Garfield students share what they’ve learned about ocean acidification

The Seattle Times asked local science classes to tell us about how students are learning about ocean acidification. The following is a report written by three students at Seattle’s Garfield High School, teacher Jonathan Stever’s marine biology classes:

By Anna Zuckerman, Leah Zuckerman, Sophia Boyd-Fliegel

Everyone has heard about global warming and the effects of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gasses on the atmosphere. We all know that human emissions have caused the earth to heat up. Recently, however, our marine biology class at Garfield High School was introduced to the idea that our oceans are also deteriorating at an astonishing rate. We learned that carbon dioxide turns into an acid when it comes into contact with the ocean, causing the ocean to slowly acidify, which greatly impacts marine life. What we wanted to know was “how can we lessen our impact before it is too late?”

Because the topic of ocean acidification has only been taught in schools for a few years, it is not yet a big part of the curriculum. We believe that if a solution will be found, it lies with the next generation of scientists. The best way to improve our chances of success is to educate students as thoroughly as possible on this topic. If the increase in ocean acidification continues as it does today, it will devastate the populations of marine life and coral reefs, throwing off the entire food chain. Today, we lie at a crossroads between ignorance and solutions and it is our job to point us in the right direction.

Background

We don’t tend think about ocean acidification in our everyday lives. In fact, most people don’t even register the issue at all, preferring to occupy themselves with more immediate matters. The average high school student is much more likely to be overheard asking her friend, “Did you see what she was wearing?” or exclaiming, “I finally beat level five!” than wondering aloud, “How can we possibly solve the growing problem of ocean acidification?” However, this only emphasizes the urgency of education and student involvement in finding a solution to this environmental crisis.

The Problem

Our class has been doing some basic experiments to drive home the severity of increased acidity in our ocean. When CO2 in the atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean, it forms carbonic acid. This carbonic acid lowers the pH of the ocean, making it more acidic. Increased acidity, as our investigations and research showed, can have a truly devastating effect on marine life and anything dependent on ocean creatures for food. We placed shells from different species of shellfish in acidic solutions (that is, solutions with a low pH), and observed them over a period of a few days. There was a clear decrease in the overall mass of the shells treated.

The shells in our experiments represented shell-producing creatures in the ocean. The carbonic acid formed in the ocean from carbon in the atmosphere decreases calcium carbonate minerals, which many organisms need to create their shells. This means that as ocean acidity increases, the ability of creatures to produce and maintain the shells they need to survive decreases.

Although the ocean is not likely to become as acidic as the solutions we tested, there are still grave implications for shell-producing sea life, especially the smaller varieties. One of our class findings was that the smaller a shell is, the higher the percentage of mass dissolved by the acid will be. This means that tiny pteropods, the basis of many ocean food chains, are at a greater risk. If the population of this miniscule creature falls, the entire ocean ecosystem will feel the consequences.

If that isn’t enough to scare you, consider this: salmon feed on those pteropods, which in turn are eaten by humans. This is likely to affect the human seafood industry, as well as harm nations that depend on fish as a source of food. The inability of shellfish to create satisfactory shells bodes ill for not only the oysters and clams, but for humans as well.

This is one of the graphs based produced from the data the students at Garfield got from their experiments.This is not an issue that we, as humans, have no control over. We don’t have to keep sitting here, watching CO2 levels rise with only the faintest hint of regret that maybe something could have been done. One of the largest contributors to CO2 levels is car pollution, something that every one of us experiences every day. This can be slowed by the use of public transit and more fuel efficient, environmentally conscious cars. In addition, large industrial polluters, such as big factories, are a huge factor in the declining health of the earth. CO2 levels are not only rising, they are rising exponentially. This means that every second we wait, deliberating about what to do, the problem gets worse. Increasingly worse. Every day.

In short, the experiments and research that we have done as a class have solidified our view that ocean acidification is a growing issue that will have a devastating effect on everyone from the smallest phytoplankton to the largest human city. It is something that we can change, but at the moment, we are changing it for the worse, not the better. If we don’t act soon, the future of the oceans that feed and protect us, already not so bright, will only grow dimmer.

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs contain one fourth of the world’s marine species. Along with harboring a diverse population of marine life, coral reefs help keep coastlines from eroding. Healthy coral grows about five centimeters a year at the most. However, the carbonic acid in the ocean decreases the water’s pH and makes it increasingly difficult for coral reefs to grow their calcium carbonate shells. Because coral houses many marine animal species, harming the reefs has a devastating effect on a large part of the ocean ecosystem. As the species that rely on coral reefs die off, those that feed on them die off, and so on and so forth. Eventually, humans will feel firsthand what we have done to the ocean, as our marine food supply dwindles.

What Can I Do?

One of the main reasons why it is hard to fix this growing crisis is that it is hard to raise awareness. Or, more accurately, it is easy to raise awareness, but it is hard to raise a willingness to change. People see their actions as inconsequential, or they think that the only things they can do to help are too expensive.

Another reason is that all the new data and findings are counting for very little, because the people reading then already know ocean acidification is a huge problem. And, again, even the people who do become concerned about the problem by reading or hearing something don’t necessarily know how to help.

On an individual level, it is important to keep in mind that we can make a change, however small. Bike to work or school once a week, shut off your lights every day before leaving the house, invest in alternative energy sources (that is, those that do not rely on carbon emitting fossil fuels) and spread the word about the perilous situation in which we find our oceans to help make ocean acidification a common term in everyday life. We are now at an intersection. One road leads to a bright future filled with the benefits that the ocean brings, and the other to an uncertain and desolate end to the oceans that make our home. Which way will we chose?

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