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Oceans in Peril

Our oceans are becoming more acidic. What does that mean for the creatures within?

Story by John Thompson

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Marine scientist Brady Olson off the coast of Anacortes. Olson studies ocean acidification at Western's Shannon Point Marine Center. | Photo by Rhys Logan
| Photo by Chris Baker
| Photo by Pamela E. Smith

Brady Olson, a scientist at Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center, holds a flask of seawater and stares intently at the tiny creatures called copepods swimming inside it. They dart about like frenzied boatmen, through water altered to reflect what climate scientists call “the worst case scenario:” that in 100 years, the ocean could become so acidic that seawater literally scours the calcium skins from some of the tiny creatures at the foundation of the oceanic food web.

This scenario – projected as the coming reality by the more than 2,000 scientists worldwide serving on the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – drives researchers like Olson and his peer at Shannon Point, Brooke Love. It’s why they spend so many hours on the water collecting specimens and analyzing data from their experiments in the lab. At the heart of their passion lies the central question: What does this mean for our planet?

Brady Olson has so many questions, but every answer he gets from his research into ocean acidification seems to spawn five new lines of inquiry.

“The scope of what we’re researching – the implications of what this could mean for the planet – can feel pretty daunting, pretty important,” said Olson, a marine scientist at Western’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, where many scientists and students collaborate on ocean research. “We understand what is at stake.”

Greg Rau (’71, Biology) funded the new Ocean Acidification Research (OAR) endowment in hopes that others would join him in supporting the scientists at Shannon Point. To learn more, get in touch with Manca Valum at manca.valum@wwu.edu.

Olson and his fellow ocean acidification researcher at Shannon Point, Brooke Love, are in the right place to research this topic, as a number of natural environmental factors make the Pacific Northwest a global hotspot for ocean acidification. The Northern Pacific’s cold water retains its carbon dioxide levels longer than warm water. And undersea currents that have been moving along the bottom of the Pacific, accruing carbon dioxide (CO2) for years, upwell in the Pacific Northwest, delivering high carbon dioxide counts.

CO2 is being released in greater and greater quantities into the atmosphere – from smokestacks, from automobiles, from the increasingly prevalent burning of fossil fuels everywhere. This potent greenhouse gas not only plays a well-known role in the overall warming of the planet through the greenhouse effect, but atmospheric carbon dioxide also dissolves in water and undergoes a chemical process that raises the water’s acidity.

This process has always been part of what scientists call the “carbon cycle.” But since the Industrial Revolution, so much carbon been dumped into the ocean that it has begun to quickly alter the ocean’s chemistry.

Certainly, many organisms will suffer as acidity climbs in the oceans and bays; the tiny larvae of commercially crucial species such as oysters and mussels are already being hit hard. But other species such as the eelgrass – so vital as nursery areas in nearshore habitats for herring and young salmon – could use CO2 like a fertilizer to potentially help them spread.

“It’s these big-picture questions that underlie all of what we do,” said Olson. “But we know this, unequivocally – the health of the base of the food web, these tiniest of living things, is crucial to the success of all the other creatures in the web as well. That’s why we’re working so hard to find out how plankton react not only to present-day ocean conditions, but to those conditions forecast as being likely 100 years from now.”

Looking into an oceanic crystal ball is no easy proposition, but Olson and Love are well-positioned to do just that.

“This area has a very unique ecosystem, and it’s a bellwether for the ocean acidification problem,” Olson said. “And this ecosystem is going to experience changes as the global climate evolves. What the ocean will look like, what will be swimming in it generations from now – as its chemistry continues to be in flux – that’s what we’re trying to understand.”

John Thompson is Western’s marketing manager and the assistant director of the Office of Marketing and Communications. Before a career in journalism, Thompson was a fisheries biologist with the state of Delaware, helping monitor the health of Delaware Bay.