Ocean acidification and global climate change (GCC), as a whole, are not simple problems with simple solutions. If anything, they are nothing short of complicated and remarkably overwhelming. OA has been widely studied in the past few decades and continues to be a hot topic of research in institutions all over the planet. The hard reality of research is that your findings and conclusions do not always end up positive. Research on global climate change takes a lot of time and a lot of different studies. It is impossible to make conclusions about climate change while looking at all aspects of the issue, and this has turned GCC into one of the most controversial topics of our generation. To really grasp the issue of climate change it is absolutely necessary to grasp all the pieces and the intricate relationships between them. It is no longer a question that our planet is changing. It is our understanding of the complicated actions underneath it all that are questioned and studied. Trying to solve the broader problem is like building a house of cards from the top down. Not very realistic to place the final card before you’ve built the supporting cast.
OA is one of many features of global climate change and is one of the many building blocks to a more holistic understanding. Current research can focus on everything from present conditions to projecting the future of our oceans or examining clues of Earth’s past. We have matured our understanding of OA in recent years but still have an extreme amount research to conduct. As a global community, the goal is to cultivate enough knowledge to make the most informed and valuable decisions regarding the environment and our role within it.
Since the industrial revolution we have introduced substantial amounts of CO2 into our planet’s various systems. Though the consequences of this are constantly evolving, we are beginning to see first hand effects. In the Pacific North West, oyster farmers, and the shellfish industry as a whole, have already been forced to adapt and change their methods due to OA. The changes being made would not be possible without modern research actively producing the data needed to resolve the smaller but equally important questions. It is the small successes that will ultimately lead to collaborative solutions for the daunting problems we foresee.
So what do we know and where are we heading? In around 150 years CO2 concentrations have risen from 280 ppm to 400 ppm. On average humans pump over 30 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere each year, a rate that is significantly faster than any previous record in the history of Earth. It is important to understand geological time scales when talking about global climate change. Geologists have begun unraveling the history of our planet but it can be very challenging to grasp just how long certain things happen. To put it into perspective a recent study has provided evidence that OA is not a new phenomena. In fact, ~250 million years ago the Permian-Triassic extinction event is now believed to have been caused largely due to OA. Data from the study indicates a pH decrease of -0.5 to -0.7 in a time of about 10,000 years. Geologically speaking, 10,000 years is an extremely short amount of time. In that 10,000 years 95% of life, specifically calcium carbonate bearing organisms in the ocean, was wiped out. This includes species such as trilobites, and organism that lasted millions of years before.
Now consider the fact that in the past 100 years our pH has decreased 0.1, a 30% increase in acidity. That means we have actively decreased the oceans pH 1/5th the amount of the last serious OA event but in 0.01% of the time. Going a step further, during that 10,000 years Siberian volcanic activity dumped an estimate of over 20,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. Today, if we were to burn all of the fossil fuels we had left we would produce 3,000 gigatons, nearly an order of magnitude less than the PT extinction event. This goes to show how our ability to predict the consequences of our actions are difficult, not because we don’t have the knowledge to predict the outcomes but because our time scale is so extremely small in comparison to our past. Since we have less possible CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, could we still cause a mass extinction event? Is our small time scale the scariest piece of climate change? How quickly can the ocean change? These are the questions that are hardest to answer yet most important to study. Using our past has taught us more than we could ever imagine, but it also poses more problems and questions.
Time scale also poses another problem, predicting the future of our ocean. Because past events take place over thousands, even millions of years, how can we predict the challenges 10 years from now? It starts on a small local community basis. A recent study has raised concerns about coastal communities that make a living from the ocean, and more specifically the shellfish industry. Shellfish as well as any calcium carbonate utilizing species are the most vulnerable species to changing pH because they can no longer produce their shells. As we mentioned earlier, this has already began in the Pacific North West and will continue to happen and spread to other areas of the world. The studies predictions are grim, in the next 100 years nearly every coastal community in the US is expected to have hit the minimum pH threshold. Though so far we have been successful in mediating the effects of OA on oysters, at our current rate of CO2 increase and pH decrease it may become increasingly difficult to save economic coastal resources. Nearly every shoreline is vulnerable and having the ability predict and plan for change in all affected communities is essential. In order to do so, we much work together, share our experiences and contribute our knowledge to the progression of climate science.
My worst fear is that our ability to study our past and find the clues needed to solve our overwhelming issues cannot keep up with current rates of change. Research takes time and unfortunately, potentially more time than we have. It is frightening to think that we are moving so fast, that the important lessons may only be learned from mistakes and consequences. The situation we are facing is dire. There are gaps in our understanding and we must move quickly and collaboratively to fill them. Global climate change, and ocean acidification are not problems we will solve tomorrow, or even in the next 50 years. What we can do is begin understanding how to implement progressive, and community based, initiatives to make local differences both socially and economically. In the same sense that you cannot build a house of cards from the top down you cannot beat climate change from the top down. We must treat each community and their particular environmental situation as the scaffolding to a larger global change. It is very possible to make a difference on the community level. Earth is a complicated web of interactions between geology, biology, climate, and the list goes on. It’s up to all of us to piece it all together and improve how we treat nature. Using education and science we can adapt locally and impact globally. It will not be easy, nor will it be simple, but we can transform our way of life before nature’s backlash shifts it for us.