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:

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Ocean acidification research and the new generation


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.
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Students at The Northwest School study ocean acidification

Northwest School science teacher Herb Bergamini (at far left) and his students visit an ocean research vessel at the University of Washington. At far right is UW research scientist Giora Proskurowski.

Northwest School science teacher Herb Bergamini (at far left) and his students look at water samples on a research vessel with Giora Proskurowski, research scientist at the University of Washington.

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:

Their solutions:

  • Reduce emissions by passing policies that limit carbon dioxide pollution.
  • Use current laws and regulations to stop pollutants that worsen the effects of ocean acidification.
  • Invest in research to see and predict how species will be affected.
  • Use knowledge we have now to protect fisheries and preserve marine species

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