Imagine for a moment that everything we ate and drank suddenly became more acidic. Talk about heartburn! Would our digestive systems eventually adapt to it? It’s difficult to say. One thing’s for sure, our bodies, our diets and our food systems would never be the same.

Marine life around the world also depends on the ocean environment maintaining a consistent level of acidity. Did you know that the world’s oceans absorb over 30 per cent of the carbon dioxide that humans release into the atmosphere? This process raises the acidity of the ocean itself, and the effects of two centuries of industrialization are already being seen among organisms such as oysters, mussels and scallops, all of which depend on a specific pH level to form shells.

A coastal conundrum

While scientists have been monitoring decreasing pH levels in the ocean for decades, the chemical makeup of coastal waters is much more complex and difficult to monitor than the open ocean. Dr. Wiley Evans, an oceanographer and research associate with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the University of Alaska Fairbanks, specializes in unpacking the chemical mysteries of these coastal waters.

“The coast is where we live,” Dr. Evans explains over the phone. “That’s where we do our fishing. That’s where we have our aquaculture industries.”

According to Dr. Evans, the actual effects of CO2 in coastal waters is easily masked by many other dominant processes. While some factors like California’s coastal currents have already been well studied, there is still much to learn about others like the outflow of rivers like the Fraser or Columbia, or the runoff from Alaskan glaciers.

Citing the struggling American oyster industry as an example, Dr. Evans describes the urgent need to precisely distinguish natural fluctuations from human-induced ones. “It can even come down to the time of day you take water into your facility. At certain times, the water may be too corrosive for the animals to grow,” he says. “That’s how rapidly things change in the coastal ocean.”

All aboard

While we may not all have the opportunity to sail up and down the Pacific Coast, studying the waters and searching for solutions, Dr. Evans believes everyone can contribute to the fight against climate change and its wide-ranging effects, which include ocean acidification. In addition to the obvious task of trimming our personal fossil fuel usage, Dr. Evans emphasizes the simple power of knowledge. “Everyone can learn about the problems themselves and make informed decisions at the polls,” he says. “Understand who you elect and what their energy policies are. It’s really important that the younger generation’s voice is heard.”

Submitted by Marketing & Communications