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Monday, April 5, 2010


I’ve been struck lately by the media’s sudden interest in clean water, especially clean ocean water. So, what’s up with that? Well, for one thing, the EPA has gotten involved with the subject, and that’s news, any time. Of course, the EPA has about as much power to do anything these days as any other basically toothless agency – but I digress.

This was published, fittingly enough, on April Fool’s day, 2010, in Les Blumenthal’s column: “The Environmental Protection Agency is exploring whether to use the Clean Water Act to control greenhouse gas emissions, which are turning the oceans acidic at a rate that's alarmed some scientists. With climate change legislation stalled in Congress, the Clean Water Act would serve as a second front, as the Obama administration has sought to use the Clean Air Act to rein in emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases administratively. Since the dawn of the industrial age, acid levels in the oceans have increased 30 percent. Currently, the oceans are absorbing 22 million tons of carbon dioxide a day. Among other things, scientists worry that the increase in acidity could interrupt the delicate marine food chain, which ranges from microscopic plankton to whales.”

Gee, and here we’re all being told that this isn’t happening, right?

"There are all sorts of evils associated with this," said Robert Paine, an emeritus professor of biology at the University of Washington. The situation is especially acute along the West Coast, where scientists suspect that acidic water connected with upwelling killed several billion oyster, clam and mussel larvae that were being raised at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery near Tillamook on the Oregon coast in the summer of 2008. The hatchery provides baby shellfish to growers up and down the West Coast. Shellfish growers in Washington State, who supply one-sixth of the nation's oysters, are getting more and more concerned that corrosive ocean water entering coastal bays could threaten their $111 million industry.

Some of the deepest Pacific waters haven’t been to the surface in a millennium or more, gangers, and, what with the water in the deep Pacific Ocean already being far more acidic because it's absorbed the carbon dioxide that's produced as animals and plants decompose, this phenomena should be a cause for real concern. No upwelling at the deepest parts of the oceans means that this garbage stays down there instead of making the natural upswing.

Y’see, the CO2 that’s discharged into the ocean makes the deeper waters more and more toxic. Northwest winds during the summer cause upwelling, which brings deep water to the surface along the continental shelf from Queen Charlotte Sound in British Columbia to Baja California. Upwelling, by the way, is the same thing as pond turnover, also known as a regular yearly process called thermal stratification. Winds blowing across the pond's surface cause the water to pile up on the downwind side. The water moves downward, across the pond bottom, to the upwind side. The entire pond begins to circulate from top to bottom, maintaining a uniform temperature. As long as winds are strong enough, the pond temperature will remain uniform, even as the pond begins to warm during spring. This is a period known as "spring overturn."

Upwelling is the same process repeated on a global scale, and it’s important because it brings all the decomposing junk to the surface to provide nutrients to the mid-level and shallow-level species, while reoxygenating the lower levels. So, why has the EPA suddenly gotten interested in this particular aspect of oceanography? And why start trying to use the Clean Water Act to force compliance from the states?

The Clean Water Act considers high acidity a pollutant, but the standard hasn't been updated since it was written in 1976. The act has been used previously to help combat acid rain and mercury emissions, but very little else. Originally, the Center for Biological Diversity, a San Francisco-based environmental group, asked Washington State to use the Clean Water Act to regulate emissions that add to the ocean's acidity. Under the act, states have to update their lists of "imperiled waters" every two years and come up with cleanup plans. No big surprize here, the state of Washington said “no”, citing the costs in beginning the implementation as well as continuing the program to force compliance. In rejecting the request, officials at the state's Department of Ecology said that while they understood the concern about ocean acidification, there wasn't enough data about specific bodies of water in the state to justify any listings.

When the EPA agreed with Washington State, the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the federal agency to start using the Clean Water Act to control the oceans' rising acidity. In late March of 2010, the EPA published a Federal Register notice seeking public comment on whether the Clean Water Act could be used. "It's not 100 percent clear where we go here," Suzanne Schwartz, the deputy director of the EPA's Office of Wetlands, Oceans and Watersheds, said in an interview. "This is not an easy issue. We are trying to figure out how to proceed." Ms. Schwartz said the agency was looking to see whether there were more efficient ways to deal with ocean acidification than using the Clean Water Act. She also said the cleanup mechanism used in the act — controlling total daily maximum loads of pollutants — was aimed more at single sources of pollution than at a broader swath.

"There are questions about how effective the Clean Water Act will be," she said. "Honestly, we don't know what we are going to do." Environmentalists said the Clean Water Act would be a "good fit" with the effort to control carbon dioxide emissions.

"Our overall goal is to get regulation of carbon dioxide under the act," said Miyoko Sakashita, a lawyer with the Center for Biological Diversity. "I am encouraged by the step EPA has taken. I would like to see them step up before we see some of the worst consequences of ocean acidification."

So, what are some of the consequences of doing nothing? According to the European Project on Oceanic Acidification, changes in ocean chemistry can have extensive (and not always beneficial) direct and indirect effects on organisms and the habitats in which they live. One of the most important repercussions of increasing ocean acidity relates to the production of shells and plates out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). This process is called calcification and is important to the biology and survival of a wide range of marine organisms. Coral reef organisms and the structures that they build will be increasingly exposed in the coming decades to progressive decreases in seawater pH, associated with the oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide produced by fossil fuel burning, deforestation, cement production, and other human activities. These changes in seawater chemistry, popularly termed “ocean acidification”, have been correlated wit h decreased production of calcium carbonate by organisms, along wit h increased calcium carbonate dissolution rates. The evidence that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can have such direct effects on marine ecosystems is compelling but recent. While the calcification 1 response of some calcifying organisms is well characterized, the overall effects of reduced calcification rates on coral reef ecosystems have been barely investigated. However, the potential negative consequences of ocean acidification on coral reefs argue strongly for measures to mitigate further increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations.

So, in an oyster, or a clam, or a mussel, or basically any shellfish or bivalve, the shells are going to be a lot softer, a lot thinner, and are not going to become more rigid or thick because there’s not enough calcium in the water for you to absorb. There’s an excellent abstract on the subject that can be read here: It’s actually written in ENGLISH, not Science-ese, and it points out the danger of seafood decline as nothing else I’ve seen has done.

So, can the EPA do anything about this? I personally don’t think so, but at least the agency is trying. It’s going to be interesting to watch, at any rate.

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