New research on ocean acidification threat and recalling some political history

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New NOAA-led research on ocean acidification and the threat it poses to marine life is more evidence of the dangerous implications of human-caused climate disruption. Scientists have been calling attention to the acidification threat for quite a few years now, but from the Bush administration to the current Congress there has been a problem of science denialism. And ocean acidification is one of numerous aspects of dangerous human interference with the climate system that is not included in the Social Cost of Carbon metric used by the U.S. government in regulatory policymaking.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported July 29 on new NOAA-led research that shows Alaska fisheries and communities at risk from ocean acidification. The research is published online in the journal Progress in Oceanography.

In short, the study finds that the intensity, extent, and duration of ocean acidification in the coastal areas around Alaska will increase; that important commercial and subsistence fisheries in Alaska are co-located where enhanced ocean acidification will occur; and that coastal human communities in southeast and southwest Alaska are highly reliant on fishery harvests and face the highest risk from ocean acidification.

The term “ocean acidification” describes the process of ocean water becoming more acidic as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere resulting from human activity. This change in ocean chemistry is affecting marine life, particularly the ability of shellfish, corals, and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain to build skeletons or shells. Ocean acidification poses huge risks to commercial and subsistence fish stocks, and the marine food chain more generally.

This new study adds one more piece to a growing body of scientific evidence of the alarming implications of unchecked carbon emissions for ocean acidification and marine life. Similar declines in shellfish have been observed along the Pacific Coast down to California, just as dropping pH levels have been found in waters along the U.S. Atlantic Coast for decades. The Washington Post reported (“Marine industries at risk on both coasts as oceans acidify”) on the study:

The acidification of the world’s oceans frightens scientists, who see it as evidence of a rapidly changing climate. Though not as evident as increasingly powerful storms or devastating droughts, ocean acidification may be the clearest example of man’s impact on the changing climate. …

Because it takes so long for water to move from surface to bottom to surface, acidification is a kind of window into the past — and a preview of the future. …

The dramatic changes to oyster farms in Washington, Oregon and California are only the beginning steps in what could be a systemic disturbance in the ocean ecosystem, a process that will only accelerate as more-acidic water upwells in the coming decades. The last time the oceans changed so dramatically, about 59 million years ago, during a geologic time known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, the rate of change was 10 times slower than is occurring today.

Today, during the height of the summer upwelling season, as much as 30 percent of the water on the West Coast has a pH low enough to be corrosive, said Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and the University of Washington. By 2050, 50 to 70 percent of the water will be corrosive. …

The impacts go far beyond oysters and crabs. In a paper published in April in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, a team of scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it had found evidence that acidification is dissolving the shells of pteropods, tiny free-swimming marine snails, off the West Coast. Pteropods are a staple food source for salmon, mackerel and herring. When one food source disappears, the impact is felt up and down the food chain; …

The models used by the federal government to calculate a Social Cost of Carbon for use in estimating the benefits of reducing carbon emissions fall far short of including a wide range of expected damages from global climate disruption, and ocean acidification is perhaps among the most important of these omissions (see What to do about the “Social Cost of Carbon” metric?).

The new National Climate Assessment, a comprehensive report prepared by independent teams of experts for the U.S. government and issued in May 2014 includes discussion of ocean acidification and includes a section on Oceans and Marine Resources.

In 2011, when the National Climate Assessment was being designed, we noted that ocean acidification was not specifically mentioned in key publicly available documents related to the assessment, including the proposed outline of the report and the interim strategy. We joined with representatives of 28 other groups in sending a letter to the federal advisory committee responsible for developing the assessment, calling on them to elevate ocean acidification as a priority issue to a level commensurate with the threat, as identified by the National Research Council of the National Academies and the IPCC. This was done.

Of course, we can expect little, on this or any other serious national problem calling out for the attention of elected officials, from our current U.S. House majority and ‘conservative’ blocking coalition in the Senate. The current majority on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee — on which I served on the professional staff more than 20 years ago, when the committee leadership was actually interested in science and pragmatic policymaking — busies itself these days with its misguided efforts to undermine the EPA’s regulatory process, when they are not looking for ways to reject the IPCC climate change assessments (see House Science Committee majority plays out the politics of climate science denialism).

To my knowledge, the last time the House Science Committee showed any interest in ocean acidification was when they invited Richard Feely from the NOAA Pacific Marine Environental Lab, an eminent and much-published scientific expert on this subject (he is a co-author of the new Alaska study and was quoted in the Washington Post’s article on it), to testify at a hearing in November 2010 titled  “A Rational Discussion of Climate Change”. (Our post on that hearing, which included an array of leading scientists and some contrarianism: House Science Committee: one last ‘rational’ climate science hearing?)

The hearing, held in a sort of post-election lame duck session after the Republicans had re-taken the majority in the House and would henceforth be setting the agenda, was the last for the outgoing leadership of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment. Subcommittee Ranking Member Bob Inglis (R-South Carolina), one of the few Republicans to take the warnings of climate scientists seriously, had been defeated by a Tea Party-backed challenger in the Republican primary and would not be chairing the subcommittee in the new year.

At the hearing, Dr. Feely’s testimony on ocean acidification, its relationship to carbon emissions, and its implications for marine life and the marine food chain, introduced an aspect of climate science and the threat of climatic disruption that Congress and the public are still only beginning to become familiar with. His written testimony and his exchange with Mr. Inglis (archived webcast, 2:13:00 to 2:17:45) were a significant and sobering contribution to the hearing record.

Since then, silence from the committee on this issue. But the scientific community’s research on and concern about ocean acidification goes back well before that, as has the attempt by the denial machine in power to divert attention from it.

Dr. Feely, among numerous others, was publishing during the Bush administration and before, including major work published in the journal Science in 2004. National Geographic reported (Oceans Found to Absorb Half of All Man-Made Carbon Dioxide):

In the second, related study, scientists found that while the oceans are helping to mitigate global warming, the dissolved carbon dioxide is already having a detrimental effect on marine life.

Richard Feely, a marine chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, is the study’s lead author.

Feely said, “Because carbon dioxide is an acid gas, the surface ocean pH is dropping” (pH is a measure of acidity in solutions).

If predictions made by Feely’s team are right, the surface of oceans—where most marine life is found—could soon become more acidic than they have been in five million years.

This increase in acidity makes it difficult for shell-forming animals and some algae to amass carbonate ions from the seawater to form their calcium carbonate shells.

Corals, some types of mollusk, and tiny planktonic organisms called foraminifers and coccolithophorids could all be affected. Many of these species form key links in the marine food chain.

Feely and his colleagues were demonstrating that we are changing the chemistry of the oceans, with still-uncertain but potentially disastrous consequences for the marine food chain, and thus for human society as well. And the Bush administration’s response to any effort to call public attention to this work? Redacting the Science of Climate Change, an investigative report by the Government Accountability Project issued in 2007, found this example (p. 27):

Later that year [2005], Feely co-authored a paper that was published in Nature and detailed the acidification of oceans through increasing CO2 in the atmosphere.132 This phenomenon is expected to affect all organisms producing calcium carbonate parts, including corals, and because these form the base of the food chain, continuing CO2 emissions could lead to mass marine extinctions. According to Feely’s colleague, Tans, Jana Goldman had prepared a press release with the assistance of NOAA scientists to coincide with the publication of the paper; however it never made it past the “higher- ups.”133 “It appeared that NOAA didn’t want to be associated with it, even though they had reason to be proud of a good paper,” Tans explained. “The association of ocean acidification with high atmospheric CO2 is about as solid as it gets.” At about the same time, Goldman sought guidance from the PAO headquarters about media efforts for a similar report that arose from a workshop co-sponsored by NOAA and of which two out of the six authors, including Feely, were NOAA PMEL researchers.134 When the report summarizing the way “worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning are dramatically altering ocean chemistry and threatening marine organisms” was released on July 5, 2005, NOAA issued no press release.135

This is a typical example, one of many, of how political officials in the Bush administration, using various methods, intervened to manipulate and interfere with climate science communication. The unwillingness to talk about Dr. Feely’s work happened on the watch of NOAA Administrator Adm. Conrad Lautenbacher and NOAA Deputy Administrator Jim Mahoney, who also chaired the U.S. Climate Change Science Program during that era.

Reading the article on the new research and the quote from Dr. Feely triggered the memories of some of this sorry history. And the solution to the growing ocean acidification problem is nowhere in sight.

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