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.


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.

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Students at The Northwest School learn about ocean acidification from an expert

This report was submitted by Margie Combs, director of communications at The Northwest School in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.

Meg Chadsey talks to a class at The Northwest School. (Photos courtesy of The Northwest School.)

Meg Chadsey talks to a class at The Northwest School. (Photos courtesy of The Northwest School.)

On Dec 3, three classes of 8th grade science students at The Northwest School dove into the pressing issue of ocean acidification (OA). Students heard from guest speaker Meg Chadsey, an OA specialist with the Washington Sea Grant, who spoke passionately about how it’s collapsing the shellfish industry in Washington state. The issue has been covered lately in The Seattle Times’ “Sea Change” articles, which are required reading in several NWS classrooms.

The “A” in “OA” is about lowering the pH in the ocean. The ocean is becoming more acidic due to byproducts from fossil fuel combustion. Specifically, when carbon dioxide dissolves in water, this lowers the pH, which can have serious consequences for many forms of marine life.

To illustrate this in class, Chadsey had students blow through a straw into a beaker of Puget Sound water and blue cabbage juice (a pH indicator). The carbon dioxide from their breath changed the solution purple as it became slightly more acidic. Lemon juice, a stronger acid, had a more striking but similar effect, turning bright pink. The demonstration illustrated to students how reactive the ocean is to carbon dioxide.

“Life on Earth is comfortable in a very narrow pH range,” Chadsey pointed out. Upsetting the pH balance has huge ramifications for marine life, something Washington shellfish growers know all too well. “We grow more shellfish here than anyplace else in the country. Our shellfish hatcheries ship larvae all over the world. That industry is already struggling to cope with acidifcation.”

Chadsey said she switched from studying microbiology to OA after reading “The Darkening Sea” in New Yorker magazine in 2006, reacting out of love for the ocean that something had to be done. As for what other individuals can do, she urged students to cut down on their carbon footprint and commit to a more Earth-conscious lifestyle. She said it would take wide societal change, and recommended books about breaking our addiction to acquiring disposable things: “The Story of Stuff” and “The Upcycle.”

Beakers used for pH testing with Puget Sound sea water.

Beakers used for pH testing with Puget Sound sea water.

Chadsey also has high hopes for “refugia” — cultivated kelp beds which would absorb carbon dioxide and thus “sweeten” our water. Advocating for installing refugia in Puget Sound has made she and fellow scientists finalists in Paul Allen’s Ocean Challenge, which will award money to a team with a good OA-fighting proposal. Chadsey ‘s team will learn whether they have been selected in February.

“This is going to be a part of your adult life,” she said to the students. “To paraphrase former Mayor Mike McGinn, who was speaking about climate change: ‘You are the first generation to know about OA, and [because of its rate] the last that can do anything about it.’ But there are things you can do. And we’re starting to do them.”

If you are interested in learning more about OA in Washington state, read former Gov. Christine Gregoire’s Blue Ribbon Panel Report on OA, which Chadsey helped produce in 2012.

Below is a Powerpoint presentation Chadsey used to teach NWS students about the topic:

Listen to reporter Craig Welch talk about Sea Change on KUOW radio

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.

Listen here:

Times editorial urges quick response to ocean-acidification issue

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 creating lesson plans based on series

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 or call 206-652-6290 to request overruns of this series or to sign up for NIE.

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