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NEAH BAY -- In 2008, measurements of ocean acidification off the North Olympic Peninsula coast at Tatoosh Island -- about a half mile off Cape Flattery, at the tip of the North Olympic Peninsula just west of Neah Bay -- showed acidity is rising more than 10 times faster than climate models had predicted.
The eight years of research also increased worries that growing corrosive effects of acidic ocean waters could trigger a dramatic shift in coastal species and jeopardize some shellfish stocks.
Scientists say increased carbon dioxide emissions from human activities (industrial emissions, car exhaust and the burning of fossil fuels) have led to a 30 percent rise in ocean acidity in the past 200 years.
Oceans absorb about a third of the carbon-dioxide released into the atmosphere, and when the carbon-dioxide dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid, which alters the ocean's chemical balance.
The resulting acidification prevents marine life such as coral in coral reefs, as well as crabs, lobsters and oysters, from building calcium carbonate skeletons and shells, impairing their ability to survive and reproduce.
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To check the composition of seawater coming into the Sound and Hood Canal, a high-tech buoy was deployed Friday about 15 miles off LaPush.
It will keep track of the weather, the atmosphere, water chemistry and plankton growth.
Nearby, a seaglider -- a remote-controlled underwater vehicle that looks like a torpedo with wings -- will continuously dive and surface to relay data from the depths.
The new monitoring equipment comes as a new scientific study released last week ( http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2010/20100712_pugetsound.html ) said that a combination of carbon dioxide, emitted by industries, power plants and vehicles, and nutrient runoff is acidifying Puget Sound's main basin and Hood Canal as fast as the ocean along the Olympic Peninsula coast.
These water-chemistry changes could have considerable negative impacts on the region's shellfish industry over the next several decades, according to lead author Richard Feely, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.
In sampling Puget Sound and Hood Canal, Feely and his team discovered that those waters were surprisingly acidic -- and in some areas, probably corrosive to shelled creatures like oysters and deadly to oyster larvae.
On the pH scale, strongly alkaline materials such as oven cleaner measure about 13.
Hydrochloric acid has a pH of 1.
Seawater usually measures around 8.1.
In some places, the waters of Puget Sound measured 7.7, similar to some of the lowest measurements taken along the Olympic Peninsula coast.
Parts of Hood Canal were as low as 7.4
Feely and other scientists blamed a combination of natural processes.
One is the increasing acidification caused by oceans' absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Scientists say oceans are now absorbing more than 1 million tons of carbon dioxide an hour. And deep, cold waters typically hold more carbon dioxide than warm, surface waters.
In Hood Canal, poor water circulation and nutrient-rich runoff from pollution and leaky septic tanks stimulates the growth of phytoplankton and other organic matter.
As the phytoplankton dies and sinks, it produces carbon dioxide, which starves the stagnant water of oxygen and lowers its pH.
"These processes combined together to decrease pH further than what we would expect from one or another by themselves," Feely said.
Feely noted that a previous study showed that corrosive water is already upwelling each summer off the Pacific coast with levels of acidity that scientists had predicted wouldn't occur until 2050. (See accompanying story.)
Some of that water is making its way into Puget Sound through the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Feely said -- and that's where the high-tech buoy and the seaglider come into play.
Jan Newton, a physical oceanographer at the University of Washington who was a co-author on the pH study for Puget Sound and Hood Canal, said the buoy and seaglider comprise the most sophisticated array of monitoring instruments ever put into Washington waters. ( For more information, click on http://uwnews.org/article.asp?articleID=59194 )
Quileute named it
The equipment -- operated by NOAA and the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory -- is funded with about $500,000 from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and $200,000 from various UW programs.
LaPush is the home of the Quileute tribe.
The tribe had a contest to name the buoy and chose "Cha ba" (pronounced chay buh), meaning "whale tail."
Quileute Tribal Council Chairwoman Anna Rose Counsell-Geyer said tribal members chose the name because much of the yellow buoy's instrument array is below the surface.
The tribe is watching the project carefully.
The ocean is important to tribal members, Counsell-Geyer said, many of whom rely on salmon fishing and shellfish farming.
With so much at stake, other research efforts are also on the rise -- including new equipment to continually measure acidity in Dabob Bay on Hood Canal and Totten Inlet near Shelton.
Increasing ocean acidity has been linked to the deaths of free-swimming oyster larvae at oyster hatcheries on the Oregon Coast, Newton said, and something similar may be happening at hatcheries on Hood Canal.
Bill Dewey of Taylor Shellfish Farms, which operates an oyster hatchery on Dabob Bay, said oyster larvae production dropped by 60 percent in 2008 and 80 percent last year.
It is too early to know how things will turn out this year, he said.
Tiny free-swimming oyster larvae are most vulnerable when they are first developing a shell, Dewey said.
The composition of the shell is amorphous calcium carbonate, which simply dissolves at a low pH level, killing the organism.
"The science is pretty irrefutable about that," he said.
"When the pH drops, the shells start to erode faster than the larvae can produce them."
Some early evidence suggests that more acidic water in Hood Canal is brought to the surface during storms, Dewey said.
Unlike the ocean hatcheries, where acidity is linked directly to oyster mortality, there may be other factors at play in Hood Canal.
Taylor Shellfish increasingly relies on a hatchery in Kona, Hawaii, where the pH of the water is higher.