At the helm of EarthLab’s Washington Ocean Acidification Center are two experienced ocean scientists, but what they are trying to do is something entirely new. Terrie Klinger and Jan Newton are Salish Sea experts – one an ecologist, one an oceanographer – and they are addressing one of the biggest emerging threats to our environment today, ocean acidification.
“When we first were funded by the legislature to stand up the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, there was no precedent. We were starting from zero,” says Klinger. Born from a Washington State Blue Ribbon Panel, the Center was established by the legislature at the University of Washington to make sure actions to combat ocean acidification have a strong backbone in science. Along with colleagues and collaborators, it was up to Klinger and Newton to bring the new Center to life, making sure it serves the needs of Washington citizens.
Ocean acidification is a global phenomenon. Worldwide, the ocean plays an invaluable service to the planet by absorbing nearly 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by human activity. Yet this also drives a series of reactions that change seawater chemistry, and as a result the oceans are becoming more acidified, which poses a suite of problems to some marine organisms.
Ocean Acidification Challenges in Washington
In Washington, ocean acidification’s threat became visible in the state’s extensive shellfish industry. Corrosive seawater compromises the ability of shellfish to form their shells, especially in the animal’s early days. In years where seawater conditions are persistently harsh, shellfish farmers failed to raise any new oysters to marketable size, and livelihoods were at stake.
Answers began surfacing when the Washington Ocean Acidification Center connected with shellfish growers and other partners, helping solve what initially seemed like an intractable problem. Now the industry has new tools to manage corrosive water – like monitoring water conditions at the hatcheries, adding buffering agents to incoming seawater, or tracking forecasts of unfavorable water conditions through LiveOcean. In many cases, these tools have allowed shellfish – and business – to continue thriving.
Over the years, the Center’s approach to research has become even more sophisticated, all while remaining “grounded on the Blue Ribbon Panel recommendations to sustain observations, modeling, and biological experiments relevant to ocean acidification,” says Newton. They now can start telling the much deeper story of how ocean acidification threatens ocean food webs, which underpins the eye-popping amount of wildlife and productivity in Puget Sound.
“We’re trying to use the lens of ocean acidification to help solve bigger problems,” says Klinger. “We’ve really grown over our six years and are moving from just a focus on, let’s say shellfish, to include salmon, forage fish and other parts of our ecosystem that are really important to the region.” Expanding focus matters because it can answer questions at a larger scale, helping decision-makers create conservation strategies that support the tiniest creatures all the way up to the big ones, like the southern resident orca whales.
Asking challenging, big-picture questions has always been a part of the Center’s vision and mission. On the research docket now is an investigation into how ocean acidification affects small schooling fish that feed and fuel so many of the Salish Sea’s iconic residents, like salmon, rockfish and marine mammals. Acidifying waters have already been shown to have adverse effects on a fish called the sandlance on the east coast – a species that is also present in the Salish Sea. There is new evidence that shows how increasingly acidified waters affect the ability of young salmon to detect predators, and concern that it may also affect their ability to make their way back to their natal streams where they eventually reproduce.
Sharing the Science of Ocean Acidification with Society
The Washington Ocean Acidification Center stands as a prime example for how EarthLab and its member organizations approach science’s role in society. Placing people at the center, EarthLab is designed to leverage the intellectual resources at the University of Washington and from community partners to co-produce and deliver science-based solutions to the greatest environmental challenges we face as a society.
New questions to ask, and new capabilities to answer them, emerge as the Center continues to grow, build more partnerships and make inroads with new communities. By listening to people’s needs and leveraging work from other partner institutions – like crab research from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, salmon research coming from Washington Sea Grant, and real-time data serving from the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems – the Center is better able to address various needs stemming from many communities.
“I think what’s really lovely about the Center is that it really did originate in the Blue Ribbon Panel, which was comprised of a large and diverse group of people,” says Klinger. “That set the tone for us to build a broad bench of partnerships to work on these projects. When you are trying to do something big, it’s nice to have a lot of minds contributing. And that way, more people feel a better ownership to it as well.”
A local community of practice has developed, with federal, tribal, state, industry and private partners. “We simply could not do this work without this diverse input and expertise,” adds Newton. “And our work here in Washington is well-linked to national and global efforts too.”
Employing cruises and buoys, and working in collaboration with partners, the Center obtains data from Washington waters on water chemistry and plankton, and is investigating new approaches to observing biology in the field. “When we have a multi-year record of what we’re seeing in the environment, we can understand the food web effects much more broadly. We can use the observing data to continue to refine the model and give people information that’s useful for many purposes,” says Newton.
Creating Smarter Data and Valuable Insights
The Center’s history with this region is an asset for decision-makers. Long-term datasets allow scientists to look back in time and discover important environmental trends, which in turn supports policymakers, managers, businesses and NGOs to develop smarter strategies towards sustainability. But if the data don’t exist, then decision-makers are left in the dark.
“The value of the Center just increases over time. Staying the course is really important to get the greatest benefit, and that allows us to build relationships with people, which is really important,” adds Klinger.
Washington’s marine environment connects to people and community in many ways – culturally, economically and scientifically. Having roots in this region, Newton and Klinger want to make sure the Salish Sea continues to be vibrant. “I do this work because I care,” says Newton. “The ocean changes that are happening are large and have potentially big consequences. As I have gained knowledge over my career that can be put towards understanding this better, I think that’s a responsible and important thing to do.”
More about LiveOcean
Parker MacCready is a physical oceanographer who works primarily on estuaries and coastal systems. With funding from the Washington Ocean Acidification Center and Washington Sea Grant, among others, Parker and his colleagues created LiveOcean, a model that predicts when Washington’s waters are particularly corrosive. Using a suite of model inputs – like ocean currents, weather, water temperature and salinity, oxygen levels, and more – LiveOcean issues a three-day forecast of ocean conditions that are useful to numerous communities, including shellfish farmers. By checking the forecast, farmers can decide if the conditions are favorable to set out baby oysters to start growing in the ocean or if they should wait until conditions improve.