Policymakers Making Waves About Ocean Acidification (1/12/10)

The following column by AGI/AIPG Geoscience & Public Policy Intern Rachel Potter is reprinted from the January/February 2010 issue of The Professional Geologist, a publication of the American Institute of Professional Geologists . It is reprinted with permission.

The recent increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has sparked furious debate among policymakers over its causes, implications and possible mitigation and adaptation strategies. Until recently, less attention has been given to increases of carbon dioxide in the oceans. This is starting to change as ocean acidification, an effect of the increasing carbon dioxide, is becoming more prevalent in public discourse and policy debates. Once the subject of only a few researchers and those whose livelihoods depend on the seas, ocean acidification is now getting attention from federal agencies and Congress.

As the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide increases, exchange with the ocean increases the amount of carbon dioxide in the ocean. This exchange was originally considered a positive way to reduce the climbing atmospheric concentration, because the ocean acts as a sink by pulling carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. A study by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) estimates that the oceans have absorbed a third of the anthropogenic greenhouse gases emitted. However, this increase in carbon dioxide has caused the acidity of the oceans to increase by 30 percent since the industrial revolution, and the adverse effects of this ocean acidification are now evident.

Ocean acidification is the decrease in pH associated with the increase in dissolved carbon dioxide. It is caused by the reaction between carbon dioxide and water molecules that ultimately produces more H+ ions. This greater acidity is disrupting the ocean ecosystem in ways not seen before. A more acidic ocean dissolves carbonate shells, which form the protective exoskeleton for mollusks, shellfish and plankton. It also decreases the amount of carbonate ions in ocean water, making it harder for these organisms to create their shells. The corrosive environment dissolves and kills coral, destroying the underwater habitat for marine life and important barriers that protect coastlines from storm surges. Fish and squid can also have problems with respiration rates and blood chemistry due to the greater acidity. The effects of ocean acidification are felt all the way up the food chain, starting with the dissolution of plankton and affecting fish populations and even whales.

The reduction in marine life populations, due at least in part to ocean acidification, is taking a toll on the fishing industry. For example, North Pacific shellfish farmers are struggling to maintain their hatcheries against an onslaught of acidic ocean water. And because wild juvenile oysters have trouble creating shells, small farmers cannot rely on them and are forced to buy oysters already attached to shells to stock their farms. When PMEL researchers found that the upwelling of acidic ocean water into the hatcheries was killing the larvae, the farmers changed the way water is piped into the hatcheries, improving the survival rate of juvenile oysters.

Research and monitoring of ocean acidification by federal agencies and universities is helping the fishing industries and others who rely on marine resources deal with what appears to be a relatively rapidly changing ocean. Even so, the increasing ocean acidity is unlikely to stop any time soon as more carbon dioxide is put into the atmosphere every year. The outcry from scientists and those affected has spurred policymakers to hold hearings and consider legislation on ocean acidification. Most of the discussion focuses on increasing research and monitoring to better understand the problem rather than consideration of any direct mitigation or adaptation strategies.

Members of Congress have been pushing for legislation to address ocean acidification for the past few years. In 2007, the House and the Senate introduced bills with a catchy acronym, the FOARAM (Federal Ocean Acidification Research And Monitoring) Act. FOARAM would establish an ocean acidification program within NOAA and an interagency committee to develop a plan for ocean acidification research and monitoring. Neither bill made it to a floor vote in the last Congress, so in January of 2009 Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA) re-introduced the bill in the House and Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) re-introduced the bill in the Senate. The FOARAM Act of 2009 moved quickly through the new Congress and was signed into law on March 30th, 2009, as Title XII, Subtitle D of the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (H.R. 146; Public Law 111-11).

The FOARAM Act notes that ocean acidification is caused by inputs from the atmosphere, including carbon dioxide, and funds ocean acidification programs within NOAA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) through 2012. It requires the Joint Subcommittee on Ocean Science and Technology, part of the President’s National Science and Technology Council, to establish an interagency working group and coordinate federal ocean acidification activities. The interagency working group is to be chaired by NOAA and have members from NOAA, NSF, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other appropriate agencies. The joint subcommittee is also charged with the development of a strategic plan for federal research and monitoring of ocean acidification. The plan will assess the impacts of ocean acidification on marine organisms and ecosystems and develop adaptation and mitigation strategies for their conservation.

Congress has continued to pursue discussion of ocean acidification, emphasizing the influence of oceans on the U.S. economy. In June, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee conducted a hearing entitled “The Blue Economy:The Role of the Oceans in our Nation’s Economic Future.” Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) described the blue economy as industry relating to oceans, the Great Lakes and coasts that “generates more than 50 percent of our nation’s Gross Domestic Product and provides over 70 million jobs to Americans.”  He highlighted climate change and ocean acidification as problems that affect everyone and not just coastal states, asserting, “The economic health of America is undeniably linked to the riches of our oceans and coasts.” Both Rockefeller and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) called for a doubling of NOAA’s budget over the next four years.
The recognition of ocean acidification by policymakers and the initiative to strategically plan federal ocean research and monitoring is a step in the right direction. While changes in ocean chemistry and carbon dioxide concentrations have happened in the past, the fast pace of this change is making it difficult for marine organisms and the fishing industry to adapt. Researchers must figure out ways to sustain marine life and marine ecosystems in an increasingly acidic ocean and to reduce the rate of increase in ocean acidity. Although there are no easy fixes, some policymakers see ocean acidification as a significant problem and view reducing atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide as one step in mitigating the problem.

Ocean acidification has even become one of many springboards for arguing for emissions reduction legislation. Throughout 2009, Congress has been trying to craft legislation that directly restricts atmospheric emissions. As passed by the House in June, the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 aims to reduce atmospheric emissions by implementing a cap and trade system on carbon dioxide emitters. It is unclear if this legislation will make it through the Senate or whether it might be changed as policy debates rage through the halls of Congress. What is clear is that ocean acidification is now making waves in major policy considerations with national to global consequences.

This article is reprinted with permission from The Professional Geologist, published by the American Institute of Professional Geologists. AGI gratefully acknowledges that permission.

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program.

Posted January 12, 2009

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