Sound Conversations ocean acidification event draws full house

Sound Conversations: Ocean Acidification

On April 2, the Seattle Aquarium brought the ocean acidification community together to network and learn about innovative approaches to addressing ocean acidification from leaders in the fields of research, policy and public engagement. “Sound Conversations 2015: Addressing Ocean Acidification” featured talks focused on Washington State’s leadership in ocean acidification and the Aquarium’s involvement in the XPRIZE Ocean Health competition.

The event attracted over 250 attendees, who explored interpretive materials related to the issue of ocean acidification—and enjoyed oysters from Taylor Shellfish Farms—during a reception preceding the program. KING 5 Chief Meteorologist Jeff Renner served as the evening’s moderator.

In his opening remarks, Aquarium President & CEO Robert W. Davidson commented, “It’s a mind-bogglingly serious and daunting time, but also an exciting time,” before introducing the first of the evening’s speakers: Martha Kongsgaard, chair of the Marine Resources Advisory Committee (and recipient of the 2015 Seattle Aquarium Medal).

Kongsgaard sounded a note of urgency, saying, “We believed the ocean was a system too big to fail. We need to act now,” and, “Climate change isn’t philosophical and it shouldn’t be political—it’s math.”

Next to speak was Wendy Schmidt, philanthropist and title donor of the Ocean Health XPRIZE. In describing the critical importance of the ocean, she presented eye-opening facts including:

  • The ocean represents 71 percent of the Earth’s surface and 99 percent of its living space.
  • Half of all the breaths we take are from the ocean.
  • Two billion people get their primary protein from the ocean.
  • Three billion people’s primary occupation is related to the ocean.
  • The ocean’s average pH has risen 30 percent since pre-Industrial times—at a faster rate than any time in the past 55 million years.
  • Only five percent of the ocean is mapped.

Schmidt then sounded a call to action, saying, “Our impact on the planet has become impossible to ignore.” She described the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, in which more than 200 million gallons of crude oil were pumped into the Gulf of Mexico. Schmidt sponsored a competition to develop a means to capture oil from the water more efficiently and, she said, “In 14 months, we’d seen more advances than in the past 20 years.”

Her involvement in that competition was the beginning of what has led to the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE: a $2 million global competition to develop the world’s most accurate and affordable pH sensors. The contest began in the fall of 2013 and, in February of this year, the top submissions were tested in the waters below the Aquarium’s pier. Winners will be announced in July.

Drs. Jan Newton and Terrie Klinger, co-directors of the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, spoke next, describing their work to “assess and understand what’s driving ocean acidification in Washington waters, to provide forecasts and assess how species respond.” Dr. Klinger, recipient of the 2015 Seattle Aquarium Research Award, described effects of ocean acidification that are already being observed in local species such as Dungeness crab. “Washington is a leader in the effort to understand this issue and take action,” she commented in closing.

Dr. Chris Sabine, director of the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, was next to speak, noting that ocean acidification is impacting marine fish—not just shellfish. He cited pteropods, planktonic snails that have adapted to swim in the open ocean, and which are a significant part of the diets of juvenile salmon, as prime examples.

Dr. Nina Bednaršek, research scientist at the Washington Ocean Acidification Center, continued the discussion on pteropods, noting that their shells, which are quite thin naturally, are starting to dissolve with the effects of ocean acidification. “Currently,” she said, “One out of two shells we observe are severely affected by dissolution. That number will increase to 70 percent by 2050.” Pteropods affected in this way lose their swimming ability and are prone to infection and predation. “They are the canary in the coalmine for ocean acidification,” she stated.

Dr. Bednaršek ended the evening with words of hope, saying, “I’m a firm believer that science can make a change.” Visit the Seattle Aquarium and our website for more information about ocean acidification, and stay tuned for future blog posts about this critical issue.

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