Washington State: Leading the way in tackling ocean acidification

by Anna F-S.

What is Ocean Acidification?

Ocean acidification is just what it sounds like: the pH of the ocean is dropping worldwide, a trend that is destroying ocean ecosystems across the globe. Acidification is caused by an increase in carbon dioxide and other acidic substances absorbed by the oceans. This process is extremely harmful to shellfish and other marine animals because the chemical reactions they depend on for survival are hindered in acidic water. About 25% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans since the mid-1700s has been absorbed by the oceans, resulting in a 30% increase in acidity. Scientists predict that by 2100, acidity will have increased by another 100-150%. This rate of acidification is 10 times faster than any period in the past 50 million years.

Why is Washington Vulnerable?

Puget Sound is especially vulnerable to Ocean Acidification
Puget Sound is especially vulnerable to Ocean Acidification. Photo by Stacia M.

Ocean acidification is affecting Washington decades sooner than anticipated. Several regional factors contribute to Washington’s vulnerability. Runoff of nutrients and organic carbon from the land add to carbon absorbed from the atmosphere, consequently accumulating in the ocean. Local emissions and the decay of organic matter on the water surface also produce more CO2. However, the most important regional factor is coastal upwelling. This phenomenon brings carbon dioxide rich water from the deep ocean onto the continental shelf. This deep ocean water has retained the CO2 it acquired from the surface air 30 to 50 years ago. That means that even if the carbon dioxide levels were brought back to normal now, the oceans would continue to acidify for decades to come.

What does this mean for the Puget Sound?

Species like Sand Dollars are at risk from lowering pH.  Photo by Stacia M.
Species like Sand Dollars are at risk from lowering pH. Photo by Stacia M.

Many ocean creatures are very sensitive to changes in pH. Even small changes can have detrimental effects on all types of organisms. The nervous systems and skeletons of some fish may be affected in the increasingly acidic oceans of the future. Corals, calcareous phytoplankton, mussels, snails, oysters, clams, scallops, abalone, geoducks, barnacles, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea stars, sea cucumbers, crabs, some seaweeds, and other shelled creatures depend on calcium carbonate to make their shells and skeletons, a mineral that dissolves at a low pH. When the pH is lower or more acidic, shells cannot form, killing growing organisms and eventually destroying existing shells and leaving young organisms vulnerable to predation. Because shellfish maintain water quality and support many other forms of life, losing them will have devastating effects on the ocean ecosystem.

What is Washington Doing?

Washington is the first state in the United States to address the problem of ocean acidification. While Governor, Christine Gregoire created the Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification in February 2012. The panel consisted of scientists; public opinion leaders; industry representatives; state, local, federal, and tribal policy makers; and conservation community representatives. On November 27, 2012 the panel submitted a report to the governor recommending 42 actions to:

  • Address the root cause of acidification by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Reduce local land-based pollutants that worsen acidification.
  • Foster adaptation and remediation to protect shellfish industry and marine ecosystems.
  • Increase research and monitoring of acidification in state waters.
  • Inform, educate, and engage the public, stakeholders, and decision makers in responding to ocean acidification.
  • Maintain a sustained and coordinated focus on ocean acidification.

The governor accepted these recommendations and signed Executive Order 12-07 implementing them. She also provided 3.31 million dollars in state funding to help accomplish those tasks. For more information see the official blue ribbon report: https://fortress.wa.gov/ecy/publications/publications/1201016.pdf.

We would like to thank our former governor for her actions to protect the waters of the Puget Sound. She has taken a step toward helping oceans all around the world by setting an example to combat this major issue in the world today.

What Can I Do?

There are many ways you can help combat ocean acidification. The most important thing is to minimize your carbon dioxide emissions. Here are ten simple things you can do that will greatly decrease your contribution to ocean acidification:

1. Drive less – carpool, ride your bike or take public transportation to get around.
2. Turn off lights – as you leave the room turn of the lights to conserve energy.
3. Turn down the heat – consider wearing a sweatshirt or jacket instead of wasting more energy on extra heat.
4. Buy organic local foods – local food traveled a shorter distance to get to you, so it took less CO2-producing gasoline to get it to you.
5. Be careful about packaging – the more packaging, the more carbon dioxide used to make the packaging.
6. Unplug appliances – most electric appliances use energy even when they are not in use, unplug them until you need them again.
7. Use energy efficient light bulbs – next time your light bulbs burn out replace them with long life compact fluorescent bulbs. They last up to 15 times longer than regular bulbs and use up 80% less electricity.
8. Use rechargeable batteries – you can save energy and space in landfills by using rechargeable batteries.
9. Use your own water bottle – pre-bottled water often travels large distances and the plastic bottles take energy to produce.
10. Use your laptop – laptops use up to 80% less energy than desktop computers. Remember to unplug them when you aren’t using them!

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