In September, after months of reporting from the South Pacific to Alaska, The Seattle Times published Sea Change, a series of stories that detailed the threat posed by ocean acidification.
Earlier this week, local weather expert Cliff Mass, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, posted a lengthy critique of one of the stories on his weather blog. Then, on Friday, he went on the radio to talk about it. Mass suggested a major tenet of that story – that ocean acidification already has killed billions of oysters in the Pacific Northwest – was not true.
His rationale for his post was this: “Trying to scare folks by blaming current problems on atmospheric CO2, without strong evidence, ruins the credibility of the scientific community. And credibility is a precious thing.”
Mass could not be more correct about the importance of credibility.
Unfortunately, his conclusions are wrong, because his critique ignored the actual science.
Here is how Mass characterized his central thesis: “The Seattle Times minces no words: Damage to the shellfish industry during the last few years is the clear result of increasing CO2 in the atmosphere. This conclusion is probably not true, for reasons described below.”
Here’s the key problem with Mass’ statement: Ocean acidification actually is to blame for current problems with Northwest oysters. And that fact is supported by strong evidence. Suggesting otherwise is a misreading of the science.
Readers need not take our word for it.
Mass neglected to mention that it wasn’t The Seattle Times that reached this conclusion. It was some of the world’s foremost experts in chemical oceanography – the scientific community that actually understands the role of carbon in the ocean. We interviewed these scientists over and over – some more than a dozen times – and reported their findings, which are backed by a combination of several studies. The key ones are here, here, here, here, here and here. (Mass did not reference any of them.)
Many of the experts – Richard Feely, Chris Sabine, Simone Alin, Jeremy Mathis, all with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle – have been furloughed by the government shutdown and aren’t available to respond. But several have spoken publicly in the past about the link between atmospheric CO2 and shellfish deaths.
Here, starting at about 2:45, Feely describes to a European reporter ocean acidification’s role in the deaths of oysters in the Pacific Northwest: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eUG21s-6sFs.
Here, during a lecture earlier this year at a conference sponsored by the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea, Feely goes into more detail. His discussion of the oyster phenomenon begins at 24:20: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=etFob9Wy45E
Sabine takes an even more thorough look here, at about 38:00: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaRgGpRS8dI
Mass is not a chemical oceanographer, but he is a scientist with some familiarity with these issues. So, to be absolutely certain we did not make a mistake, The Seattle Times asked another of the region’s leaders in chemical oceanography, Burke Hales, at Oregon State University, to review his critique and our story.
Hales’ pioneering research in ocean carbon chemistry underlies much of what we know about the role carbon dioxide from fossil fuel emissions plays in changing the chemistry of Northwest seas.
After reading Mass’ critique, here is Hales’ response: “The Seattle Times got the oyster story right.”
We asked Hales what he thought of Mass’ contention that “atmospheric CO2 is probably not” the cause of recent oyster problems.
Hales was blunt. “This is not true.”
Here’s why: Waters welling up from the deep along the coast during certain wind events are naturally rich in carbon dioxide and bring that CO2-rich water right to the surface. That CO2 reduces the availability of certain chemicals in the marine water that young oysters draw upon to form their shells.
“This has been known for a long time and been thoroughly published and vetted in the published scientific literature for a couple of decades,” said Hales.
Under normal conditions, Pacific oysters, a nonnative species here, do OK, but live right at the edge of their tolerance.
But just a little extra CO2 can push larval oysters over a threshold so that they have trouble making shells. This, too, “has been covered extensively in the recent scientific literature and the cause of the sensitivity is known,” Hales said.
These changes in ocean CO2 were the leading cause of death for billions of larval oysters at Whiskey Creek, a major shellfish hatchery along the Oregon coast that supplies young oysters to many of the shellfish growers in Washington. Scientists know this through their own research. Even more telling, Hales said, is that when hatchery workers found ways to reduce the CO2, oysters stopped dying.
“When steps were taken to address ocean CO2 levels (artificial chemical buffering, monitoring to avoid the worst conditions), the problems greatly decreased,” Hales said.
So the question is: Where did that extra bit of CO2 come from?
This is what Mass takes issue with.
He pointed out that natural variability in CO2 – from upwelling and factors such as plant and animal respiration and decay – is high along the coast and in Puget Sound. He argued that this variability is so great that it dwarfed any change in CO2 caused by absorption of human-caused emissions. Mass wrote: “The clear implication: the Seattle Times has gotten this story fundamentally wrong.”
Not so, said Hales.
“The existence of natural variability in no way implies that the story is fundamentally wrong,” Hales said. “Natural variability has never been swept under the rug. It is prominently featured in each of the scientific publications that provide the basis for the Times article, and explicitly addressed.”
Instead, Hales said, Mass seemed to miss that this natural variation is what, under normal circumstances, already can bring young oysters so close to their tolerance. The rising baseline of CO2 from fossil fuel emissions just pushes them over the cliff.
“The rising baseline means that the ‘bad’ intervals caused by natural variability will be worse, more frequent, and more persistent,” Hales said. “The existence of natural variability probably makes things a little worse – if the coastal waters were always constant at today’s atmospheric CO2 levels, there would be no instances of harmful conditions until 2040 or so when the atmosphere reaches the break-even point we identified for oysters.
“The fact that natural variability sometimes puts the system close to bad conditions means that the rising baseline will put those close encounters into dangerous territory.”
Hales agreed that wide swings in the natural variability of ocean CO2 would have created harmful conditions in the past on occasion, “but they would have been fewer, less intense, and shorter in duration than was observed.”
Today, the CO2 content of these upwelling waters is higher than it has been in the past, “because of the addition of anthropogenic (human-made) CO2,” Hales said. “This has been published in the scientific literature on two occasions, once in 2008 and again in 2013, using well-established methods for doing the calculations.”
The result: “The most recent publication suggests that harmful conditions (for oysters) are three times as likely to occur now as in pre-industrial times,” Hales said.
The idea, as Mass suggested, that other sources of CO2 – from decaying organic matter to pollution – are the more likely cause of increased CO2 is just not supported by science, Hales said.
Since 2007, Hales said, “the possible natural causes like intensified upwelling and increasing hypoxia” have not been particularly remarkable. “Yet the CO2-induced oyster failures have increased.”
Meanwhile, “there is no evidence that any other factor like logging practices or sewage treatment pollution discharge has gotten worse over time,” Hales said.
The Oregon coast, for example, where the biggest hatchery draws water from the sea, is relatively pristine.
“First, the global signal of these other pollutants is miniscule compared to the CO2 effect, and none of these factors are at work in the open-coast and Netarts Bay (the site of the Whiskey Creek hatchery, along the Oregon coast) setting where we documented the influence of anthropogenic CO2 in coastal waters and the CO2 effect on larval oysters,” Hales said.
“Second, there is the issue of timing,” Hales said. “The effects we documented and explained for the larval oysters occurred in summer, when the influence of river discharge is minimal on the open coasts and the ocean input dominates the chemistry of the source waters. Winter 2006 and 2007 flooding events had nothing to do with summer 2009 ocean or bay chemistry, or the response of larval oysters to that chemistry.
“The relative importance of local factors in Puget Sound and Hood Canal has also been studied and addressed in a scientific publication,” Hales said. “This is not my work, but these other potential drivers have been addressed.”
Lastly, Mass pointed to another blogger’s contention that perhaps the real cause of shellfish deaths was that oyster growers had employed bad practices at their hatcheries.
Again, Hales dismissed the suggestion.
“I’ll take special exception to the ‘poor practices at oyster hatcheries’ comment,” Hales said. “The suggestion that oyster hatchery operators were doing all the right things until recently, and then just suddenly started doing things that somehow made their production sensitive to CO2 is absurd.”
In fact, the only factor Mass seemed unwilling to contemplate as a cause of oyster deaths is the one best-documented in the scientific literature:
Rising anthropogenic CO2. In other words, more CO2 from the burning of coal and other fossil fuels.
“The ocean carbonate community has spent the last couple of decades determining how to estimate the amount of the total carbon dioxide in the water that came from absorption of anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere,” Hales said. “It’s not an easy calculation, but it has been done and done with high certainty.”
The bulk of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s new synopsis of climate science, unveiled Friday, focused on rapid changes in climate, expected rises in global temperatures and the panel’s overwhelming confidence that humans are behind it all.
But the release by the international coalition of thousands of scientists also confirmed the panel was highly confident that ocean chemistry had changed dramatically since the industrial revolution — and that it would continue to do so to varying degrees under future carbon-dioxide emissions scenarios.
The report, a 36-page summary of a more exhaustive review of climate science set to be released next week, is the fifth such assessment since 1990.
It made clear that while global average temperatures may not rise consistently year over year, ocean acidification just keeps getting worse. As more CO2 gets absorbed by the sea, the pH of marine water continues to fall.
And the summary pointed out that many proposed engineering fixes designed to combat climate change — so-called geoengineering ideas designed to affect solar radiation — would do nothing at all to reduce ocean acidification, an issue we plan to explore in more detail in future stories.
Editor’s note: Shay King is a senior at Arlington High School. He wrote this essay after Times editors asked him to describe his ocean-acidification studies so far.
As a high-school student of the Ocean Research College Academy (ORCA) based out of Everett Community College’s Running Start Program, I have had a unique opportunity to research this ever-growing threat called ocean acidification (OA). Being that I have a younger perspective on this issue and the threats it poses, I have become increasingly concerned for the state of our oceans and what it means for my generation and the generations to follow.
This issue has only been on the general public’s radar since recent stories, like that of The Seattle Times, have made it known. In my opinion this is a sad reflection on our society and what we choose to place our values in. It is true that the public has been aware of the greenhouse gas phenomenon and its influence on our atmosphere and ozone, but there lacks a general concern or awareness for the condition of our oceans. After all, ocean acidification is the nasty twin of atmospheric climate change.
Ocean acidification is a direct result of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere, but what most people aren’t aware of is the rate at which these concentrations are increasing. The first research on OA didn’t begin until the late ‘50s and even that was too late considering the industrial revolution has been pumping out CO2 since the 18th century. What I found most interesting throughout my research is that as a global community we’ve reached a level of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that we never thought possible. According to the Washington Post, the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations have topped 400 parts per million, the highest level in human history and nearly double the concentrations pre-industrial revolution.
The numbers concerning the atmospheric CO2 levels are vital, however when it gets down to the influences on ocean biology, and consequently global biology, then the sense of urgency that comes with ocean acidification becomes all too real. In my research I reviewed and critiqued multiple studies on OA’s effects on marine creatures called “calcifiers,” which are anything that uses calcium carbonate to form shells or skeletal structures including but not limited to oysters, certain sea stars, corals, barnacles, and phytoplankton. Increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations cause a decrease in ocean pH levels (aka more acidic) and as a result we as humans are helping in the literal corrosion of these creatures.
This acidic environment also causes development stages of marine calcifiers to be critically damaged. As a result, they’re losing the fight to adapt to these quickly changing water conditions. This is terrifying news to shellfish farmers who depend on our oceans for a living, but it goes even farther than just the farmers. According to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, the annual economic value of the commercial fishing industry in the state is around $4 billion and worth about 60,000 local jobs.
On Thursday, Ross Reynolds, host of 94.9 KUOW’s new show “The Record,” interviewed Seattle Times environment reporter Craig Welch about the newspaper’s series on ocean acidification, “Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn.”
In the interview, Reynolds asked Welch about threats to the oyster industry, Alaska’s crab industry and about why listeners should care about how carbon dioxide emissions are changing the chemistry of the seas.
U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell on Thursday sought a commitment from the Obama administration’s nominee to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to make ocean acidification a significant priority.
But the exchange quickly turned, albeit obliquely, to an issue at the heart of the debate about the U.S. response to ocean acidification: funding.
In response to a Seattle Times’ series examining the current and projected impacts of changing sea chemistry in the Pacific Ocean, Cantwell asked Kathryn Sullivan, acting chief at NOAA, how the agency would respond to acidification’s growing threat to marine resources.
Follow a video of the discussion here beginning at the 2:37 point.
Read more comments from the exchange in this post on the Politics Northwest blog.
In Sunday’s Seattle Times, an editorial points out that Times environmental reporter Craig Welch and photographer Steve Ringman “present an extraordinary window on a scientific fact: The oceans are rapidly acidifying.” If we don’t act fast to undo the damage, the consequences for the oceans – and for us, whose lives depend on them – are profound. “Speed is of the essence.”
Newspapers In Education will offer three lesson plans written by a science content specialist to accompany the Sea Change series. These lessons will be emailed to all NIE educators on Sunday, Sept. 15, Monday, Sept. 16 and Tuesday, Sept. 17.
Newspapers In Education provides educators with free access to the e-Edition of The Seattle Times, daily e-mailed lesson plans, curriculum guides, weekly serial stories, and in-paper content for a variety of topics and grade levels aligned to state and national standards.
Please email Newspapers In Education at email@example.com or call 206-652-6290 to request overruns of this series or to sign up for NIE.
Part of our mission at The Northwest School — a 6th- through 12th-grade independent school in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood — is to teach students how to be informed and active global citizens. That’s why we teach ocean acidification to our middle school and upper school (high school) students. They have to know what’s concerning scientists right now, so they can make a positive change.
Our teacher Herb Bergamini has his 8th grade Earth Science students investigate what he calls “The Big 5″ — top ecological threats to the Earth’s atmosphere, and thus, its oceans: 1) ocean acidification, 2) acid rain, 3) global climate change, 4) ice cap/glacial melting/sea level rise, and 5) increased atmospheric carbon level. Students analyze and research the issue, and present in front of the class. And they must come up with solutions.
Here’s a PowerPoint presentation from a previous school year about ocean acidification by students Cecilia, Willa, Kevin and Max:
We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access! Our introductory rate, starting at only 99¢ a week, includes: