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The Strait Of Georgia Is Turning To Acid, New Research Shows

10/31/2014 08:47 EDT | Updated 12/31/2014 05:59 EST
Ruth and Dave/Flickr
View from Grouse Mountain, showing North Vancouver in the foreground, then freighters moored in English Bay; the tip of UBC peninsula; low cloud over the Strait of Georgia; and the mountains of Vancouver Island in the background.

"Some people call it the elephant in the room. I like to call it the blue whale in the pool," scientist Brian Kingzett told a room of naturalists this week. He was talking about the dramatic rise in ocean acidity along the B.C. coast.

As the Oceanside Star reports, Kingzett, field station manager for the Vancouver Island University Centre for Shellfish Research, met the Arrowsmith Naturalists at the Knox United Church to deliver a talk, Climate Change and Ocean Acidification.

"It's going to sound a little doom and gloom," he told the room. When it comes to recent discoveries about ocean acidity, Kingzett said he could hardly believe what he was seeing.

Scientists, Kingzett explained, traditionally haven't spent much time measuring ocean acidity because levels have remained so consistent for nearly 300 million years. Yet when he began sampling water in and around the Straight of Georgia, Kingzett was so surprised by the results he asked fellow researchers along the Pacific Northwest to confirm them.

It was true: the region's pH levels had dropped from an expected 8.0 to a staggering 7.57. The difference seems moderate, but each 0.1 decrease represents a whopping 25 per cent increase in acidity.

As a biologist and aquaculture expert, Kingzett said those acidity levels are a massive threat to shellfish.

"The water the small, shelled creatures are living in is actually corrosive," he said. "Scientists aren't sure where this is going. This is very much an emerging science," the Oceanside Star quoted him as saying.

Kingzett was also surprised to find such high acidity levels within protected shorelines such as in Deep Bay on Vancouver Island's inner coast.

Deep Bay is home to a 5,000-year-old shellfish industry. In February, nearby Qualicum Scallops cut 30 per cent of its workforce after 10 million scallops were killed from high acid concentrations.

Kingzett said he expected increased acidity to affect the open ocean before changing the composition of waters in sheltered regions like Deep Bay. But thanks to polluted waters feeding the Fraser River, "some of the most acidic water is in the Strait of Georgia," he said.

Kingzett added that 2014 is projected to be the warmest year on earth since measurements began in 1881, with increasing pressure on the oceans to absorb excess carbon. But this "changes the base chemistry of the ocean," he said.

Increased levels of carbon in the water leads to the formation of carbonic acid that prevents calcium from binding, an essential step in the formation of shells.

Kingzett explained how ocean currents move around the globe like a ribbon, sometime carrying deep ocean water where acids concentrate to surface regions where there is a higher concentration of life.

Ocean currents take up to 40 years to circulate, so even if we were to stop adding carbon to the atmosphere, Kingzett said, acidic concentrate from the ocean's depths will still continue to move to shore for another four decades.

"We've mailed ourselves a package we can't refuse," he said. "It's a global problem that's coming home and we really don't know that the effects will be.

"Everyone says the earth is fragile. The earth is not fragile at all. It will shake us off."