On November 9, Ron Sims threw down a world-changing challenge to a hall packed with marine scientists, resource managers, environmentalists, and the odd oyster grower. Now, unlike most politicians' rhetorical flourishes, that challenge has born fruit.
The occasion was a first-ever Symposium on Ocean Acidification convened by Washington Sea Grant at the University of Washington’s Center for Urban Horticulture. The scientists explained what they'd uncovered about a threat that is both oceanic in scale and uniquely regional in character, which threatens the Northwest’s cherished shellfish industry in the short run and the survival of the marine biosphere and all the terrestrial life that depends on it in the longer run.
“Okay, you’ve laid out the problem,” exclaimed Sims, the former King County executive, who’d washed up back in Seattle after a stint in D.C. and resurfaced as a marine environmental statesman. “Now tell me what we can do!” Boil it down, he pled in his most plaintive preacher tones. Cut the fancy explanations and give us political and policy types concrete steps we can take to correct it.
Last Friday, an answer arrived. A who’s who of state, federal, tribal, commercial, and scientific actors (and Ron Sims) gathered to begin hashing out a defense against an emerging threat most Americans probably haven’t even heard of: global warming’s evil twin, ocean acidification, OA for short. Gov. Chris Gregoire had chartered a new Blue Ribbon Panel on Ocean Acidification to sift a flood of new scientific data and real-world experience and distill a suite of concrete policy recommendations for surviving, mitigating, and preventing acidification.
That brief and the new panel’s membership both recall the state's other marine environmental panel, the Puget Sound Partnership’s Leadership Council. Sure enough, the Partnership’s founding chair, William Ruckelshaus (also the founding administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a veteran of many other state, national, and international enviromental commissions) is once again lending his experience and gravitas as the acidification panel’s co-chair. (Jay Manning, formerly Gregoire's chief of staff and state Department of Ecology director, is the other chair, and state Natural Resources Commissioner Peter Goldmark is an unofficial third.) But there’s one key difference: Where the Partnership is an ongoing agency, attesting to the persistence of Puget Sound’s pollution woes, the acidification panel has got a tight schedule and a short deadline: to assemble its findings and policy recommendations by July, and complete its report in September.
That schedule reflects the optimistic energy that customarily greets new challenges, before reality and inertia set in. It also suggests the sense of urgency attending on this particular challenge. The reason all this action is unfolding in the Northwest is that this is where acidification is. OA may be an exotic buzzword in the American heartland and a looming but still prospective threat in most of the world’s seas. But it’s a present danger out here — and in human society the canary that’s feeling it first is an industry that’s uniquely dear to politicians and hallowed in Northwest mythology: shellfish.
To understand why, it’s necessary to consider, in broad outline, how acidification happens. (Caution: science alert.) The ocean absorbs carbon dioxide, the gas produced when organic material, from coal to coffeecake, gets burned, digested, or broken down by bacteria, and which also happens to be the primary greenhouse gas in planetary warming. Phytoplankton draw it from the air, then die and sink to the bottom, and cold water can hold more CO2 than warm. So it collects in the frigid depths. Until quite recently this was widely seen as a free lunch: If we could just push more carbon down to the sea bottom, say by fertilizing massive plankton blooms, we could stave off global warming.
One problem with this geoengineering scheme: The carbon doesn’t stay at the bottom. That cold, deep water wells back up along various coastlines, including the North Pacific and the similarly situated coasts of Peru, Chile, South Africa, and New Zealand. These nutrient-rich upwellings produce those regions’ famously rich fisheries; thank them for your sardines and salmon. But they have a dark side as well. Carbon dioxide changes seawater chemistry, with dramatic effects on many living things.
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