Scientist studies oceans’ changing chemistry

As a girl, Terrie Klinger’s mom took her to the tidepools to play with the prickly sea urchins and shy octopi. Growing up in sunny Southern California inspired a love for the ocean and concern for the ecosystems beneath the surface. But the chemistry of the ocean has changed dramatically over the decades that Klinger has been studying her beloved West Coast waters.

Acidification, caused by excess carbon dioxide absorbed by the ocean, is giving shellfish a particularly raw deal. Young mollusks such as oysters and scallops have a harder time building their shells in carbon-rich waters, which become corrosive as the pH drops. On the flip side, acidification can be a boon for seaweeds and phytoplankton, which are likely to flourish in the excess carbon.

“The positive and negative responses can lead to changes in ocean food webs and these changes have the potential to affect seafood production and the seafood industry,” says Klinger, who co-directs the new Washington Ocean Acidification Center with Jan Newton. “The center is coordinating cutting-edge research to figure out what is happening in Washington’s waters and to link this research with the needs of legislators, the private sector and others with an interest in ocean ecosystems.”

The center opened its research doors last summer after the Washington State Legislature appropriated $1.8 million to fund its first two years. The state is particularly interested in this work because the shellfish industry is the lifeblood of many coastal communities. Research on ocean acidification has grown rapidly since 2006, led by scientists in Europe, Australia and the United States. But studies on Pacific Northwest waters are nascent and the problem has been pressing for years.

For example, in 2008, Oregon observed large mortalities of oyster larvae linked to an influx of corrosive water. Since then, the shellfish industry has adapted, but Klinger says the long-term outlook will require changes in personal behavior, as well as the ways we manage marine systems.

“We don’t know what the ocean will look like in 100 years. We have good tools for projecting the chemistry, but we don’t know how the organisms will respond,” Klinger says. “A good outcome would be to slow the rate at which we’re adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. If we can slow the ocean acidification process down, we give those organisms a better chance to adapt. Slowing acidification will make it easier for humans to adapt to a changing ocean, too.”