Only a few decades ago, scientists thought that the buffering capacity of the world’s oceans was so great that they could absorb vast amounts of carbon dioxide (one of the greenhouse gases that is emitted when we burn fossil fuels) without much consequence. This was good news because carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were rising and while there were consequences for a changing climate, at least the oceans would be spared.
Unfortunately, there has been a growing body of emerging research that links dramatic changes in ocean chemistry to the increase in carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere – just in time for us to see the highest concentrations of carbon dioxide that has ever been measured – 400 parts per million. Typically, the new research focused on the effects of changing ocean chemistry, or ocean acidification, on corals and other carbonate-based organisms. It was discovered that the shells of these organisms could actually dissolve.
But the term ocean acidification is misleading. In fact, the process of converting carbon dioxide to carbonic acid is happening in all types of open water; our bays, our streams, our lakes; our rivers and more. It is affecting organisms in all of these water bodies. The impacts may even be greater in coastal bodies of water where the addition of pollution and nutrient sources from the land are magnifying changes in water chemistry.
Maryland is putting a tremendous amount of resources into Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, including supporting a robust oyster recovery plan in state waters. Ocean acidification has been shown to significantly affect the growth rate of oysters, slowing the growth of adult oysters, and, more importantly, impeding the development of larval oysters at critical life stages. Recent studies also suggest that changing ocean pH levels can affect the thickness of crab and oyster shells, possibly shifting the predator-prey balance of these two species.
Furthermore, other important components of our Bay and ocean ecosystems can be affected such as calcareous phytoplankton- potentially undermining the very foundation on which other commercially and recreationally valuable species depend. At a time when we are just beginning to realize the successes of years of oyster recovery efforts and the rebuilding of important fish and crab stocks, we must work even harder to understand additional stresses these animals are facing and know how to manage against them effectively if we want to see long-term viability. We also need to take responsibility for our actions, both individually and as a community to reduce the two most significant contributors to this problem; rising greenhouse gas emissions and nutrient pollution from land-based resources.
As part of our mission at the Aquarium to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, we take very seriously our responsibility to educate guests on the majesty and importance of the Chesapeake Bay and its wildlife. We have also worked in the field with more than 35,000 students and community volunteers restoring vital Bay habitat. We understand the importance of healthy intact communities and ecosystems and hope work with our communities to reverse the effects of ocean acidification on our local and global wildlife.