Dispatch from the Woodstock of ocean acidification

At Monterey Bay Aquarium, we’re paying close attention to the impacts of rising carbon dioxide emissions on the health of the global ocean. Our award-winning Climate Interpreter, Sarah-Mae Nelson, attended the 4th International Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World earlier this month on the Australian island state of Tasmania. Here’s her report from Down Under.

SMN at High CO2 symposium
Sarah-Mae Nelson, conservation interpreter for Monterey Bay Aquarium, gets jazzed for the symposium.

The acid jokes were inevitable. Like this one:

“Three hundred scientists fly into Australia. Australia says, ‘How you goin’?’ The scientists say, ‘We’re on acid.’  Australia sends them to Tasmania.”

Of course, the subject that brought more than 300 scientists, students and science communicators together for four days in the Tasmanian capital of Hobart is serious. Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are affecting ocean health and wildlife, and our own survival, in profound ways.

The delegates came from all over the world—including China, Brazil, France, the United States, India, the United Kingdom, Ecuador, Canada and Costa Rica—to share and discuss the latest research on the ocean’s response to rising CO2 levels.

One of the major impacts is ocean acidification, which occurs as the ocean absorbs some of the CO2 we’ve pumped into the air by burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas.

Ocean acidification can affect popular seafood products like oysters.

This rampant CO2 triggers a chemical reaction that lowers the ocean’s pH. More acidic seawater makes it tougher for shelled marine animals to survive. It’s as if snails and oysters are developing osteoporosis, the disease that makes bones brittle and fragile.

But only part of the symposium focused on the ocean’s chemistry. Lots of other CO2-related issues came into focus, too. Throughout the symposium, as scientists presented on the latest findings, four major themes emerged:

1. The science of complexity

Much of the research is now looking at the way animals interact within their ecosystems, instead of just studying species in isolation. Some of this work is being done in lab environments to help understand the fine details of metabolism, oxygen use and temperature sensitivity. Other research happens in the ocean, where CO2 seeps up from vents in the sea floor. This gives scientists the opportunity to observe how complex ecosystems respond to more acidic conditions.

2. The biodiversity advantage

Marine animals, like these invertebrates on a rocky reef near Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, may be more resilient in protected areas. Photo by Bill Morgan

Animals that live within intact ecosystems appear to be more resilient in changing conditions than those in fragmented habitats. As predators, prey and plants interact, they may be able to use cues from the environment—and each other—to adapt. This has important implications for conservation: When we establish marine protected areas, we’re protecting biodiverse habitats where animals have a better chance to adapt.

3. The genetics of adaptation

Advanced genetic research is showing how these adaptations can occur. Innovative techniques allow scientists to look at how plants, animals and even bacteria respond to changing chemistry at a genetic level—and how those adaptations can allow them to survive in a new environment.

4. The power of a good meal

Whether marine life can survive changes in the ocean environment has a lot to do with energy. If they can find enough to eat, they may have the fuel they need to adapt. If they can’t find enough high-quality food, they must make trade-offs between adapting in the long term or simply surviving in the moment. This parallels what we humans are dealing with here on land: Do we make long-view changes in our use of fossil fuels for the future of all life on the planet, or do we continue with business as usual because it’s the easier path today?

SMN presents at High CO2 conference
Sarah-Mae Nelson presents at the High CO2 symposium in Hobart, Australia.

Science can drive solutions

Having attended the previous  symposium in 2012 in Monterey, California, I was impressed with the progress in this go-round. In a field often dominated by male scientists from the global north, we’re beginning to see more diversity. This was the first time the symposium was held in the Southern Hemisphere—which, unlike the Northern, is more ocean than land.

The number of female presenters nearly equaled the number of male presenters, at 122 to 132. (The progress of women in science has been top of mind for me lately. I’ve been invited to attend the United State of Women Summit next month in Washington, D.C., to address issues of gender equality.)

And while some of the science raised concerns about the ocean’s future in a high-CO2 world, it seemed everyone held one thing in common: hope.

The decision made at COP21 in December 2015, and the signing of the Paris Agreement last month, has given us reason to believe humans can come together to create a better future. The High CO2 Symposium may inspire new collaborations that lead to solutions.

We know what we need to do for ourselves, and for the ocean. Now, it is simply a matter of doing it.

Featured image: Blue rockfish (Sebastes mystinus) school in the kelp forest near Point Lobos State Marine Reserve, Carmel, California. Photo by Bill Morgan.

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