Ocean acidification research and the new generation

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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.

Not only are the fisheries of our state at risk, but I’ve found that our recreational economy is too. Increased ocean acidity may cause decreases in primary productivity because primary producers like many phytoplankton have calcium carbonate shells and may be affected by acidic corrosion. This is potentially very serious considering phytoplankton make up the largest biomass among marine organisms. Primary producers are the base of the food web and without them the oceanic food web would be depleted, thus affecting not only the ocean’s biodiversity, but also human industries and economies that rely on the ocean including commercial fishing and whale watching.

For the local economy that means risking over $2.5 billion earned through recreation fishing and wildlife viewing on top of the $4 billion worth of commercial fishing, according to Washington State Fish and Wildlife.

This issue has becoming increasingly difficult to manage and each day is an opportunity to turn it around. But how? The human addiction to CO2 emissions has become almost impossible to kick. We’re all guilty of adding to the problem. In fact, after I finish writing this I will more than likely hop in my car and drive to cross country practice and then to school (don’t get me started on the inefficiency and inaccessibility of our public transit system in comparison to places like Europe).

The solution to this problem and the majority of our world’s problems is very much weighed down by the way we consume, produce, and emit without proper regulation. It’s not to say a solution can’t be reached, but it’s a matter of how and when. Recently, Sen. Maria Cantwell commented on the fact that the solution to this issue should not be predicated based on lack of research resources but rather on the urgency for industries like shellfish growers to yield a safe and healthy crop that is not affected by ocean acidification. Although I agree with the senator concerning the urgency of OA, I don’t believe it’s practical for a solution to be reached if we don’t face the reality that we only have so many resources to put forth; however I do believe our strongest resources are the people who fight to bring this issue to the forefront of the public’s attention and who are dedicated enough to study this issue in hope of a solution. This is why I decided to research ocean acidification. My studies and the studies of my colleagues at the Ocean Research College Academy are just the beginning of the new generation becoming involved in global issues like this one.

As I said before, ORCA has given high-school students like me a unique opportunity to research and question the world around us. I hope to continue the knowledge and experience I’ve earned through ORCA into college where I plan to major in either engineering or political science. Through one of these majors I hope to create something physical or lawful that will aid in the solution to ocean acidification and many other issues this world faces. It’s becoming more essential that the current generation in authority and the ones to come are aware and involved in these concerns. We’ve become too ignorant towards issues like these and it’s time to act before future generations are overcome by this acidic mess.

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