State should lead in fighting climate change

December 2, 2012 

This state can’t afford to wait for decisive action by federal and global leaders on the pressing problem of climate change.

One of the most compelling cases in point is the growing evidence that ocean acidification is raising havoc with the marine ecosystem in the Pacific Northwest, including Puget Sound.

Last week, a panel of scientists and policymakers appointed by Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a sweeping set of recommendations to combat ocean acidification.

The panel’s recommendations will help the state be a leader in the battle against ocean acidification. But real progress can’t and won’t be made without concurrent action on the regional, national and international fronts to reverse the acidic tide.

Roughly 30 percent of the creatures in Puget Sound appear vulnerable to water that is growing more acidic as carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels continue to mount in the atmosphere. The CO2 falls out in the water, making the water more corrosive.

Rising pH levels in marine waters spell trouble for shellfish, which struggle to survive beyond the larval stage because the acidic water eats away at their ability to grow a protective shell. For the past several years, wild and hatchery-raised oysters have faced difficulty reproducing in the state’s marine waters. This ecological disaster in the making puts the state’s $270 million shellfish industry at risk.

When ocean chemistry is knocked out of whack, it leads to problems up and down the food chain. Another marine creature struggling with acidic water is a tiny snail-like animal known by the scientific name of pteropod, and commonly referred to as sea butterflies. Not much bigger than a grain of sand, pteropods studied in the south Atlantic Ocean show damage to their extremely thin shells.

Pteropods are near the bottom of the marine food chain yet provide as much as 50 percent of the diet for pink salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Researchers are just beginning to study the condition of pteropods in this region.

That research should be aided by the executive order signed by Gregoire last week, which sets the wheels in motion on a number of fronts in the fight against ocean acidification. Here are some of the highlights of the plan:

 • Push to create a new research center at the University of Washington that focuses on ocean acidification. If approved, it would be funded through existing taxes on hazardous substances and revenues from leases of state-owned aquatic lands.

 • Include $3.3 million in the 2013-15 state budget to help shellfish hatcheries beef up monitoring of acidic water.

 • Develop a better understanding of how nitrates found in wastewater and stormwater pollution amplify the corrosive effects of carbon dioxide in marine waters. If they prove significant, the sources need to be reduced immediately, panel members said.

More than 40 actions were recommended by the blue-ribbon panel in a bid to make Washington state a leader in the fight against rising pH levels in marine waters. But they all pale in comparison to the number one priority: Pushing and prodding for reductions in carbon dioxide levels at the regional, national and global levels.

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