Ocean Acidification in Our Backyards

Ocean Acidification in Our Backyards

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Daniel Cojanu films the action of unloading fish off the Gemma after going out on a collecting expedition.

To those of us in the Northeast, climate change can seem like an abstract idea. Sure, we’re surrounded by water− but sea level is rising by the millimeter. And yes, of course there are crazy storms and flooding− but who lives long enough to tell if it’s more than a 100-year storm? At least we don’t have the drought, wildfires, and insect infestations they have out West!

As science communicators, we’re challenged by the less-than-obvious examples of climate change all around us. Much of what’s happening is too subtle, or invisible, to work for video. And while people are still getting a grip on what carbon dioxide does in the atmosphere, CO2 in the ocean is barely on the radar.

If anything, the ocean is hailed as  “carbon sink,” capable of absorbing infinite amounts of atmospheric CO2.

But it’s precisely this sponge-like capacity that’s causing the ocean to gradually become more acidic.  As CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, it combines with water molecules to create carbonic acid, causing a gradual rise in the ocean’s pH. As a relatively new frontier of climate change research, so little is known about how rising pH will effect the ocean and the life it supports, we’re not even sure which species to focus on.

Working with WHOI Communications, we’ve found a way to tell the ocean acidification story through the unassuming squid. This enigmatic cephalopod is a really important link in the ocean food web, feeding top predators like whales, dolphins and seals, and in turn, feeding on small fish and zooplankton. Not only that, squid are a $40 million fishery in Massachusetts (and a sustainably managed, near-shore one that that!) and top $100 million a year in California.

As we’re finding out from Aran Mooney and Casey Zakroff at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, squid are susceptible to ocean acidification because of the calcium carbonate in their inner ear. As scientists have seen in hard-shelled mollusks and an angelic zooplankton called “pteropod”, that calcium carbonate dissolves in acid. Without a fully functioning inner ear, squid can have trouble developing, or even swimming.

We’re filming Aran and Casey’s research this summer, out on the Marine Biological Lab’s vessel Gemma to catch squid, and back to the lab, where the painstaking (and eyeball-taxing) research takes place. We look forward to updating you on what the scientists are seeing with a video, out this fall!