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Waters off North America’s west coast affected by climate change

A 20-member scientific panel is warning that ocean acidification and hypoxia are growing concerns in our oceans and the extent of these problems along the West Coast of North America requires immediate and decisive action.

The West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel revealed their findings in a comprehensive report on Monday, April 4. The study focused on the ocean waters off the coast of North America, including British Columbia, Washington state, Oregon, and California.

Ocean acidification and hypoxia
Ocean acidification is mainly due to an excess of carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean’s waters. Besides not allowing some ocean creatures to form calcium carbonate shells properly, acidification is killing corals along with creating other problems.

Water quality improvements  particularly controlling nutrient inputs  can bolster reef resilience to...

Water quality improvements, particularly controlling nutrient inputs, can bolster reef resilience to bleaching and implementation of existing laws may help mitigate ocean acidification effects on nearshore habitats.
Jerry Reid/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Hypoxia or a lack of oxygen in the ocean’s waters is often seen along with acidification. Lower oxygen levels can drive marine animals from an area, and worse, can result in massive marine animal deaths. Agricultural runoff and wastewater treatment effluent can also cause hypoxia.

“Ocean acidification is a global problem that is having a disproportionate impact on productive West Coast ecosystems,” said Francis Chan, an Oregon State University marine ecologist and co-chair of the West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel.

“There has been an attitude that there is not much we can do about this locally, but that just isn’t true. A lot of the solutions will come locally and through coordinated regional efforts.”

Effects on the Pacific Ocean and coastal sea life
Because of the way the Pacific Ocean circulates, the North American West Coast is exposed to much higher volumes of seawater with higher levels of acidity. That may sound strange, but this is what is happening: Coastal upwellings bring nutrient-rich, low-oxygen, high-CO2 water from deep in the water column to the surface near the coasts.

Picking oysters by hand at low tide  Willapa Bay  Washington.

Picking oysters by hand at low tide, Willapa Bay, Washington.

The nutrients fertilize the water column, in turn triggering phytoplankton blooms. The phytoplankton dies and sinks to the bottom, producing more CO2 and further depleting the oxygen in the water column. This cycle was first noticed in Oregon about 15 years ago when seasonal hypoxia was noticed that lead to a number of sea animal die-offs.

The oyster industry is already affected by ocean acidification, with huge death rates of juvenile oysters unable to survive in the acidified water. Actually, fisheries along the West Coast are in peril, especially when the industry serves as an economic driver. Dungeness crabs, salmon, and sablefish are all at risk.

One of the interesting things about this study is that it was convened by policy-makers points out Tech Times, including California, along with Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. The panel then worked with state and federal agencies, local communities and universities to identify concerns about ocean acidification and hypoxia, then developed a series of recommendations and actions that can be taken.

“One of the things all of the scientists agree on is the need for better ocean monitoring or ‘listening posts,’ up and down the West Coast,” said Jack Barth, a professor and associate dean in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a member of the panel. “It is a unifying issue that will require participation from state and federal agencies, as well as universities, ports, local governments, and NGOs.”

The study points out there is no silver bullet to solve the acidification and hypoxia issues and different areas will require different methods of attacking the problem. The main takeaway is that we can’t sit back and expect someone else to work on the problem. We need to start doing something, right now.

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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