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Why Ocean Acidification Matters To California

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The environmental organization National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) states Ocean Acidification (OA) is the “quiet tsunami of environmental degradation.” Within a few decades OA may devastate some important marine ecosystems, says the organization.

“OA is the result of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels accumulating in the atmosphere, where it causes climate change. It is then absorbed into the ocean through wet and dry deposition,” according to the NRDC, and a recent Scripps Institute study titled, Is Global Warming Changing The California Current?

As the ocean absorbs CO2, it reacts with sea water to form carbonic acid.

“Securing clean water in a heavily urbanized environment such as Los Angeles doesn’t happen overnight. It requires resources. And regional waterbodies are well-worth protecting,” said Heal The Bay in a statement regarding the Los Angeles County Clean Water, Clean Beaches Measure. “Locals and tourists alike frequent Los Angeles County’s beaches, yet 7 out of 10 of California’s most polluted beaches are right in our own backyard. This means that a day at the beach could make you or your family sick. Pollution that runs off our streets can be toxic to fish and other species. As a result, some fish species in our Bay are unsafe to eat. Trash pollution is so extreme in some areas of the County that our rivers look more like trash dumps. The current paradigm needs to shift.”

California has between the eighth and eleventh largest economy in the world, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) World Factbook. That economy depends on tourism to its ocean and beaches, use of its coastline for the marine industries and other industries and even the nation’s national security depends on California’s coastal waters for military exercises. The state’s approximate 2011 gross state product (GSP) was $1.96 trillion, the largest in the United States, reports the organization Greyhill Advisors.

“Coastal counties in California, as well as the rest of the nation, represent a disproportionate size of the overall economy. While many of the nation’s largest cities are located along the coast and account for some of this value, coastal location draws increasing numbers of people and a broad range of activities that represent vast sums of revenue, which no state can afford to overlook. The natural resources of the coast and coastal ocean are a solid foundation for California’s economy and must be sustained to support the growth in the Coastal Economy,” according to the California Resources Agency (CRA).

Increases in concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) in the ocean coincided with the start of the Industrial Revolution in about 1750. Measurements from Antarctic ice cores combined with direct atmospheric measurements show the increase of both gases over time, writes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Paleoclimatology and Earth System Research Laboratory.

Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, about 150-years ago, approximately one-third of all CO2 from fossil fuels, or 127-billion megatons, has been absorbed by the world’s seas, increasing the average ocean acidity by 30-percent, reports the NRDC; that is the equivalent of 500-billion VW Beetle bugs dumped into the sea.

“The oceans are both source and sink for our consumption,” Dr. Orton of the Tapia Water Reclamation Facility (TWRF) tells Malibu Arts Journal. “The pace of sustainability is waiting advances in resource recycling. It’s not the only answer, but recycling is a two for one solution, slowing both our use of natural resources on the production side, and reducing the volume of waste streams on the consumption side.”

Recycling generally conjures up taking aluminum cans, glass bottles and newspapers to the recyclers. Yet water recycling is far more common than thought.

“Water recycling is reusing treated wastewater for beneficial purposes such as agricultural and landscape irrigation, industrial processes, toilet flushing, and replenishing a ground water basin, often referred to as ground water recharge,” according the EPA. “Water recycling offers resource and financial savings. Wastewater treatment can be tailored to meet the water quality requirements of a planned reuse. Recycled water for landscape irrigation requires less treatment than recycled water for drinking water”
The EPA also cites no documented cases of human health problems due to contact with recycled water that has been treated to standards, criteria and regulations.

The International Pacific Research Center (IPRC), based out of the University of Hawaii, conducted a study and found, “Unprecedented, man-made trends in the ocean’s acidity. Combining computer modeling with observations, an international team of scientists concluded that anthropogenic CO2 emissions over the last 100 to 200 years have already raised ocean acidity far beyond the range of natural variations.”

The team of climate modelers, marine conservationists, ocean chemists, biologists and ecologists at the IPRC, led by Tobias Friedrich and Axel Timmermann, studied changes in saturation levels of aragonite, a form of calcium carbonate and a substance typically used to measure OA , writes the IPRC.

“As acidity of seawater rises, the saturation level of aragonite drops. Their models captured well the current observed seasonal and annual variations in this quantity in several key coral reef regions. Today’s levels of aragonite saturation in these locations have already dropped five times below the pre-industrial range of natural variability. For example, if the yearly cycle in aragonite saturation varied between 4.7 and 4.8, it varies now between 4.2 and 4.3, which – based on a separate study – may translate into a decrease in overall calcification rates of corals and other aragonite shell-forming organisms by 15-percent. Given the continued human use of fossil fuels, the saturation levels will drop further, potentially reducing calcification rates of some marine organisms by more than 40-percent of their pre-industrial values within the next 90-years. Any significant drop below the minimum level of aragonite to which the organisms have been exposed to for thousands of years and have successfully adapted will very likely stress them and their associated ecosystems,” says lead author Postdoctoral Fellow Tobias Friedrich.

The NRDC too finds the same conclusion.

“Changes in acidity are undeniably linked to human activities,” reports the NRDC. “The United States is the world’s top oil consumer, and thus the primary driver behind the development of new forms of dirty transportation fuels in North America. These fuels are derived from lower-grade, difficult-to-access raw materials, including tar sands, oil shale and coal. Moving down this road has enormous consequences for the air we breathe, the water we drink, our climate, our wildlands and wildlife.”

High carbon intensity crude oils (HCICOs) include those produced using energy intensive production methods, or those involving practices that result in higher emissions, states the NRDC in its recent report.

“Typically, HCICOs can include unconventional sources, such tar sands, coal, oil shale, or heavy oils, as well as conventional sources that require additional energy for crude oil recovery or use practices that result in larger emissions, such as Nigerian crudes with flaring, or Middle East and California thermal enhanced oil recovery,” writes the NRDC.

According to a recent Stanford study, evidence in California of these chemical changes brought about by such human activity is already apparent.

“The primary concern about acidity is that it reduces the availability of carbonate, a substance used by tens of thousands of species to form shells and skeletons. If acidity gets high enough,” reports the study, “Ocean water becomes corrosive and literally dissolves the organisms shells, which may lead to extinction.”

As atmospheric CO2 increases, ocean PH decreases accordingly, says a separate Stanford study titled, Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem, published in 2009 in the Annual Review Of Marine Sciences.

The primary causes of acidification are CO2, nutrient runoff and Sulfur Oxide (SOx) and Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) deposition, according to a 2012 Center for Ocean Solutions study titled, Why Ocean Acidification Matters to California, and What California Can Do About It: A Report on the Power of California’s State Government to Address Ocean Acidification in State Waters, produced by the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford University.

“We cannot attribute a particular fraction of the observed change in coastal waters among atmospheric CO2, nutrient runoff or other factors,” says Ryan P. Kelley, J.D., PhD and Margaret R. Caldwell. J.D., the authors of the Center for Ocean Solutions study. “While CO2 is the primary driver of the change in ocean PH, non-CO2 inputs may be more influential in specific coastal regions. SOx and NOx are gases that form acids when dissolved in seawater, lowering the pH of receiving waters. Because of short residence times in the atmosphere, these compounds are most likely to contribute to OA near where they are produced as byproducts of human industrial processes. As such, tighter ambient air quality standards for these compounds would have the greatest impact on OA near heavy industrial sources such as petroleum refineries.”

The contribution of the coastal zone to the global carbon cycle both during pristine times and at present is difficult to assess due to limited metabolic data available, as well as to major uncertainties concerning the magnitude of processes, such as respiration, exchanges at the open ocean boundary and air-sea fluxes of biogasses, according to the Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics article titled Carbon & Carbonate.

As scientists explore links to climate change, models suggest more low-oxygen zones due to rising water temperatures and changes in mixing patterns, according to the California Currents article. A recent University of British Columbia (UBC) study found ocean acidity is adversely affecting the abalone, a popular gourmet food. This specie’s range extends along the Northern American West Coast from Baja California to Alaska. To better understand the impact of climate change, and specifically the increasing affect OA has on this in endangered species, UBC researchers exposed Northern Abalone larvae to water containing increased levels of CO2. Increases from 400 to 1800 parts per million (ppm) killed 40-percent of larvae, decreased the size of larvae that did survive and increased the rate of shell abnormalities, the UBC research found.

“This is quite bad news, not only in terms of the endangered populations of Abalone in the wild, but also the impact it might have on the prospects for aquaculture and o economics,” says Christopher Harley, Associate Professor with UBC’s Department of Zoology, and one of the authors of the study.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) finds such conclusions on CO2 and OA to be accurate in what they term the enhanced greenhouse effect.

“What has scientists concerned now is that over the past 250 years, humans have been artificially raising the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at an ever-increasing rate, mostly by burning fossil fuels, but also from cutting down carbon-absorbing forests,” reports NASA. “Since the Industrial Revolution began in about 1750, carbon dioxide levels have increased nearly 38-percent as of 2009 and methane levels have increased 148-percent.”

Increased atmospheric CO2 is the largest contributor to the anthropogenic Greenhouse Effect (Solomon et al., 2007), note researchers at

“Given the importance of CO2 to climate, it is crucial to understand the global carbon cycle. The ocean plays an important role in the global carbon cycle, modulating atmospheric CO2 concentrations and climate. The global ocean has taken up 20 to 35-percent of CO2 released by human activities since the industrial revolution (Khatiwala et al., 2009; Sabine et al., 2004; Houghton, 2007),” writes “Some studies have suggested the oceanic carbon sink may have changed during the past few decades (Wang and Moore, 2012; Lovenduski et al., 2007; LeQu´er´e et al., 2007; Wetzel et al., 2005; Perez et al., 2010b), though significant uncertainties remain (e.g. ‘McKinley et al., 2011).”


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