Ocean Acidification is real

Ecology takes threats from ocean acidification very seriously. This is not a surprise to many, given our policy and science leadership to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to understand and address ocean acidification. But local meteorologist Cliff Mass’s Sept. 7 blog is causing some people to question just what our position is, and whether ocean acidification is real.

Let’s be clear. Ocean acidification is real. Determining the causes, impacts, and identifying potential solutions are high priorities for our agency and the state.

The basic chemistry of our oceans is changing in ways that will potentially have significant impacts on Washington’s marine life. Ocean acidification is a progressive increase in the acidity of the ocean over an extended period of time. A main cause is the absorption of human-generated carbon dioxide released into the earth’s atmosphere — primarily by fossil fuel combustion and deforestation. Acidification may be more severe in highly populated and developed areas where human activities contribute organic wastes and nutrients in marine waters.

Ocean acidification is causing changes in seawater chemistry, leading to conditions that are corrosive to organisms that use calcium carbonate to make shells, skeletons, and other important body parts, such as young oysters. Washington is the country’s top producer of oysters, clams, and mussels, so this is not just an environmental concern, but an economic one as well.

Cliff Mass quoted a few sentences from legal documents that misled several blog readers to believe that Ecology and EPA have determined that acidification is not damaging oysters in Puget Sound or other local waters. He misinterpreted documents filed under litigation by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) against the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The litigation sought to require EPA to use the federal Clean Water Act to address a problem caused primarily by greenhouse gas air pollutants including carbon dioxide. Ecology concluded that the plaintiff’s evidence failed to meet the stringent test for taking specific regulatory action at this point in time. Furthermore, using the Clean Water Act may not be the best tool to regulate carbon dioxide pollution emitted into the air.

Determining that a Clean Water Act regulatory threshold has not been met is far different than determining that there is no problem.

We view ocean acidification as an urgent local and global issue. So much so, that in 2012, Washington placed Puget Sound in a regulatory category of “Waters of Concern” under our water quality listing policy.

Billions of oyster larvae have died over this past decade at Pacific Northwest hatcheries, and reproduction of wild Pacific oysters at Willapa Bay has declined. Research shows that the problem of increasing ocean acidity will worsen significantly along the Pacific Northwest coastline. The question is what can we do about it?

Our knowledge about the causes and consequences of ocean acidification in Washington’s marine waters is rapidly advancing, but some gaps remain. We support research and monitoring of ocean acidification to provide us with critical information for making future decisions. Ecology and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory together — with funding from EPA — are developing a model to help quantify the contributions of carbon dioxide emissions at both a local and global level. The acidification modeling has just begun, and we will produce the first estimates by June 2017.

Under Governor Jay Inslee’s leadership, the state is working with international, national, and regional partners to advocate for aggressive reduction of air emissions of carbon pollution, including through federal and state laws that focus on carbon pollution. And several policy actions are being pursued to reduce Washington’s own carbon pollution.

Make no mistake — ocean acidification is real. The science is complex. And more research is needed to fully understand the sources, causes, and impacts in different aquatic environments. We are committed to answer these questions and take action.