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How Corrosive Water off the West Coast Threatens the Food Chain

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In lab tests, acidic waters have dissolved the shells of pteropods when they're still alive. (Woods Hole Oceanic Institution)

In lab tests, acidic waters have dissolved the shells of pteropods when they’re still alive. (Woods Hole Oceanic Institution)

Earlier this year, managers at a hatchery near Vancouver, Canada announced they had lost three years’ worth of scallops — 10 million animals — to acidic ocean waters. They laid off staff and shut down a processing plant. This was not the first time a West Coast shellfish hatchery lost stock to the phenomenon known as ocean acidification.

“This has been happening at the hatcheries,” said Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Feely studies the process by which carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere gradually turns ocean waters more acidic.

“When these corrosive waters get into the hatcheries of our shell-forming shellfish species, for example oyster larvae on the Washington, Oregon coast, they can kill the oyster larvae within two days,” he said.

Ocean acidification is worse off the West Coast than anywhere else in North America, and threatens animals up and down the food chain. Scientists are now studying how these corrosive waters are already affecting West Coast marine life.

The Fairweather is one of the research vessels NOAA uses for ocean acidification studies. (NOAA)

The Fairweather is one of the research vessels NOAA uses for ocean acidification studies. (NOAA)

For instance, corrosive waters also dissolve the shells of tiny marine snails called pteropods, a favorite food of some salmon species. The dissolution in some cases happens when the animal is still alive.

This matters not just if you happen to be a shellfish, or like to eat them — or if you depend on fisheries for your livelihood.

“You can see how this would permeate through the food chain,” said Feely. “From the lowest levels of the food chain up to the highest level. Organisms that mankind really worries about.” Not just salmon and shellfish, he said, but also seals, whales, seabirds and — eventually — us.

Feely is leading NOAA’s effort to study the effects of ocean acidification, including what’s happening to pteropods. Since 2007, NOAA has periodically sent ships doing ocean acidification research up and down the West Coast. The ships bristle with scientific equipment, and researchers pack on board to conduct various studies. There was a research cruise last summer; the next one is scheduled for 2016.

The Chemistry of Corrosive Water

Here’s what’s going on. Humans release a lot of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. Most of that CO2 goes up into the atmosphere and traps heat. That’s what’s contributing to climate change. The rest, about one-quarter of all anthropogenic CO2, gets absorbed by the ocean instead.

‘We can actually identify that this is manmade.’

For a while, Feely explained, scientists thought that was a good thing. The thinking went, if the ocean absorbed all that carbon dioxide, then it was keeping climate change from being that much worse.

They don’t think that any more.

“We’re beginning to see that this is a very serious problem,” he said. That’s because when the carbon dioxide goes into the ocean, it reacts with water to form carbonic acid (the stuff that gives mineral water its fizz).

That sets off a chain of chemical reactions. The end result is, the pH of the oceans is changing, and the supply of calcium carbonate minerals, the stuff that shellfish use to build their shells, is decreasing.

“We have been able to measure the change in the acidity of the oceans since the Pre-Industrial,” Feely said. “It would be about 26% because of the uptake of carbon dioxide. This is what mankind has done.”

Since the Industrial Age began, he said, humans have dumped about 550 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the oceans. “And we can actually identify that this is manmade,” he said, because the carbon atoms have a unique fingerprint that shows they come from burning fossil fuels.

Why It’s Worse Here

The reason ocean acidification is so bad here on the West Coast is, ironically, also why our coast is so rich with marine life: coastal upwelling.

‘You’re asking the organisms to adapt to changes that are in many cases 10 to 100 times faster than anything they’ve seen in the geological past.’

In the summer the wind shifts, Feely explained, and it pulls the water at the surface of the ocean away from shore. Then, water from deeper in the ocean rises up to replace it. That deep ocean water is full of stuff that decayed and sank. That means it’s full of nutrients. And it has more carbon dioxide.

“When you have the combined impact of CO2-rich water from the bottom and an additional anthropogenic CO2 from human kind, that combined impact is what has put us over the threshold for these corrosive waters to exist,” said Feely.

Past and Future Change

Ocean acidification has happened before in Earth’s history, but Feely said changes on the scale happening now took place over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Not a couple of centuries.

“You’re asking the organisms to adapt to changes that are in many cases 10 to 100 times faster than anything they’ve seen in the geological past,” he said.

There are some small local solutions. Feely has helped oyster hatcheries monitor and prepare for more corrosive waters. And he says they could consider locating hatcheries near seagrass, which takes up carbon dioxide.

But for the vast oceans, Feely is focused now on monitoring, so he can see the changes as they take place.

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Category: Chemistry, Climate, Environment, News

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About the Author ()

Molly Samuel joined KQED as an intern in 2007, and since then has worked here as a reporter, producer, director and blogger. Before becoming KQED Science’s Multimedia Producer, she was a producer for Climate Watch. Molly has also reported for NPR, KALW and High Country News, and has produced audio stories for The Encyclopedia of Life and the Oakland Museum of California. She was a fellow with the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism and a journalist-in-residence at the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center. Molly has a degree in Ancient Greek from Oberlin College and is a co-founder of the record label True Panther Sounds.
  • Kevin Doan

    I mean I guess humans can change but it’ll take some time, work and effort. You can’t just change over night and you can’t force everyone to change, but you may be able to persuade them, think about the mark we are leaving on this earth when we die. what kind of planet are we going to let our children live on where there is too much smog in the air to see the sun and the ocean once full of life is a watery graveyard for past animals. With the release of so much carbon dioxide in the air there has been drastic climate changes and soon it’ll affect the food chain and once it starts to affect us it’ll be too late to change.

  • Gustavo Lopez

    That sounds scary. I knew that the use of fossil fuels leads to serious climate change. I mean California is in a drought because of it. But I never thought it would affect our oceans in such a serious way, as well. How the carbon dioxide fuses with the water and makes it more acidic. As a result, it affects the hatcheries of shellfish and other organisms. This will eventually lead to damages in the food chain. A damage so severe that it will affect even us. For we also get food from the ocean. It sounds terrible how the acidic waters denies shellfish to harden their shells, sometimes it burns it off. I hope that by relocating them near the sea grass can help solve the problem, but lets be honest. The only way we will be able to cease climate change is by stopping the use of fossil fuels. I know its something we depend on in our lives. But its turning our planet into something uninhabitable.

  • Mily Hernandez

    After reading this article I felt depressed and disappointed. It’s terrible that we’re affecting our own world by commiting these acts. We’re affecting our marine life and ourselves. Corrosive water is basically killing sea creatures an making out oceans unsafe. Also, since most people consume seafood it’s affecting us as well. Which is detrimental to the good chain. Another con to corrosive water is that it’s affecting the air we breathe, because of the CO2 going into our atmosphere. In my opinion dumping waste into our oceans is going to hurt us in the long run, I mean it already is. And we need to remedy their mistakes and save our world. In my opinion industries committing this crime need to stopped. So that maybe we can make this world a better place for future generations to come.

  • lorena pereda

    It’s astonishing how one of our actions caused such a downward spiral. It seemed like we knew what we were doing at first. The fossil fuels were helpful for the most part, but we failed to account for all the harmful damages it causes to the marine life. Eventually, these small chain of events could do more harm to us than we imagined. It’s sad knowing we think we know what we’re doing when it comes to the environment but we do more harm than good. For everything we do, it seems like we have to find 5 more things to counteract our actions. I think we should be more thoughtful and more careful with our actions. We all share the same world. Environmentally, whatever one country/organization does has an effect on the rest of the world. It’s a good thing people are doing some things to attempt to better our previous actions. Although it won’t undo any damage, something is better than nothing. It’s reassuring knowing people are aware of their actions

  • http://raeeyn.tumblr.com/ Raeyn

    ( is Regina Rolinski )

    To the fact that California and maybe more of what lies among the West coast is facing conflicts already- such as a major drought and a severe climate change, is bad enough to suffer by.

    And now, there’s this conflict of our ocean life and waters are suffering as well. Honestly, this is a severe problem, even as equal as having both a drought and a bad climate change. Sure, some could say that there are plenty of ocean water, since the earth is made up of MOSTLY water. Well, that may be true, but a problem like this should be more focused on more further before it becomes a bigger problem to other states or countries. Since this event is caused by the burning of fossil fuels, the use of these fuels should lower down because obviously this is the main source of why sea life is threatened by the human actions.

    Seriously. This disappoints me, and I am ashamed to know about this. A problem like this should be known more and something should be done about it. This is making the ocean life and itself suffer more when it’s already had enough already- to the fact they’re destined to be eaten by us humans. They shouldn’t suffer more, especially when they are in danger because of us.

  • Guadalupe Ochoa

    It’s really unbelievable how we hear about how much damage we put our planet through. Yet, we don’t do anything from our part to change it. If we really want to change, then we shoud actually do something. These creatures are destroying our food sources. It doesn’t matter if your a seafood lover. This affects us all either way. We have to find a way to protect the oceans. This isn’t a problem we can just push to the side. We have to ask: how can we help? There is no need to become scientists to lend a hand. This is affecting us living in the West Coast more because of the marine life we have. There are so many problems affecting California right now. This is just another one to the pile. There must be something that can be done to diminish this issue.

  • Tommy Cabral

    I feel like an issue like this isn’t really out there. I feel that the only issue people only know about is global warming, but most everyday people don’t care to do something. I feel however as time proceeds that it will become a bigger issue. For example, lobsters could possibly lose their shells and therefore die from no protection. No more lobsters could mean less food for us humans and less jobs for people who working for companies involving lobsters. Me living very close to the west coast, It sounds lot scarier, since I am so close. Another huge reasons humans should be worried is that those in the fishing business or any business related to fish could lose their jobs, and that could be even worse if they have families to support. We as humans have to dig deeper and see the bigger consequences, other than not having our yummy red lobsters to eat. I hope this doesn’t turn into a ” shoulda coulda ” situation. Like, ” oh I could of done this, or we could of done that.”. We should just fix it while we can now. Instead of typing on our keyboards.

  • myles beyene

    we are really killing our world. We without care pollute our oceans. Killing off our sea life can also mess up the food chain. When we kill of sea life that can also hurt jobs for some fisherman. The dumping of carbon dioxide in the ocean can also hurt the economy. People always talk about the problem but never do anything about it. Us people living on the west coast should do something to fix this problem. We need to protect our oceans. If we do not do anything about it, things can only get worse. We are already in a very bad drought and also drastic climate change. Sea life on the west cost are eventually going to be extinct if we just continue to sit back and do nothing. We need to lessen the amount of fossil fuel we use as a first step to fixing our oceans. If we do not stop it now it can spread and turn into a bigger problem.

  • Diana Beltran

    It’s really shocking that over the years all the fossil fuel being used is slowly destroying our environment. All the pollution in the air has even started effecting the climate, and the air we breathe. Never would it had crossed my mind that it effected the ocean, I just though it disappeared into the air. Or that when the carbon dioxide mixed with the water made it acidic. Because of all the carbon dioxide being combined with the ocean waters, it’s affects most animals in the hatcheries. It’s kind of scary because knowing that most of the earth is made up of water. Just imagine the ocean starts getting harmed even more that what it already is it can abrupt the way we live and not only our lives but the animals, too. While not only it’s causing the hatcheries many problems it’s also effecting the food chain. Not only that but many people love seafood, including myself, all the seafood will probably die due to how acidic the water is turning and we won’t be able to eat most seafoods anymore because of this. You tell me. How long will it be until it starts effecting everything more harshly ? How long until we actually start doing something about it ? We all know some small, yet helpful, things that can actually make a difference in the environment. Yet, not everyone may know all of the actual issues, just the most obvious ones: global warming, the drought. In my opinion we should consider changing the fuels we use to run our vehicles. Biodiesel is a greener fuel so it won’t harm the environment. By changing little things we may be able to preserve our planet. As far as I know, many people want their children to live in a non-harmful environment. If all this fossil fuel keep getting into our earth there may not be an earth to preserve nor save. We should try now fix things now, before it’s too late. Although most people start realizing things once it’s too late. We shouldn’t make the mistake now. Once we’re not able to do much that’s when everyone will start to care and want to do something. Why not start now ? Instead of just sitting down on our phones, or just doing nothing.

  • Lisa Vu

    I agree with your statement on this issue. Humans definitely should change their work ethics and lifestyles in order to prevent environmental issues like this. Not only are us humans killing small, innocent animals, we are starting to kill ourselves as well. Slowly. This issue on corrosive water being a danger to the sea animals can also affect us as well, especially the seafood lovers. Although the corrosive water problem may not directly affect us as much as the sea animals, we still should be considerate of what we do that could possible affect the water. It may take lots of time for us to fix our problem, but we will get there eventually. It takes lots of effort and motivation for this to happen. If everyone knows about the environmental problems that animals and humans ourselves are facing, then change can happen together. I really like your idea on watching oyster hatcheries to prevent for corrosive waters. This idea is very sufficient because we are also caring for the oysters. This idea can also be used on other animals to prevent corrosive waters hitting them.

  • Lorenz Gali

    This is a dilemma that is truly difficult to process. Ten million animals, TEN, have been killed off by acidic waters, and the fact that this has happened before leaved me traumatized. I can’t imagine how shellfish will survive in the future. You can’t expect them to adapt in these conditions. Also, this gives a bad reputation for the west coast overall. People may be suspicious of what they ate if they were a seafood type of person. You can’t blame us in this situation because really that’s how life is supposed to be. Some things are going to die off while the rest survive. That’s just how life works and we can’t change it for now. What really stands out to me is what Richard Feely has been doing to contribute to this problem, and has researched how and why this is happening. Although, what can we do? I guess the best we can do is just keep on living and wait what the future has in store for us.

  • Allen Lagoc

    So what if we can stop all of this, making the waters corrosive or polluting the air, that would mean we would have to stop producing smog or anything else that hurts out atmosphere but to us, that would be near impossible to do. I understand the message the writers are trying to say in this article but, honestly, what I believe is that no matter what we do to prevent or at least limit the use of fossil fuels, crude oil use, etc., we will never get rid of them in the world. Our ancestors began using oil centuries ago and it’s still a huge part in our society because we rely on it too much, its embedded in our culture, actually, not only ours but the whole worlds cultures as well. If we, somehow, got rid of all the fossil fuels, oil, etc. in the world, that would cause more destruction that global warming itself. Honestly, I believe its just human nature, to many people in the world, including me, not matter what you show us; the science behind global warming, all the polar icecaps melting, the temperature rising, what we could do to stop all of this, we would still continue with our lives not even remembering what you said the next day. I mean how many times have you walked past a homeless person, trying to pretend they weren’t even there. Ten million animals lives isnt even enough for the world to change. This dilemma concerns me personally because California is in a serious dought and because of us, it might always be that way. Nevertheless, I believe that many centuries from now, things will be much more worse than it is today but i’m ready to eat my words because I believe that many centuries from now, we might find a solution to global pollution by then. I hope.

  • natalie palencia

    What is acidification? Also how do they turn ocean waters more acidic? I can’t believe that this has gotten so bad because of the carbon dioxide going into the ocean. And that it can set off a chemical reaction!! So what is going to happen to the shell fish if their minerals are decreasing? Are they going to do something about the animals that are being threaten. Wow I can’t believe not only salmon’s are affected but also seals,whales and sea birds. Even us, we as humans we relese a lot of carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. The crazy part is, is that if the ocean absorbed all the carbon dioxide, this is what is keeping the climate change. I can’t believe this is a very serious problem, because the carbon dioxide going into the ocean. This is making the water react to form carbonic acid. This article just really shocked me because there is so much going on I didn’t even know about, its just really crazy to know, but very informational.

  • Perla De La Cruz

    Why is ocean acidification worse off the west coast than anywhere else in north america? The reason why ocean acidification is so bad in the west coast is because of the wind shifts during the summer. What animals does it specifically affect in the food chain? It’s crazy how one problem can turn into another like the CO2 from burning fossil fuels, goes up into the atmosphere and traps heat. This problem in the ocean affects shellfish by preventing them to build their shells. If shellfish are affected eventually humans get affected by this problem as well because hatcheries have to let go of their employees like the hatchery near Vancouver, Canada had lay off staff and shut down a processing plant because they lost three years worth of scallops. The good thing is that there are some local solutions that have helped oyster hatcheries monitor and prepare for more corrosive waters. Hopefully this problem will be fixed soon and those people who lost their jobs will get them back as soon as possible.