Oregon’s oyster industry, that is. Peculiar currents off the Pacific northwest coast have been hauling up deep ocean waters heavily infused with carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned 30 to 60 years ago. (Isotope ratios date the carbon.)
These waters are super-charged with carbon dioxide. It’ll be 2050 before the rest of the ocean has concentrations this high. 2007 brought Oregon’s first oyster die-offs. The northwest’s shellfish industry is coping today with climate change the rest of the world will see in a few decades.
What’s the problem? Excessive carbon dioxide increases ocean water’s acidity. Oysters build shells from chemicals in seawater, a process that acidity disrupts.
Northwest senators, far from denying climate change, got $500,000 in federal funds to protect oystermen from it. The money bought sensors to monitor acidity off the coast. When they sound alarms, hatcheries stop pumping ocean water into the tanks housing their growing oysters. When the sensors sound the “all clear” they can resume pumping from the ocean. Today, the “all clear” signals arrive. By 2050, they probably won’t, according to climate models.
Oregon’s wild shellfish, of course, have no protection against this early assault of climate change. And it’s not just oysters: shellfish diversify to the very bottom of the food chain. They don’t grow in hatchery tanks. No alarms and pumps protect them from acidified seawater. The only “all clear” for whatever survives is when acid levels finally drop. Ocean acidity is already 30% higher than it was in pre-industrial times, and it is continuing to rise.
What phenomenon in nature?
Fossil fuel burning dissolves carbon dioxide in ocean waters, where acidification reactions inhibit shell formation by shellfish.
What did this discovery show?
Carbon dioxide from fossil fuels burned over 30 years ago, entombed in the deep ocean, is upwelling along the Pacific northwest, harming shellfish.
What was known before?
Climate models predicted damage to shellfish in future decades, but not that acute damage was occurring already.
What remains unknown?
How fast acidification will worsen and which ocean regions will be harmed faster and more heavily.
R. Service, Rising Acidity Brings an Ocean of Trouble, 337 Science 146-148, July 13, 2012.