Ocean acidification, a growing Arctic concern, will be a featured topic during the U.S. State Department’s first international conference examining oceans next week.
The “Our Ocean” conference will bring together political, business, environmental and science leaders from around the world to discuss solutions for the ecological problems facing oceans. It will be facilitated by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on June 16 and 17 in Washington, D.C.
Ocean acidification is a particularly important issue for Arctic countries like Norway because of the region’s economic reliance on fisheries and the area’s ecological sensitivity to acidification.
Nina Jensen, secretary general of the environmental group WWF-Norway, said to the BarentsObserver that she hopes countries involved in the conference will leave Washington next week with clear commitments for curbing acidification.
During ocean acidification, the pH levels in water fall as a result of high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, making the water more acidic and disrupting the ecosystem.
According to a 2013 study by the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the Arctic Ocean is less effective than other bodies of water at neutralizing acidic water because of the freshwater it receives from rivers and melting ice.
The cold Arctic temperatures also allow for carbon dioxide to transfer more quickly from the air to the ocean than it would in a warmer climate.
“The levels and the changes in the ocean when it comes to acidification is maybe one of the biggest threats we have,” said Frederic Hauge, the founder and president of the Bellona Foundation environmental group in Oslo to the BarentsObserver.
Some Norwegians familiar with how acidification affects the High North will be attending the conference, including foreign minister Børge Brende, Frederic Hauge and Nina Jensen.
Representatives from the Norwegian Polar Institute, the Institute for Marine Research and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme will also be participating and representing Arctic interests.
Acidification directly harms organisms that use calcium carbonate shells because shell development can be hindered in acidic water, said Peter Thor, a researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute who studies ocean acidification, to the BarentsObserver.
Many of these organisms, like some copepods, serve as food for fish in the region. Damage to one part of the food chain could have ripple effects that reach fisheries.
“If fish have to revert to lower quality food because the preferred food becomes less abundant, then the quality of the fish, in terms of the fish oil, will probably lessen,” Thor said.
Global concern about acidification has sharpened recently due to a few studies from the past year showing the issue’s severity and speed.
According to the 2013 AMAP study, the average acidity of surface water increased by 30 percent globally during the last 200 years.
Another study in the latest issue of the science publication Paleoceanography found that the current ocean acidification is going at a much faster rate than a major increase in carbon dioxide which occurred 56 million years ago.
“The problem now is that the change is so fast that many animals and plants may not be able to evolve at the same pace,” Thor said.
The conference plans to address ocean acidification’ fast pace.
Brende will be on a panel led by Kerry on the conference’s second day called “Charting a Path Forward” that will discuss international commitments to ocean health.
Børge Brende said in an email that acidification, climate change, pollution and unsustainable harvesting are all factors that need to be addressed in order for oceans to become healthier.
“Our common challenge is to eliminate these pressures, or at least to reduce them to sustainable levels, and to secure productive, diverse and resilient marine ecosystems that can provide food and income opportunities for a growing world population,” he said.
Jensen and Hauge said carbon dioxide reduction worldwide is one of the most important and effective ways to mitigate acidification.
“Norway should also come with some clear commitments towards addressing climate change because that’s the only way to prevent ocean acidification from happening,” Jensen said.
She said Norway reducing its push for oil and gas would be a step in the right direction for improving ocean health.
While conference attendants hope it will establish goals for neutralizing the ocean and reducing carbon dioxide emissions, some scientists and environmentalists said they think more research on acidification is necessary.
Thor said research regarding acidification has not yet sufficiently looked at the long-term evolutionary process of species in the changing ocean.
“We know almost nothing of the ability of populations to adapt,” he said. “We only know how individuals react to acute tests.”