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Saving deep water requires digging deep into our habits

The Wildlife Forecast

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Media contact: Patricia Behnke

Many of us Floridians don't like to go too long without getting a whiff of salt air. Even those of us living inland are always within an hour or two of one coast or another. We take our lovely white-sand beaches, crystal clear blue water and clear skies dotted with fluffy white clouds for granted.

At least we took them for granted until April 20. On that day, the dire possibility of oiled wildlife and petroleum-covered beaches loomed as the explosion from the Deepwater Horizon oil rig reverberated through economic and environmental lines.

Now that the gushing oil well has been capped, we breathe a sigh of cautious celebration. But our dependence on fossil fuels still comes at a high cost.

The carbon dioxide emissions created from burning fossil fuels do more than change our climate. They also cause a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. While scientists debate the severity of climate change, most can look at the data and agree that the increase in the atmosphere's carbon dioxide levels impacts ocean life.

"Ocean acidification and climate change share a common insidious influence," said Bob Glazer, a biologist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and a co-leader of the FWC's climate change research and monitoring working group. "They are both caused by the increases in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere."

The process of ocean acidification does not mean the ocean is turning into a boiling cauldron of acid. It refers to changes in the water because of the additional carbon dioxide from the environment.

The U.S. Geological Survey's website explains the process of ocean acidification. Even though the ocean serves as a natural reservoir for carbon dioxide, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the resulting uptake by the ocean results in increased seawater acidity. This process results in a decrease in the ocean's pH.

NOAA's State of the Science Fact Sheet on ocean acidification states oceans have absorbed approximately 50 percent of the carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels, which has increased ocean acidity by about 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Even small changes in the acidity of seawater can have dramatic effects on sea life, which may include:

  • Decreased rate of the production of coral skeletons.
  • Reduction in the ability of marine algae and free-swimming zooplankton to maintain protective shells.
  • Reduction in the survival of marine species, including commercial fish and shellfish.

"The health of the oceans is essential to the marine life it supports as well as to the atmosphere," Glazer said. "The proper balance within the seawater regulates carbon dioxide, the production of oxygen, the cycling of nitrogen and other important nutrients, and affects processes such as cloud formation. It is all a fragile balancing act."

The increase in ocean acidification adds more stress to ecosystems already stressed by human activities. The FWC and other wildlife managers know that addressing this issue requires reducing those stresses over which we have better control.

"For example, we can reduce pollution and runoff from land, develop wise coastal zoning regulations, eliminate destructive fishing practices and restore ecosystem integrity," Glazer said. "These approaches increase the health of ecosystems and are just good management practices; period."

For every tragedy that occurs, such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, opportunity exists for re-evaluation of priorities.

If I shorten the length of my shower, I won't change a thing. But if 18 million people in Florida collectively commit to doing at least one thing in their daily lives that will lessen their dependence on fossil fuel consumption, we might stand a chance at reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Some of these things will even be good for our wallets as well as the environment. You've heard them all before, but it doesn't hurt to have reminders, especially today. Turning off the lights when you leave the room will lower electric bills by not burning electricity and not pumping out more heat into the room. When an old bulb burns out, replace it with a compact fluorescent light bulb. These last longer and use less energy. The cost of the bulbs is coming down, too. I bought a package of six recently for $2 each. Start there for now. Then, next month, try a few more changes. Soon we'll all be substantially impacting life both above and below the sea.

FWC Facts:
Alligator gar grow up to 10 feet long and 350 pounds. Their head looks very much like an alligator's.

Learn More at AskFWC