacting these habitats.
2016 hasn’t been a good year for the West Coast Dungeness crab fishery. The fishing season that typically spans the winter months – worth $212 million in 2014 – got significantly delayed this year when Dungeness crabs tested high for domoic acid, which sickens humans, and managers shut down the fishery. The crabs had fed heartily on a giant toxic bloom of Pseudonitschia algae, which produce domoic acid, and which were thriving in an unusually warm body of water stalled offshore, affectionately called “the blob.” The bloom also shut down other West Coast shellfish fisheries, too. The lost harvests equal lost income for West Coast communities. San Francisco Bay Area crabber John Mellor says, “If crabs were to disappear from the picture, I think it would be the end of my fishing career at this point.”
Ten years ago, I was finishing graduate school. I was becoming an expert on how carbon dioxide is stored in the world’s oceans, but – and this seems weird to me now – I hadn’t heard about ocean acidification. Hardly anyone had. Only a handful of scientists had started to realize that as the ocean sops up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, ocean chemistry changes in ways that can hurt fish, shellfish, and corals.
Just five years later, concern about ocean acidification had grown dramatically, and thousands of people were involved. West Coast shellfish growers were trying to save their hatcheries from the effects of ocean acidification, while scientists were scrambling to offer information and solutions. Ocean Conservancy began working on this issue in 2012, helping bring affected business people, policy makers, and scientists together during the initial search for solutions in Washington State, whose shellfish hatcheries experienced dramatic die-offs of their oyster larvae.
Ocean acidification is one of those big, scary problems that scientists have been warning us about for years. Carbon emissions are being absorbed by the ocean, turning it more acidic – spelling trouble for oysters, clams, mussels, as well as corals, salmon and even sharks. We know that reducing global carbon emissions is key to solving ocean acidification. The UN Climate Meeting in December was a resounding success, but what can people and states do, today, that will make a difference to their communities and businesses impacted by acidification? Turns out, quite a lot.
Around here, we’re always thinking about the ocean. But sometimes the ocean isn’t always top-of-mind for world leaders, who must balance many pressing concerns. Nevertheless, dozens of world political, scientific, and environmental leaders made time to attend the second “Our Ocean” conference in Valparaiso, Chile last week.
Continuing the momentum developed at the first “Our Ocean” meeting in June 2014, speakers reviewed the critical importance of caring for the ocean that sustains human life. Ocean acidification was one of the main conference topics, and speakers underscored our best option for curbing it: cutting atmospheric carbon dioxide pollution.