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Stepping back from the acidic abyss

A group of prominent marine scientists has presented its 'Honolulu Declaration on Ocean Acidification and Reef Management'

By Peter N. Spotts / August 27, 2008

Under the sea...

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If you have to issue a declaration of some sort, Kona, on the big island of Hawaii, isn't a shabby place to do it. Especially if the topic involves coral reefs and ocean acidification.

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The venue: The 20th meeting of the US Coral Reef Task Force, set up in 1988 to coordinate the nation's efforts to preserve these important marine habitats.  Today, a group of prominent marine scientists presented the task force with its "Honolulu Declaration on Ocean Acidification and Reef Management. " The four-page document (five if you count references) puts its main focus on what conservation managers can do now to try to ensure some level of resilience in their reef networks as oceans  acidify. In many ways, it's the latter that distinguishes this from other declarations of angst over acidification.

That's not to pooh-pooh the phenomenon; the oceans are growing acidic. It's the result of the ocean's uptake of the some of the carbon dioxide human industrial activities are pumping in to the air.  No fuss, no muss, no models (unless you really want to use them), just fundamental chemistry. As one engineering professor told to me back in 2001 when we were chatting about carbon sequestration technologies, even if he didn't sign off on the idea of human-triggered global warming (which he did), the idea that we're acidifying the oceans would be enough to keep him awake at night.  Scientists have been studying this issue at least since the early 1980s. By the late 1990s, they had come up with measurements suggesting that  the ocean's pH -- the standard unit for measuring how acidic or basic a liquid is -- had slipped 0.1 units lower than it was before the Industrial Revolution. This led to projections three years ago that the Southern Ocean would start to show strong signs of acidification -- essentially through a loss in the ability of organisms such as clams and deep-sea corals to make shells and skeletons.  This past June, however, researchers from Canada, the US, and Mexico reported the results from  study of water samples they pulled up along the continental shelf off Canada, the US West Coast, and Mexico's Baja California. They found water from the deep ocean moving onto the continental shelf -- and displaying the tell-tale signs of acidification. Different ocean, and faster than projected three years ago. Scientists often express their concerns about this in terms of near-surface water growing more acidic. So where did this deep more-acidic water come from? The deep-ocean conveyor, according to Richard Feely, a scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.  Based on their measurements, the team estimates that the water they were sampling last saw the surface 50 years ago in the western North Pacific off Japan. Essentially, they found that the ocean is kicking back to the surface waters that grew more acidic before anyone started to give atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidification much thought.

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