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Carbon Dioxide is Killing Coral: How Rising Ocean Acidification Damages Marine Ecosystems
July 11th, 2011
Reefscape by Chuck Savall
“Reefscape” by Chuck Savall

 

by J.P. Rose

While many Americans have heard that carbon dioxide emissions are a major cause of climate change, carbon dioxide also contributes to a lesser-known but similarly serious problem. That problem is ocean acidification, and it threatens not only the vibrant beauty and biodiversity of Earth’s coral reefs, but also the livelihoods of millions of people. A new report by an international panel of scientists warns that the health of the oceans—and particularly of corals—is slipping faster than even pessimists had earlier predicted, and that mass extinctions of fish and coral may occur unless humans take action.[1]

I first became aware of the threats facing coral reefs after discovering the addictive sport of snorkeling. Over the past five years, I have found opportunities to snorkel in the Bahamas, Caribbean, and Mediterranean. During my underwater adventures, I have witnessed some colorful coral reefs that are bursting with hundreds of different fish species, and other less fortunate reefs that are grayish white and home to only a few species.

The grayish white of these less fortunate reefs reflects bleaching, which is caused by ocean acidification and increased water temperatures from climate change. Ocean acidification is the term used for declining levels of pH in the upper layers of the ocean due to the absorption of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.[2] The oceans are actually a huge carbon “sink” that absorb about forty percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities.[3] Yet, allowing the oceans to continue to act as a huge sponge for human-caused carbon dioxide emissions is unsustainable. When carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean, it changes into carbonic acid, which lowers the pH and increases the acidity of the ocean.[4] Heightened ocean acidity dissolves carbonate minerals such as aragonite that are essential to the growth of coral skeletons, a process known as calcification.[5][2]

Scientists at the Carnegie Institute for Science predict that this process will make 98% percent of present-day reefs unable to grow by 2050, if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue.[5] Unlike climate change forecasts, which do involve some degree of uncertainty, researchers have already verified and documented the process of ocean acidification due to absorption of anthropogenic (human-caused) carbon dioxide.[6] Unless humans substantially curb their carbon dioxide emissions, entire ecosystems including coral reefs may be gone within a generation.[1]

The decline of coral reefs profoundly impacts ocean ecosystems and the people who depend upon them.[7] Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are home to thousands of fish species, and act as a nursery for juveniles.[8] Areas with degrading coral are already experiencing reduced numbers of fish as well as reduced biodiversity, such as in Papua New Guinea, where approximately half of all fish species studied declined by over fifty percent.[9] Moreover, half a billion people depend on coral reefs to some degree for their food, income, or coastal protection while thirty million people are entirely dependent upon coral reefs for their livelihood.[10] In addition, the natural beauty of coral reefs and their colorful inhabitants lures many people (myself included) to countries surrounded by coral reefs, which these countries’ economies rely upon for tourism.

Notwithstanding the protestations of a few organizations funded by the oil industry [11] and the slanted reporting by some media sources [12], there is scientific consensus that atmospheric carbon dioxide is causing ocean acidification [13] as well as climate change.[14]  Even though predicting the exact amount of damage to reef ecosystems and the broader ocean is impossible, the weight of the evidence indicates we should utilize the precautionary principle and work together to reduce carbon dioxide emissions (for example, through switching to clean energy sources as a nation and individually). As the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, the United States has a moral imperative to take the lead in preserving the natural resources and technicolor biodiversity of the oceans.

 

J.P. Rose is a legal intern at CRS and a rising third-year student at Santa Clara University School of Law.

 

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[1] Michael McCarthy, “Oceans on brink of catastrophe.” The Independent, 20 June 2011, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/nature/oceans-on-brink-of-catastrophe-2300272.html.

[2] Glenn De’ath, et al. “Declining Coral Calcification on the Great Barrier Reef.” Science Magazine, 2 Jan. 2009, available with free sign up at http://www.sciencemag.org/content/323/5910/116.abstract.

[3] Yale University. “Oceans absorbing carbon dioxide more slowly, scientist finds.” ScienceDaily, 27 Nov. 2009, available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/11/091124140957.htm.

[4] University of California/San Diego. “Global Scientists Draw Attention To Threat Of Ocean Acidification.” ScienceDaily, 5 Feb. 2009, available at http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090201124553.htm.

[5]Carnegie Institute for Science, “Coral Reefs Unlikely to Survive in Acid Oceans.” Physorg.com, 13 Dec. 2007, available at http://www.physorg.com/news116782258.html.

[6] Scott C. Doney, et al., “Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem.” Annual Review of American Science, 2009. 1:169–92, 170, available at http://www.psp.wa.gov/downloads/SP2009/0509/12b_doney_ann_rev_proof.pdf.

[7] “Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs.” Physorg.com, 2 June 2001, available at http://www.physorg.com/news/2011-06-ocean-acidification-coral-reefs.html.

[8] Shaun Wilson, “Climate change and coral reef habitat: implications for fish.” A Changing Climate: Western Australia in Focus, 27 March 2009, available at http://sponsored.uwa.edu.au/wamsi/__data/page/3811/A_Changing_Climate_abstrac_papers_.pdf.

[9] Geoffrey P. Jones, “Coral decline threatens fish biodiversity in marine reserves.” 25 May 2004, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of American, available at http://www.pnas.org/content/101/21/8251.long.

[10] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “How many people are dependent upon coral reefs?,” available at http://coralreef.noaa.gov/aboutcorals/facts/coral_dependence.html.

[11] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Scientists’ Report Documents ExxonMobil’s Tobacco-like Disinformation Campaign on Global Warming Science.” http://www.ucsusa.org/news/press_release/ExxonMobil-GlobalWarming-tobacco.html

[12] Media Matters, “Climate Science Takes Another Spin Through The Fox Cycle.” 21 June 2011, available at http://mediamatters.org/blog/201106210009.

[13] Ocean, Carbon and Biochemistry, “A special introductory guide for policy advisers and decision makers.” Available at http://www.us-ocb.org/publications/oa_guide_english.pdf.

[14] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Scientific Consensus on Global Warming.” 7 March 2011, available at http://www.ucsusa.org/ssi/climate-change/scientific-consensus-on.html.

Rain, Rain, Fill My Barrel
November 30th, 2010

Rainy day urban farming by the urban Eagle Scout

Dave Kyle’s rainwater collection system

by Robin Quarrier

The rain has started in the Bay Area. For at least one person in San Francisco, this year’s rain is causing barrels full of excitement. David Kyle, a sixth grade humanities teacher, has just finished installing his homemade rainwater harvesting system. The system is designed to capture rain runoff from his roof, divert it from the gutters and into two 60-gallon oak wine barrels next to his house. The barrels fill in a few hours of moderate rain. The stored rainwater can then be used to water his urban vegetable garden where he is currently growing red runner beans, tri-color beans, rainbow chard, buttercrunch lettuce, dinosaur kale, and potatoes, among others.

This all sounds simple enough, except when you factor in that the first wash of rainwater picks up all of the pollen, dust, bird droppings and other undesirables from the asphalt shingles on the roof. These particulates are potentially toxic and not ideal for use in an otherwise organic vegetable garden. Kyle solved this problem by designing a “first flush” system, automatically diverting the first flush of particulate heavy water down a hose, positioned slightly lower than the hose to the barrels. When this lower, first flush hose is full, the rest of the rain automatically flows into the top hose and is directed into the empty wine barrels. When the barrels are full, the pressure diverts any additional rain back down the gutter drain pipe on the usual course to the city sewer.

Also notable is Kyle’s backyard, which is completely covered with wooden decking. The garden itself consists of 12 EarthBoxes, 29″L x 14″W x 11″H (around $30 apiece) and two large pots. The oak wine barrels were donated from Kyle’s brother who works at Groth vineyards in the Napa Valley. The cost of this rainwater harvesting system, including building materials, hoses, couplings, bibs, diverter, was $225. “A common criticism of growing your own veggies is that it’s more expensive than buying them in the store. That’s absolutely untrue. With the addition of this rainwater harvesting system I’ll easily break even by 2025.” Kyle says with a chortle.

Kyle’s system uses RainReserve downspout diverter.

If you would like to learn more about rainwater harvesting you can see Rainwater Harvesting in San Francisco (2.3MB PDF), a brochure published through a partnership between San Francisco’s Public Utilities Commission, Department of Public Health, and Department of Building Inspection.

Kyle also recommends Google SketchUp, a free architectural design tool. After studying the design of Medieval European architecture, his sixth graders designed their own castles, complete with turrets, drawbridges, and the occasional historically questionable flaming swordsman. Kyle found the program helpful to design a comparatively tame 3D mock up of his porch, rainwater piping, and gutter system.

Robin Quarrier is a Green-e Analyst and Counsel at CRS, a triathlete, and a frequent cyclist on the lonely backroads of the San Francisco Bay Area. Contact her at robin [at] resource-solutions.org.

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