Study Links Massive Oyster Die-offs in Northwest to Ocean Acidification
A new study confirms the link between massive oyster die-offs in the Pacific Northwest and ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide emissions. Since 2006, there have been widespread failures of natural and farmed oysters in Washington and Oregon. The research results, just released, are the first to clearly show how ocean acidification affects oysters at a critical life stage.
“Oyster die-offs are an unmistakable warning that our oceans are in trouble and we’ve got to cut the carbon pollution if we want to have oysters, corals and whales,” said Miyoko Sakashita, oceans director for the Center for Biological Diversity, which last week petitioned the White House and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to develop a national plan to address ocean acidification.
The study, published in Limnology and Oceanography on Tuesday, links the adverse impacts on baby oysters to waters with elevated carbon dioxide. It shows that baby oysters have difficulty building shells and growing in corrosive waters. Researchers studied oysters at Oregon’s Whiskey Creek Hatchery in 2009 after reported oyster production failures, looking closely at the ambient coastal waters that bathed the shellfish. For several continuous years, oyster production has collapsed by as much as 80 percent at the Pacific Northwest’s largest shellfish farms.
“I think that the clear take-home message from this research is that for the oceans the Pacific Oyster larvae are the ‘canaries in the coal mines’ for ocean acidification. When the CO2 levels in the ocean are too high, they die; when we lower the CO2 levels, they live,” said Richard A. Feely, a co-author of the study and senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In 2009, the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit challenging the EPA’s failure to address ocean acidification of waters in Washington. In a settlement of that lawsuit, the EPA determined that states were required to address ocean acidification under the Clean Water Act. Right now, the EPA is reviewing Oregon and Washington’s updated lists of impaired waters that did not include any waters that were harmed by ocean acidification.
“The harm that acidification brings to oysters confirms what we’ve been telling the EPA all along: Our coastal waters are quickly becoming inhospitable for the animals that live there. This agency needs to heed the warning and take bold action to address ocean acidification now,” said Sakashita.
Each day the oceans absorb 22 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution from cars and industry, setting off an unprecedented chemical reaction that, since the Industrial Revolution, has made the world’s oceans 30 percent more acidic.
Today, ocean acidification is making it hard for animals such as corals and oysters to grow and survive. It’s also eroding the shells of tiny plankton that form the basis of the marine food web—which, left unchecked, will result in large-scale problems up the food chain for sea stars, salmon, sea otters, whales and ultimately humans, many of whom rely on seafood to survive.
A conservative estimate of the damage our oceans will face from emissions-related problems—including impacts on fisheries, sea-level rise and tourism, as well as storm costs—amounts to $428 billion a year by 2050 and nearly $2 trillion per year by the century’s end.
For more information about ocean acidification, its wildlife and regional impacts, and what the Center for Biological Diversity is doing, click here.
For more information, click here.
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Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
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By Jeff Berardelli
Note: This story was originally published on August 6, 2020
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