Acidic Oceans Dissolving Shellfish Industry

  • Oceanographer Richard Feely says the shellfish industry is suffering in part because the more acidic seawater encourages the growth of a type of bacterium that kills oyster larvae.(Photo courtesy of the NOAA)

When carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, about a third of it absorbs into the ocean. That creates carbonic acid—the stuff in soda pop that gives it that zing.

That means seawater is becoming more acidic.

Scientists say this ocean acidification is starting to cause big problems for marine life. And Ann Dornfeld reports that could affect your dinner plans.

Transcript

When carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, about a third of it absorbs into the ocean. That creates carbonic acid—the stuff in soda pop that gives it that zing.

That means seawater is becoming more acidic.

Scientists say this ocean acidification is starting to cause big problems for marine life. And Ann Dornfeld reports that could affect your dinner plans.

Taylor Shellfish Farms has been growing oysters for more than a
century. And shucking them, one by one, by hand.

“An old profession. Y’know, they’ve tried for years to
find a way to mechanize it. There’s no way around it. Every oyster is
so unique in its size and shape.”

Bill Dewey is a spokesman for Taylor. The company is based in
Washington state. It’s one of the nation’s main producers of farmed
shellfish. Dewey says if you order oyster shooters in Chicago, or just
about anywhere else, there’s a good chance they came from Taylor.

But in the past couple of years, the company has had a hard time
producing juvenile oysters – called “seed.”

“Last year our oyster larvae production was off about 60
percent. This year it was off almost 80 percent. It’s a huge impact to
our company and to all the people that we sell seed to.”

Shellfish growers throughout the Pacific Northwest are having similar
problems with other kinds of oysters, and mussels, too. They suspect a
lot of it has to do with ocean acidification.

Richard Feely is a chemical oceanographer with the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. He says when the pH of seawater drops
too low, it can hurt marine life.

“What we know for sure is that those organisms that
produce calcium carbonate shells such as lobsters, and clams and
oysters, and coral skeletons, they generally tend to decrease their
rate of formation of their skeletons.”

Feely says it looks like acidified waters are affecting oysters
because their larvae build shells with a type of calcium carbonate,
called aragonite, which dissolves more easily in corrosive water.

The more acidic seawater also encourages the growth of a type of
bacterium that kills oyster larvae.

Feely says the changes in the ocean’s pH are becoming serious. He
recently co-published a study on the results of a 2006 research cruise
between Hawaii and Alaska. It was identical to a trip the researchers
took in 1991. They found that in just 15 years, the ocean had become
five to six percent more acidic as a result of man-made CO2.

“If you think about it, a change of 5% in 15 years is a
fairly dramatic change. and it’s certainly humbling to see that in my
lifetime I can actually measure these changes on a global scale. These
are very significant changes.”

A couple years ago, Feely gave a talk at a conference of shellfish
growers. He explained the impact ocean acidification could have on
their industry. Bill Dewey with Taylor Shellfish Farms was there.

“All these growers were walking around with all these
really long faces, just very depressed. I mean it was a very eye-opening presentation and something that’s definitely had growers
paying attention since, that this could be a very fundamental problem
that we’re going to be facing for a long time to come.”

Dewey calls shellfish growers the “canary in the coalmine” for ocean
acidification.

Scientists say if humans don’t slow our release of CO2 into the
atmosphere, shellfish may move from restaurant menus into history
books.

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

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CO2 Eats at Ocean Creatures

  • Healthy Reef Systems May Be a Thing of The Past(Photo courtesy of Mikael Häggström)

Some scientists think we might be headed for a mass extinction event
in the oceans. When carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere,
a lot of that CO2 soaks into the oceans. That makes the water more
acidic. When the pH gets too low, it dissolves the skeletons of
animals like coral and mussels. Ann Dornfeld reports:

Transcript

** The story as originally broadcast incorrectly referred to the publication as “Natural Geoscience.” It should be “Nature Geoscience.”

Some scientists think we might be headed for a mass extinction event
in the oceans. When carbon dioxide gets released into the atmosphere,
a lot of that CO2 soaks into the oceans. That makes the water more
acidic. It can dissolve the skeletons of
animals like coral and mussels. Ann Dornfeld reports:

Fifty-five million years ago, a mass extinction happened when the
oceans became too acidic.

Richard Feely is a chemical oceanographer for the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration. He says that today’s ocean acidification
is happening too quickly for many species to adjust.

“Over the last 200 years we’ve seen a 30-percent increase in acidity
of the oceans, and about six percent of that increase of acidity of
the oceans has been in the last 15 years.”

Researchers at the University of Bristol in England ran simulations of
the acidification processes 55 million years ago and today. They found
that acidification is happening ten times faster these days than it
did before the prehistoric mass extinction.

That could mean that if we don’t slow our release of CO2 into the
atmosphere, life in our oceans could crash within a century or two.
The study is published in the journal of Nature Geoscience.

For the Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

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Clearing Up Cap-And-Trade

  • In cap-and-trade, businesses can purchase the right to pollute from other companies that reduce their emissions more than they need to. (Photo courtesy of the US EPA)

Congress is considering restricting
carbon emissions causing climate
change with a cap-and-trade scheme.
But, recent polls show only a handful
of people have heard of cap-and-trade.
Even fewer understand what it is.
Lester Graham reports cap-and-trade
is not new:

Transcript

Congress is considering restricting
carbon emissions causing climate
change with a cap-and-trade scheme.
But, recent polls show only a handful
of people have heard of cap-and-trade.
Even fewer understand what it is.
Lester Graham reports cap-and-trade
is not new:

We’ve been using the market-based tool to reduce other pollution.

Frank O’Donnell is with the environmental group Clean Air Watch. He says ‘remember acid rain?’ The government ‘capped’ the pollutants causing acid rain. And then came the ‘trade’ part.

“Sources can either reduce their emissions further or purchase the right to pollute from other companies that reduce their emissions more than they need to.”

O’Donnell says that cap-and-trade was cheaper than anybody predicted, and it reduced acid rain. But it didn’t eliminate it.

“And the reason is that the cap-and-trade target was essentially a politically-driven target. It was not one based fully on science.”

In fact, the US EPA is now proposing cutting acid rain pollutants more.

O’Donnell thinks a cap-and-trade scheme for carbon emmissions could be far more susceptible to political maneuvering.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

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Oceans Getting More Acidic

  • The research team collects several samples from each stop along the route to measure the chemical composition of the ocean water. (Photo by Ann Dornfeld)

We hear a lot about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But half of all man-made CO2 is stored in the world’s oceans. When CO2 mixes with water, it increases the oceans’ acidity. As Ann Dornfeld reports, that acidification is moving closer toward the oceans’ fragile coastal areas:

Transcript

We hear a lot about carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But half of all man-made CO2 is stored in the world’s oceans. When CO2 mixes with water, it increases the oceans’ acidity. As Ann Dornfeld reports, that acidification is moving closer toward the oceans’ fragile coastal areas:


If you’ve ever wondered why sparkling water tastes tangy, instead of just bubbly – it’s because of carbonic acid. That’s what’s produced when carbon dioxide is added to water. Some of the CO2 in the world’s oceans is natural, from things like decaying algae. But the oceans also soak up CO2 produced by cars and factories. Once CO2 is absorbed into the ocean, it sinks to the coldest, deepest water for long-term storage.

Chemical oceanographers at Oregon State University are monitoring the chemical composition of the Pacific Ocean to see where the carbon is being stored. On a research vessel several miles off the coast, they lower a series of bottles down to the ocean floor on a winch.


(sound of winches)


Scientists have expected that upwellings would eventually bring some of that CO2 to the coastal zones that are home to a huge array of marine life. They thought it would take a century or more. But a recent study, published in the journal Science, found acidic water fewer than 20 miles off the Pacific Coast.

Grad student Rachel Holzer says that’s alarming.


“The ocean is normally at a very stable pH. It is a buffered system, which means it is not very easy for the pH to change. But recently there’s been evidence that ocean acidification is happening, meaning that the pH is dropping. And that can be very harmful to biological life of all different types.”


Corrosive water can dissolve the calcium carbonate shells of barnacles, mussels, oysters and clams. Coral reefs are also calcium carbonate. So are a lot of planktonic species, including terrapods. Those make up about half of the diet of young salmon.

Burke Hales co-authored the latest study. He’s an Associate Professor of Chemical Oceanography at Oregon State.


“The question is how are these organisms going to respond, you know? Do their shells dissolve, do they just not grow as quickly? If their shells are negatively impacted, are the organisms themselves negatively impacted? And if the organisms are negatively impacted, how does that cascade through the food web?”

Hales says stopping ocean acidification would be extremely difficult, if not impossible.


“There are people who have talked about going out in the ocean and spraying sodium carbonate pellets into the water, which would dissolve and neutralize some of the carbonic acid. Sort of like when you take a Tums, that’s the active ingredient in Tums is calcium carbonate. That’s one idea that’s been proposed. It’s really, really speculative that that would work.”


What’s more, Hales says the process of hauling all of that ocean antacid out to sea and dispersing it could produce as much CO2 as it would neutralize.


“It is depressing. We wish things weren’t this way and moving sort of irreversibly towards worse conditions. But we also know that the oceans do have a lot of ability to adapt. And what we don’t know yet is exactly how this is gonna play out.”


One thing scientists do know is that the acidification has just begun. The corrosive water they found right off the Pacific Coast was from carbon dioxide released about 50 years ago. And over the last half century, CO2 production has only increased.


For the Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

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A Bog’s Goodbye

  • Greg Seymour, with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, walking through Cranberry Bog (Photo by Christina Morgan)

It’s normal to want to protect special
places in nature. But in some cases, these
places are disappearing simply because of nature.
Christina Morgan reports on an ancient spot that
might disappear in our lifetime. The people who
love it want to save it, but they might have to
let it go:

Transcript

It’s normal to want to protect special
places in nature. But in some cases, these
places are disappearing simply because of nature.
Christina Morgan reports on an ancient spot that
might disappear in our lifetime. The people who
love it want to save it, but they might have to
let it go:

For four generations, J-me Braig’s family has visited a rare
site, a bog left behind by glaciers thousands of years ago.

“As a child, I used to go out there and play on it, with my
grandmother, and we would pick cranberries; my brother and I would play on it. ”

Braig says her grandmother used to take a boat out to the bog
in a lake in Ohio. Her grandmother made pies and wine with
the cranberries.

Braig is a lake historian who’s worried about the bog. That’s
because it’s shrinking.

But before we talk about why it’s shrinking, though, it’s important
to know what makes this tiny area special.

Webster’s dictionary defines a bog as soft, waterlogged
ground. This bog, Cranberry Bog, is soft and waterlogged.
But it’s not ground. There’s no dirt. The bog is a 10 acre
patch of sphagnum moss.

Most bogs surround a glacial lake. Instead, Cranberry Bog is
surrounded by a lake, and floating. Here’s what happened.

Nearly 200 years ago, crews digging in an ancient river bed
created a reservoir to feed the Ohio and Erie canal. The
reservoir filled, the mossy bog floated to the surface. How or
why it stayed, no one knows.

“An absolute oddity. It shouldn’t be here.”

Greg Seymour is with the Ohio Department of Natural
Resources. He says the ancient bog is home to likely the only collection
of plants of its kind in the world.

More than 150 plants, a
handful native to Canada. Nudged southward by the glacier,
the plants are tricked by the cool bog mat into thinking they
never left home.

The bog is shrinking for several reasons. Waves from passing
boats loosen the bog mat. Storms topple trees
which rip out chunks of the mat. But Seymour says the biggest
threat is the bog’s chemistry, which makes the site its own
worst enemy.

“The number one factor is going to be the chemical reaction
between the alkaline lake waters and the acidic bog.”

The pH balance is off – way off. Cranberry Bog is doomed to disappear, probably within 30
years.

But area historian J-Me Braig remains upbeat, saying ever
since she can remember, someone has had a scheme to save
Cranberry Bog.

And sure enough, there is a new group determined to preserve the
ancient bog.

George O’Donnell leads Friends of Cranberry Bog. He and
others think one way to generate interest in the site, is to inventory of all that the bog has to offer.
Such an inventory is being done by the bog’s neighbor 8 miles
to the north, Dawes Arboretum.

Tim Mason is the manager of natural resources there. He says even
if the inventory and other efforts to preserve the bog fail, they
have a plan B. Dawes created a restoration area where pieces
of Cranberry Bog that break off are placed.

“We can just hold on to what’s there. It takes thousands of
years for the peat moss material to grow; so to create that is something we would certainly not see in
our life times.”

Saving the bog – or just preserving its pieces – are a long shot.
Yet the efforts persist. Historian J-Me Braig is one of many people
who hope for success. But even Braig admits, after more than
10,000 years, Cranberry Bog has had a pretty good run.

For The Environment Report, I’m Christina Morgan.

Related Links

Co2 Turning Ocean Acidic

  • Researchers have found that the Pacific Ocean is becoming increasingly acidic as a result of CO2 emissions (Photo by A. Kalvaitis, courtesy of NOAA)

The Pacific Ocean is becoming more acidic.
The corrosive water could start dissolving shells
and coral. The problem is largely caused by carbon
dioxide emitted by cars and power plants. As Ann
Dornfeld reports, researchers say the problem is
happening faster than they expected:

Transcript

The Pacific Ocean is becoming more acidic.
The corrosive water could start dissolving shells
and coral. The problem is largely caused by carbon
dioxide emitted by cars and power plants. As Ann
Dornfeld reports, researchers say the problem is
happening faster than they expected:

Scientists have known for a long time that the world’s oceans are becoming corrosive
from so much man-made CO2. Carbon dioxide dissolves into the ocean, and forms
carbonic acid.

The corrosive water is concentrated in deep, cold parts of the ocean. Scientists had
predicted it would approach the vulnerable coastal zones in about a century. So they
were alarmed to find the acidity just a few miles off the California coast.

Burke Hales is a chemical oceanographer. He says this corrosive water could break
down the calcium carbonate in coral and shells.

“So we’re talking about things like barnacles and oysters and mussels and
clams. And some planktonic organisms form calcium carbonate shells, as well.”

Researchers say the acidification approaching the coasts is from CO2 that was emitted
50 years ago. That means we’re just at the start of increasingly acidic oceans.

For The Environment Report, I’m Ann Dornfeld.

Related Links

Growing Zones Warm Up

  • The National Arbor Day Foundation's revised hardiness zone map. (Photo courtesy of the National Arbor Day Foundation)

If you’ve been thinking about landscaping your yard, you should know things have
changed. The climate is warming so quickly that one organization has changed the
plant hardiness zone map. That’s the little map you sometimes see on the back of
seed packets. Lester Graham reports… you might want to check out the new map
before you spend hundreds of dollars on a tree that might not live long in your
warmer zone:

Transcript

If you’ve been thinking about landscaping your yard, you should know things have
changed. The climate is warming so quickly that one organization has changed the
plant hardiness zone map. That’s the little map you sometimes see on the back of
seed packets. Lester Graham reports… you might want to check out the new map
before you spend hundreds of dollars on a tree that might not live long in your
warmer zone:


You know, I’ve talked to a lot of gardeners and homeowners who do their own
landscaping about this plant hardiness zone map change, and at first they’re
kind of astounded. The growing zones are changing? Because it’s getting warmer?


But then, they sort of pause and think for a moment… and usually say something like,
“That makes sense.”


The United States Department of Agriculture issues the plant hardiness zone map.
It’s basically a map of the annual average low temperatures that helps folks figure
out what they can plant and expect to survive. But the USDA hasn’t updated its map
since 1990.


The spokesman at the National Arbor Day Foundation, Woody Nelson – I kid you not,
the Arbor Day guy’s name is Woody – Woody says his organization issued a new
map because it really needed to be updated:


“You know, people were asking us to help out, you know, ‘This old USDA map just doesn’t
seem to work for us anymore. I don’t think it’s accurate. What can you do to help?’
So we took it upon ourselves to give tree-planters the most up-to-date information
that we could.”


So the National Arbor Day Foundation looked at the low temperature data gathered
by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 1990, and the people
were right: things are warming up:


“And over that 15-year span that we used, much of the country had warmed a full
hardiness zone.”


And there’s a ten degree difference from one zone to the next. It shows a real on-
the-ground trend.


Richard Andres is with Tantre Farm. They grow organic produce for farmers’
markets like this one in Michigan. Andres didn’t know about the new Arbor Day
Hardiness Zone map, but it makes sense to him. He says he’s seeing more
extremes:


“You know, last winter was unusually warm. The winter before, unusually warm.
So, we really didn’t even get a decent freeze. We had a huge amount of bugs the
following spring. So we are noticing more extremes.”


But a farmer or gardener can adjust things for annual plants. Long term, you’re
probably wondering whether you can now plant that dogwood or whether you
should plant that spruce from up north.


(Sound of sprinkler)


Phil Walsh sells a lot of trees at Lodi Farms nursery. He knew about the new Arbor
Day Hardiness Zone map. But, he says there’s a lot more to think about than just
the annual average low temperature when you’re thinking about planting:


“Cold is not the only, or really the most, important factor when determining plant
hardiness. Questions like soil: is it well-drained; is it not; is it wet; is it dry; is it acid
or is it alkaline; do you have wind; do you have shade? Questions like this: is it high
in organic material or low in organic material? These tend to have more impact on
whether or not plants survive than strictly the zone rating.”


Walsh says the trees are pretty tough, and most of them can adapt:


“Yes, things have warmed up over the last 15 years and they may well continue or it may change and it may go down. Pick a good, hardy plant that’s well-suited for your soil
and typically one that’s native here, that’s gone through these temperature changes
in the past and I don’t expect anybody’s going to have any problems with them.”


That’s not to say that every kind of tree is taking this in stride. For example, black
spruce trees adapted to Canadian and upper New England cold might not be such a
good choice as far south as it’s been grown in the past.


Woody Nelson at the National Arbor Day Foundation says trees native to the North
are starting to be affected by the warming climate:


“There’s a whole lot of white pines that have been planted in Georgia, in the South
as a nice landscape tree over the years. And now those white pines are coming
under a little bit of stress. The native lodge pole pines, the native loblolly pines in the
deep South, again native species are something that we want to promote and stick
with.”


So, the basic rule is: if the plant hardiness zone map has shifted one growing zone
warmer in just 15 years, you’ll probably want to stick to trees native to your area, or
from just a little south of you just in case this warming trend sticks around for a while.


For the Environment Report, this is Lester Graham.

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New Mining Operation Worries Neighbors

  • Resistance to the proposed sulfide mine project is strong in Big Bay, Michigan. It's the largest town (population 500) near the area. (Photo by Chris McCarus)

A multinational mining company is planning to mine for nickel near the shore of Lake Superior. But some mining experts and the community don’t want the mine to be built. They say there’s no way to make sure the mine won’t damage the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports:

Transcript

A multinational mining company is planning to mine for nickel near the shore of Lake Superior. But some mining experts and the community don’t want the mine to be built. They say there’s no way to make sure the mine won’t damage the environment. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chris McCarus reports.


The price of nickel has tripled in recent years. It’s needed for electronic produces such as computers. It’s used to produce cars. And nickel is even used in air pollution control equipment. If it’s approved, this would be North America’s only active nickel mine.


Kennecott Minerals Corporation says it’ll mean 120 jobs for local workers over a 10-year period. The state of Michigan has been lagging behind the rest of the nation in job recovery and in the northern reaches of the state good jobs are really hard to find.


The mine will cost 100 million dollars to set up. But the value of the nickel ore in the ground is somewhere between one and three billion dollars. So the company could make hundreds of millions in profit.


Scientists and activists say that this nickel mine could be even worse than the iron and copper mines of the past.


That’s because it would require mining through sulfide minerals. When they mix with water and oxygen, they can become sulfuric acid, just like battery acid. The industry calls the problem acid mine drainage. It can kill fish and wildlife and pollute water.


Michelle Halle is a lawyer for the National
Wildlife Federation and a local resident. She’s got one question.


“I’m always interested in the answer to the question about whether he believes that a mine can exist with 100% perfect track record.”


It’s a rhetorical question. She’s confident that the company won’t be able to meet the newer, stricter standards for getting a permit to mine.


“No human error, no design flaws, no natural disasters that are going to cause an impact… I don’t think that any company can say yes to that honestly.”


The mining company says there’s always some risk. John Cherry works for Kennecott Minerals Corporation. Cherry insists the company’s design is the best, and the safest. Although he says it’s impossible to guarantee against accidents at the mine.


“We can get in a crash on the way home today too. You design it with a safety factor built into your design. You have a very robust design. That’s your first step. You make your system as structurally competent as you can. Make it as bulletproof as you can.”


Cherry says the next steps are to install a monitoring system to detect the smallest problems. And if there are any problems, the mine will have a contingency plan with the right materials and properly trained people on hand.


State law requires the company to pay all of its accident insurance up front. They can’t just pay in installments. That way, the company will pay to clean up any mess, not the state or the community. Minnesota has a similar law. And In Wisconsin, People Against Mining got the state to establish a moratorium on sulfide mining


David Chambers used to work as a geologist for a mining company. And now he works for the Center for Science in Public Participation. He says, at the nickel mine planned in Michigan, groundwater contamination is possible and would be dangerous.


“Probably the most likely event is an accidental release from the mine. All mines have problems. It’s likely that somebody won’t turn a valve the right way or a big storm comes and there’s an overflow.”


Chambers says a mine collapse would be the most destructive. But, he says, even for the accidents that will not devastate the environment, the company and the community should plan, because they will happen.


(Sound of trucks)


On the road leading into the wilderness area where the mine would operate, local road crews are doing routine maintenance. Right now, most people who use the road are hikers, kayakers and fishermen. The pristine waters of Lake Superior and surrounding lakes and streams attract them here.


Kristy Mills is a store owner. She thinks a sulfide mine would only mean heavier traffic of trucks carrying away nickel ore. She says it wouldn’t bring in the tourist dollars the area needs.


“We don’t like to see that kind of growth. I think it’s a poor way of investing into our future. You know, we need to encourage tourism and visitation, not mining and hauling ore around in big trucks. It’s gonna be interesting.”


Many local residents and environmental activists feel the area should have learned lessons from the region’s past mining heritage. The precious ore is removed. People somewhere else get rich. And the legacy of pollution is all that remains when the mines are closed. So now, they’re hoping if it comes, this mine will be different.


For the GLRC, I’m Chris McCarus.

Related Links

Algae Mops Up Heavy Metals

The Great Lakes suffer from all kinds of pollution, but among the most dangerous pollutants from industrial waste are mercury, cadmium, and zinc. Researchers at Ohio State University are perfecting a way to clean up those heavy metals…. using algae. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Cohen explains:

Transcript

The Great Lakes suffer from all kinds of pollution, but among the most dangerous pollutants from industrial waste are mercury, cadmium, and zinc. Researchers at Ohio State University are perfecting a way to clean up those heavy metals – using algae. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Bill Cohen explains:

Picture using algae as a sponge. The one-cell
plants attach themselves to the polluting metals…you pull them out of the
water…squeeze out the metals in an acid solution….and re-use the algae
sponge 30 times. Researcher Richard Sayre has genetically altered the
algae to sop up more pollution than ever:


“We’ve improved their ability to sequester and bind these heavy metals by a factor of five.”


Sayre stresses – the algae itself won’t be put
into the lakes free-floating …and it won’t even be living.


“The metal-binding capacity is about three times greater when they’re dead than when they’re alive.”


The next step for Sayre…convincing a few cities to let him put this algae into pollution control equipment so he can prove to them it’s a cheap and effective way to stop industrial waste before it gets into waterways.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Bill Cohen.