So we’re on a boat, in the middle of the ocean…

“Welcome to the planet Earth – a place of blue nitrogen skies, oceans of liquid water, cool forests, and soft meadows, a world positively rippling with life. In the cosmic perspective it is, as I have said, poignantly beautiful and rare; but it is also, for the moment, unique. In all our journeying through space and time, it is, so far, the only world on which we know with certainty that the matter of the Cosmos has become alive and aware.” – Carl Sagan, Cosmos, 1981

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This past week, I had the pleasure of diving out at San Miguel Island (the farthest-out of the Channel Islands). This was for a project looking at ocean chemistry and biology along the islands, conducted by Lydia Kapsenberg. During the 2-hour boat ride out to the site, out where the mainland exists as a hazy smear on the horizon, I experienced a realization I’ve had many times before:

“Wow, this is a lot of water.”

I’m a graduate student in marine biology. My job is to think about the ocean. What am I doing, having such asinine epiphanies?

The big issue here is that as humans, our cantaloupe-sized brains simply can’t comprehend things on that scale. I can tell you that the ocean is 1.3 billion cubic kilometers, but that doesn’t do you a whole lot of good. It’s very easy to assume the ocean is massive, too large for us to have any real effects. Unfortunately, in reality this “drop in the bucket” theory doesn’t quite hold.With 8.7 billion tons of CO2 released annually from the oceans (Feely et al 2008), and 26% of it absorbed by the oceans (IPCC 2013), one can see how these can add up since the Industrial Revolution.

The oceans are soaking up an incredible amount of our carbon emissions. This CO2 causes the process of ocean acidification, pulling the pH of the oceans down and making it progressively more difficult for calcifying organisms to make and maintain their shells. This is chemistry on a global scale.

When I first heard about this problem, as a biologist I immediately started wondering about the impact of this on the biology. This concern stems from the fact that global climate change is already expected to hit many organisms hard. If ocean acidification is as deleterious as it seems (all signs currently point to “most likely”), this can be an additional stress on organisms and systems already being impacted by rising temperatures, increased pollution, overfishing, etc…

This “multistressor” problems is very hard to parse out. We don’t quite understand the combined effects of two stressors, but depending on the individual stressors it’s very possible that the result will be more than additive. Heck, considering that many organisms are affected differently by these stressors, we don’t even know how most will respond to just ONE of these many stressors.

In short, it’s a jenga tower situation. We don’t know how much we can poke and prod the system until it all collapses.

Next up: How bad OA is, more specifics about ocean acidification impacts on marine animals, and how we study it, and how we hope to keep studying it… and ultimately how some of our lab’s work shows that it’s not ALL doom/gloom; some organisms have shown a capacity to adapt to shifting ocean conditions.

 

Feely, R. a, Sabine, C. L., Hernandez-Ayon, J. M., Ianson, D., & Hales, B. (2008). Evidence for upwelling of corrosive “acidified” water onto the continental shelf. Science (New York, N.Y.), 320(5882), 1490–2. doi:10.1126/science.1155676

 

IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Solomon, S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M.Tignor and H.L. Miller (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA. In review.

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