Solveig TorvikBy Solveig Torvik

As a reward for fealty and forbearance, readers of this column from time to time are treated to free financial advice. This month is just such an occasion, and here it is:

Invest in oyster and Alaska king crab futures. That is, if you can figure out how to give them a future.

The latest news about our kind’s ongoing experiment in planetary remodeling comes to us via the Seattle Times, which, with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, has just published an eye-popping multi-media series showing how the oceans are turning acidic.

This is not news. The news is that it’s happening much sooner than expected. Even five years ago, scientists thought dangerous acidification wouldn’t happen until late in the 21st century.

So we’re running 50 to 100 years ahead of schedule here, people.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the active ingredient that turns seas acidic and sour. When it first dawned on us that some of the CO2 we create – face it, we create more than we know what to do with – falls into the ocean, there was a sigh of relief that it wasn’t going into the atmosphere. Mistake. Acidic seas are no more conducive to life on Earth as we know it than toxic air.

The oceans are 30 percent more acidic now than at the start of the Industrial Revolution, and 15 percent of that acidification has happened since the 1990s. Scientists expect that by the end of this century, seas may be 150 times more acidic than in the 18th century, according to the Times’ report.

There have been other instances of ocean acidification but always at a much slower rate; 55 million years ago, for example, the rate of acidic change in the seas was 10 times slower than today.

And therein lies the rub with rapid climate change: speed kills. Given time, creatures can adapt, evolve or move to a new neighborhood. But this time, sea creatures don’t have much time. So it seems prudent to ask: Are we really okay with this heedless rush to ocean acidification? Hello?

The Times team spent four years pulling together the startling scientific documentation from researchers working on the problem in Papua New Guinea, Alaska and Washington. They found that occasional acidification already has killed billions of oysters along the Washington coast. Mussels are being destroyed and acidification is suspected in the death of baby scallops and the softening of clamshells. Within 40 years, acidified water will be a daily, not occasional, occurrence along half of the west coast, scientists predict.

That’s likely to give oyster prices a boost. As for Alaska red king crab, it already goes for $39.99 a pound at the Pike Street Market. What will it cost when the demand outruns the supply? By 2100, it could be a moot question, as the prized Alaska red king crab likely will have vanished, felled by acidification, according to projections of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle.

But there’s much more to worry about here than a food source most people can’t afford and many don’t like. Acidification is altering the chemical structure of the seas. And we can’t alter the seas without altering everything else on the planet.

When we burn fossil fuels such as coal, oil and natural gas, it’s as if every person on Earth were tossing an eight-pound bowling ball of CO2 into the seas every day, according to the Times’ calculus. That amounts to 20 trillion pounds a year, and a quarter of it sinks into the seas, triggering what until now have been almost unnoticed chemical changes.

But now the trouble is being documented at the bottom of the food chain. Petropods are tiny shelled creatures that are a key food source for fish, whales and seabirds. They feed pollock – the biggest North American commercial fishery at 3 billion pounds and $1billion in profits annually – and herring, baby pink salmon, etc. In Antarctica, the petropods’ shells are dissolving, burnt through by acid.

The alarming thing is that the water chemistry in Antarctica is not as bad as it is right here in some parts of the Northwest.

Our collective ignorance of what’s going on at the bottom of the ocean’s food chain is impressive. While we study the species we catch to eat, we don’t bother to study what they eat. So we know very little about what the acid is doing, if anything, to the first layer of food, the krill and copepods that sustain life in the seas.

Little wonder: The eight federal agencies studying acidification get a princely sum of $30 million to tease out its effects on the deep and those that live therein. That’s less than the annual budget of the town of Hoquiam, population 10,000, according to the Times.

But based on what they do know, NOAA scientists predict declines in some types of sole and flounder as well as Pacific whiting, the fish most frequently caught commercially off our state’s shores. Perhaps a quarter of the sea species will thrive, but on balance the commercially valuable ones are expected to decline while the “weed” species will prosper, according to the Times’ report.

While Alaska red king crabs struggle to build shells when the oceans acidify, not all shellfish do. Maryland blue crabs grow bigger and meaner – three times their normal size – when they get a CO2 boost, researchers found. Dungeness crabs suffer, though not so much. Gold king crabs live below 1,000 feet and seem to thrive in the CO2-rich waters.

But it’s not just that some shellfish can’t grow shells. The brains of fish and other sea creatures appear to be affected by chemical changes in sea water, making them oblivious to danger and vulnerable to prey. Their sense of smell, hearing and sight seem to be affected.

The food sources that sea creatures depend on are expected to be adversely affected by our acidification efforts.

And so will our own, of course.


Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.