Comox Valley adds voices to the demand for a federal climate debate

Comox Valley adds voices to the demand for a federal climate debate

Gavin MacRae photo, courtresy of the Watershed Sentinel

By Gavin MacRae

Some 30 rallies held Wednesday across Canada – outside CBC studios, offices and in the streets – aim to pressure the public broadcaster to host a debate between federal party leaders on the climate crisis ahead of the coming election.

For the Comox Valley’s part, around 60 people gathered at Marina Park in Comox for a rally organized by Comox Valley Nurses for Health and the Environment.

“As our public broadcaster, the CBC has a moral obligation to make sure that every single person in Canada knows which of our leaders have a real plan to tackle the climate crisis,” read the Facebook event page for the rally.

Speakers included Alex Nataros, a family doctor in Comox; Nalan Goosen, leader of Youth Environment Action; Celia Laval with the Comox Valley Unitarian Fellowship Justice Committee; Mark de Bruijn, nominee for the Green Party candidate for North Island – Powell River; and Rachel Blaney, NDP MP for North Island – Powell River.

In covering climate change, “Canadian media and the CBC need to up their game,” Laval said, summing up the sentiments of the speakers.

Because the climate crisis and ecological collapse are possibly the biggest issues humanity has ever faced, Laval said, “This is not just an election issue, this is the election issue…. We demand CBC hold a debate of the federal leaders.”

Nataros said concerned voters can call or write the CBC or use the hashtag #changethedebate on social media.

Scrutiny of Canadian media’s coverage of the climate crisis – CBC’s in particular – has grown in recent months after the UK paper The Guardian became the first to update their journalist’s style guide to replace the term “climate change” with “climate crisis” or “climate emergency.”

“‘Climate change’ is no longer considered to accurately reflect the seriousness of the situation,” reads the updated guide.

An open letter published on May 28 in The Tyee, by Mount Royal journalism professor Sean Holman, further pressed Canadian media. In it, Holman wrote that media in Canada have repeatedly failed to “apply basic journalism principles to the climate change crisis confronting us.”

An example given by Holman is when on May 6, news of the birth of a royal baby eclipsed the release of a major UN report warning of critical worldwide declines in biodiversity.

After analyzing climate coverage in a database of 569 English language Canadian newspapers and CBC and CTV newscasts, Holman found mainstream media reporting “too often does not reflect the scope and severity” of the climate crisis.

To correct course, Holman’s letter outlined a five-point plan for media to better prioritize, cover, localize and contextualize climate reporting.

Eventually the CBC clarified their position: their journalists have latitude to “sometimes” use the terms “climate crisis” and “climate emergency,” but they will retain “climate change” as the default term. The CBC’s director of journalistic standards described the new terms as having “a whiff of advocacy to them,” garnering criticism on social media.

The discussion appears to have driven change. The CBC launched an “ambitious and comprehensive” climate series they say will appear on television, radio, online and on CBC Kids News, “because Canada’s youth care deeply about this issue.” The Toronto Star also recently published an in depth series detailing impacts of the climate crisis in Canada as well as solutions.

Gavin MacRae is the assistant editor of the Watershed Sentinel magazine, which is a publishing partner of Decafnation. You can also see this story at www.watershedsentinel.ca, or click their icon above

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In Courtenay, a low-carbon solar oasis thrives behind a suburban facade

In Courtenay, a low-carbon solar oasis thrives behind a suburban facade

Stewart Mcintosh ponders the grapevines that grow down both sides of his Courtenay property. He also has fruit and nut trees  /  George Le Masurier photo

By Gavin MacRae

Stewart Mcintosh’s Comox Valley property looks like a million others from the street: an early 1980s rancher with a detached garage and RV trailer in the driveway.

Spend a couple of minutes with Mcintosh – a bearded, exuberant man in his mid-fifties – and he will eagerly show you that looks can be deceiving. His property harvests solar energy three ways, forming the linchpin of his low-carbon lifestyle.

Years ago, two separate motor vehicle accidents left Mcintosh with a brain injury, causing a condition called perseveration – his mind gets on a subject and won’t let it go. He’s learned to leverage perseveration to doggedly see through ideas that most people would dismiss as ambitious but short-lived eureka moments.

“I don’t want to think about depressing stuff that you can’t do anything about, says Mcintosh. “So I think about depressing stuff that you can do something about. I think about a problem, and I think, how could I resolve that with something practical that’s going to make a difference?”

Mcintosh’s thinking has paid off. He enjoys paltry energy bills, bumper crops, and copious wine reserves, with time left over for camping, boating, and travel.

It all started with a his “solar super saver” water heating system.

Mcintosh installed a grid of black hose on his south-facing rooftop, which pre-warms municipal water before it flows into his water heater. In the summer months, the water needs no further heating. It can even get too hot. “What I found was that from 10 am until about six pm, there’s an eight-hour window in the day where the sun gets the water as hot or hotter than what the tank is set at,” he says.

He gets the system up and running around the first week of March, and shuts it down mid-November. On summer mornings, the water can be directed straight from the solar system to a private backyard shower that Mcintosh says is an “unbelievably pleasant way to start the day.”

Materials for the DIY system cost $850, and the project will pay for itself in six-and-a-half years, according to Mcintosh’s meticulous records. After that, he says, “it becomes a passive income for your household. Tax-free income.” Mcintosh holds up his most trivial natural gas bill, with 34¢ in energy charges. “They can’t tax you on savings.”

Mcintosh also gets big savings from his prolific backyard garden. It’s arranged into four quadrants, with individual compost bins feeding the quadrants from a central hub. The fence line acts as a trellis for clusters of wine grapes and two kinds of kiwis.

At summer’s end, Mcintosh makes and freezes soups and stews from the vegetable crop.

Three years running, Mcintosh has harvested over 1000 lbs of grapes to make wine. His crawlspace-turned-wine cellar is near capacity, and visitors to his home often leave with a jug.

Turning to transport and recreation, Mcintosh bought a 55 lb thrust electric outboard with two batteries to propel his canoe. To charge the batteries he mounted a small solar panel to the canoe’s gunwale. When he’s boating, the batteries work independently: one battery is charging while the other powers the motor.

The canoe can cruise at around seven kilometres per hour all day. “My longest day was 12 hours out there between two batteries. That’s a long day on the water,” he says.

To get to the boat launch, Mcintosh hauls his canoe on a custom made trailer he built, behind his 50 cc scooter. “It really blows people away when I’ve got the boat in tow,” he says. “When I’m in traffic, people are doing triple takes.”

The scooter-trailer-canoe combo is insured and meets safety specifications, but Mcintosh has been pulled over several times, while incredulous police officers confirm his paperwork is in order.

Mcintosh in his backyard garden. The black hose on his roof that provides hot water can be seen in the upper right

At the boat launch, Mcintosh says people are drawn to his rig, and that’s part of the reason he built it – to inspire the public by demonstrating that low carbon solutions are workable.

“Some of the guys out there who are a little more obstinate, and some of the deniers, kind of grey-haired, blue-collar kinds of guys, they’re some of the more common individuals that are drawn to my setup. It’s like a magnet.”

The scooter and trailer also get him around town for groceries and running daily errands. Mcintosh is working on a mini dump truck bed for the trailer which will extend its capabilities to hauling building materials and soil.

Mcintosh’s latest upgrade has been to spring for a 20-panel photo-voltaic system that he had professionally installed. At $16,400 all-in, it wasn’t cheap, but Mcintosh did the math and found the only barrier was the initial investment. The panels will pay for themselves in six to 10 years. After that, it’s easy money.

To further leverage the solar panels, Mcintosh is mulling over the purchase of an electric pickup truck. It would complete his coup d’état against his carbon footprint and energy bills (he now drives a truck converted to propane he’s owned since 1988). “If that happens I can plug my vehicle in at home, bypass gas stations, and start adding that kind of saving to my life.”

Mcintosh says that for those with an awareness of climate change, “it’s stressful, and it’s getting more urgent. You can feel it in the general public, and that affects me as well, I feel it. That’s why I’m working on things that help me deal with it, because I’m doing something practical, and I’m proving it in my own life. But it also, I think it helps with some other people too, that they see ‘wow!’ look at that, he’s doing something that actually works…. They realize it’s not a hopeless situation after all.

“There really are things we can do at our own homes and in our daily lives that make a difference.”

Gavin MacRae is the assistant editor of the Watershed Sentinel environmental magazine, which is a publishing partner of Decafnation. You can also see this story at www.watershedsentinel.ca, or click their icon above

 

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Watershed Sentinel: Canadian hemp fibre finally poised for market acceptance

Watershed Sentinel: Canadian hemp fibre finally poised for market acceptance

Photo of hemp marine rigging by Patrice Dufour from FreeImages

By Gavin MacRae

On a summer backpacking trip through the Amazon 20 years ago, Michael Demone witnessed the destruction of deforestation first-hand. Determined to do something and brimming with youthful optimism, he returned home and opened one of Canada’s first hemp shops.

“It wasn’t a headshop. There were no bongs,” he says. “It was beautiful fabrics, and bicycle chain lubricant, and tree-free papers.”

Back then, hemp was a boutique industry. Demone had trouble sourcing products, and with the shelves near empty, the store eventually closed.

Two decades later, a lot has changed: cannabis is legal, hemp farming has been decriminalized in the United States, and entrepreneurs are clamouring for a grubstake in the “green gold rush” of the Cannabidiol (CBD) market.

But these developments are forerunners to what promises to be the most important advance involving the cannabis sativa plant: hemp for fibre.

 

Hemp to replace cotton

Hemp fibre can, in large part, replace cotton, with big environmental benefits.

Versus US cotton, the ecological footprint of hemp is one-third to a half smaller, depending on how the hemp is cultivated and processed, according to a 2010 analysis by the Stockholm Environment Institute. Even organic cotton has a higher ecological footprint, per ton of fibre, than conventionally cultivated hemp.

“Currently, cotton is king,” says Andrew Riseman, an associate professor at the UBC Faculty of Land and Food Systems. “But cotton takes an enormous amount of water, pesticides, and energy to produce and then to refine, and it doesn’t have the durability or the advantageous characteristics that hemp would have.”

Hemp fibre can also be used to make low-carbon building materials and bio-composites, and can substitute for wood fibre in pulp and paper production.

In Canada we can grow some of the best, longest fibre, specifically in northern Alberta, with long daylight hours

Hemp, or more properly industrial hemp, is easy to confuse with cannabis, because on paper it’s the same plant. In practice, hemp and cannabis look and are grown differently. And hemp won’t get you high – it has only trace amounts of THC, the psychoactive compound found in cannabis. Hemp is bred to produce high fibre yield, high seed yield, or a dual-purpose compromise between the traits.

Until recently, nearly all hemp grown in Canada was grown for food. To farm hemp for fibre, a hurdle remained.

It was “classic chicken and egg,” says Jan Slaski, a long time hemp researcher with InnoTech Alberta, an arm of the Alberta Innovates provincial research institute. Farmers were reluctant to grow hemp without a steady market for fibre, and markets and processing infrastructure couldn’t develop without hemp product.

Hemp yarn photo by S. Schleicher from FreeImages

It’s only in the last few years that the hemp industry has weakened this market catch-22, Slaski says, and now, “It’s a different ballgame.”

A hundred kilometres east of Edmonton, Slaski and his team run a hemp research and processing facility in Vegreville, Alberta, to develop applications for hemp “from seed to final product.” Strong demand now has the facility working extended hours processing hemp for fibre.

Not far from Vegreville, in Bruderheim, Alberta, Canadian Rockies Hemp Corporation is building a similar “decortication” facility to process hemp fibre grown by contracted farmers in the area. The facility will remove the lignin and pectin from the fibre to produce the short, consistent fibres sought for textiles, bio-composites and paper.

With these high value fibres, “cotton can be replaced, a lot of synthetic products can be replaced, tree products can be replaced.” says Aaron Barr, Canadian Rockies Hemp’s CEO. “There’s a lot of different market opportunities, but the key is advancing the technology.”

Countries such as China, Ukraine, Poland, and the Netherlands have a long head start on Canada in the hemp trade, says Barr, but he’s not worried – longer summer daylight at northern latitudes can add four feet of extra growth to hemp plants by summers’ end.

“In Canada we can grow some of the best, longest fibre, specifically in northern Alberta, with long daylight hours. It gives us literally one of the best geographical advantages in the world. CBD, THC, those type of flowering plants will do better in the south. We are fit for fibre.”

As the technology and processing muscle advances, entrepreneurs are taking formerly-cottage-industry hemp applications to commercial scale.

 

Biocomposites & building materials

Take hempcrete, a mixture of hemp biomass and lime used as a building material since ancient times. In modern construction, hempcrete can substitute for concrete in many applications.

Just Biofiber of Airdrie, Alberta, manufactures a construction system of hempcrete blocks that are load bearing, insulating, fire resistant, fast to build with, and that, Just Biofiber says, embody more carbon than is released in their manufacture.

“Instead of cutting down trees we can grow a crop in our fields in 90 days, and build houses that are better quality homes with it,” says Barr. “Healthier homes that last longer. There are unbelievable advantages to it.”

InnoTech’s Vegreville facility supplies fibre to BioComposites Group in Drayton Valley, Alberta. The company produces a diverse array of hemp products, from fibre mats for erosion control and horticultural use to hemp-based bio-composite sheets that can be moulded to form complex shapes such as interior car parts.

Many moulded products now made from oil or natural gas feedstocks such as polypropylene, polyethylene, and glass-reinforced thermoplastics, are candidates for replacement, says BioComposites Group.

The hemp composites are lighter than the products they replace and fully biodegradable when used with organic resins.

Slaski’s first research into hemp was as a fibre source for an Alberta pulp mill. The mill had run out of forest, Lorax style, within a reasonable hauling distance. The research was scrapped, says Slaski, after a new CEO decided the company “was not comfortable dealing with non-woody crops.”

The missed opportunity left Slaski with tantalizing statistics.

“It is safe to assume that hemp can produce about four to five times more fibre per hectare than forest,” Slaski says. “On average, boreal forest produces one-to-two tons per hectare of biomass per year, while fibre-type varieties of hemp produce eight-to-ten tons per hectare.”

That’s with one crop. In warmer climates, two crops a year can be grown.

Apparently, a Maryland, USA company is comfortable with non-woody crops. Fibonacci LLC is investing US$5.8 million in a factory in Kentucky to produce a wood substitute from hemp stalks, according to the trade journal Woodworking Network. The company says their product is 20 per cent harder than red oak, and plans to market it for use in flooring and furniture.

All this is happening with the current state of technology. With further research into genetics and agricultural practices, more applications and products will emerge.

“I think prohibition set us back about a century,” says Riseman. “[Hemp] was the plant that did everything, the workhorse plant. And now we have all these tools that we’ve applied to corn and wheat and cotton, and you see the yield increases and how much more efficient and productive we have become…. [Hemp’s] been bred for low THC or long fibres, no one’s talked about what else we could breed for.”

Hemp is truly versatile, but over-zealous advocates have attributed near super-botanical abilities to the plant. Experts caution that wild claims online about hemp, such as it having “over 50,000 uses,” are “fantastic,” “ridiculous,” and “bro science.”

“One misconception is that hemp doesn’t require fertilizer, water, is pest resistant, is just a miracle crop,” says Slaski. “I would say, yes, hemp can survive on marginal land – survive – but if you want to grow a crop that you want to get paid for, you have to provide inputs, because there are no miracles in hemp.”

We have an opportunity to build an industry of value, with values

After some 80 years of prohibition, hemp cultivation was legalized federally in the United States in late 2018. As one observer put it, “it’s basically the starting gun” for US hemp farming.

The end of US hemp prohibition should be a rising tide that benefits both countries by lifting hemp to its rightful place among other mainstay crops.

Because of this, and despite a 20-year lead in decriminalizing hemp, Canada must position itself as a world leader in hemp fibre to stay in the driver’s seat, Slaski says.

“The US is a larger country, with more money to invest in the opportunity. They will be a serious competitor to our hemp industry.”

Read more at the Watershed Sentinel: Fibreshed: a movement for full-circle local fibre production finds its roots on Vancouver Island

Michael Demone has long since traded his backpacking duds for business attire. He now leads the Canadian Working Group on Industrial Hemp, which he describes as “part advocacy group, part support system” for developing new hemp products.

For Demone, the quickly evolving promise of hemp fibre is “like the Renaissance” and he believes “round two” could herald more than environmental benefits.

“To get philosophical, I think we have an opportunity to build an industry of value, with values. And that means including talks about labour, about Indigenous voices, about women in manufacturing, all of these things, it’s just ready to blow. We need responsible people who will say ‘look, we want to make some money, we want to advance this industry, there are some really significant environmental benefits.’ It’s going to take investment and it’s going to take businesses willing to take some risks.”

Gavin MacRae is the Watershed Sentinel’s assistant editor. The Sentinel is a publishing partner of Decafnation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

CANADIAN HEMP REMOVED FROM DEA AUTHORITY

The passing of the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 (2018 Farm Bill, Section 10113) removed hemp and hemp seeds from the Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) schedule of Controlled Substances. This action removed hemp and hemp seeds from DEA authority for products containing THC levels not greater than 0.3 percent. Therefore, DEA no longer has authority to require hemp seed permits for import purposes. Read more

— Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance

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Comox Valley Students ‘Stand up, Fight Back’ for Climate Action

Comox Valley Students ‘Stand up, Fight Back’ for Climate Action

Gavin MacRae photos

By Gavin MacRae

A jovial yet determined crowd of student strikers and adult supporters over 250 strong marched through downtown Courtenay Friday, to demand action on climate change.

The protest started with a rally at Courtenay City Hall.

SEE MORE COVERAGE OF THE YOUTH CLIMATE MARCH HERE

The crowd cheered as speakers said it was time to “stand up and fight back” against fossil fuel interests and insufficient government action.

“We are here today under a unified cause to protest climate change,” said Nalan Goosen, a co-organizer of the event.

Speaking through a megaphone, Goosen said investments in the tar sands and other fossil fuel infrastructure make Canadian banks culpable for climate change.

To showcase this, the demonstration traced a serpentine route through the downtown to pause and protest at CIBC, Bank of Montreal, and Scotia Bank.

Outside CIBC the crowd chanted, “No more coal, no more oil, keep the carbon in the soil!”

At Bank of Montreal the rallying cry was, “What do we want? Climate Action! When do we want it? Now!”

Finally, the Scotia Bank received, “Corporate greed we must fight, polluting earth is not a right!”

The crowd also made a stop at the office of MLA Ronna-Rae Leonard, where she and MP Gord Johns spoke with the demonstrators.
Both politicians gave short impromptu speeches on the importance of protecting the environment.

Students put questions to Leonard and Johns about increasing climate education in the school system, protecting old-growth forest and marine areas and fighting the Trans Mountain pipeline.

The answers met with some applause, and Goosen said he was hopeful Leonard would bring the demonstrators’ concerns about old-growth logging to Doug Donaldson, BC’s Minister of Forests. Goosen was also hopeful Johns would echo the students’ concern over the climate crisis in Ottawa.

The protest ended with a return to City Hall.

Students said all but two schools in Comox and Courtenay were represented among the protesters.

“The turnout was amazing,” said Mackai Sharp, a co-organizer of the protest. “The last two events had under 35 people.”

Sharp and Goosen are leaders of the Comox Valley-based Youth Environmental Action, which planned the protest. The group has a separate arm for adults named Adult Allies for Youth Environmental Action.

”This will not be our last protest, said Goosen. “We don’t have very long to solve the climate crisis, so this movement of youth empowerment is essential to our health and survival.”

Gavin MacRae is the assistant editor of Watershed Sentinel, which is a publishing partner of Decafnation

 

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How ocean acidification is reshaping marine food webs

How ocean acidification is reshaping marine food webs

Late afternoon view down the Strait of George  /   George Le Masurier photo

By Gavin MacRae

The depths of the ocean are slowing climate change, but at a cost. Seawater acidity is increasing as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide from fossil fuels.

Average surface ocean pH is now 30 percent more acidic than in pre-industrial times. In a business-as-usual scenario, by 2100, ocean water could be over one-and-a-half times more acidic.

The effects of ocean acidification can be grouped into “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns,” says Wiley Evans, a chemical oceanographer leading ocean acidification research for the Hakai Institute. Evans is riffing on an old Donald Rumsfeld quote because, although the underlying chemistry is straightforward, the full consequences of ocean acidification are uncharted.

“A lot of what is unknown is at the species level,” he says. Only a handful of organisms have been thoroughly tested for their response to rising acidity. “And then there’s the ecosystem response – how impacts on one organism is going to affect the whole food web, and the ecosystems that those organisms reside in. So pretty quickly it snowballs into a lot of unknowns.”

Biologists, chemical and physical oceanographers, geneticists, and other experts are now working together to investigate these unknowns. Research into ocean carbonate chemistry has been done since the 1970s, but only in 2003 did the term ocean acidification come into use. It’s now an “exploding field,” says Evans. “It really is interdisciplinary, it relies on the physics and the biology, and the ecosystem level [research], and so ecologists and modellers and everyone is really working together to try and understand the breadth of the problem.”

The dynamic ocean environment makes the research complex. “The pH of the ocean changes constantly,” says Mark Spalding, president of the Ocean Foundation, an environmental organization based in Washington, DC. “It fluctuates daily, it fluctuates seasonally, it fluctuates with El Niño events, it fluctuates when you have an upwelling from the deep ocean.”

Ocean acidity also differs by location. Natural factors dominate the exchange of atmospheric carbon dioxide into the ocean, but just as with atmospheric carbon, additional emissions have tipped the scales.

Ocean acidification also has to be disentangled from other co-occurring climate change stressors such as warming water and deoxygenation. Each effect is worrying on its own; combined, these multiple stressors are greater than the sum of their parts.

Despite this complexity, ocean acidification is caused by simple chemical reactions.

“It’s pretty much just like high school level chemistry,” says Evans. “As you increase carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it’s not all going to stay there, it’s going to want to move into an area of lower concentration, and CO2 gas will dissolve into seawater.”

When carbon dioxide in the air reacts with seawater it forms carbonic acid. This carbonic acid then breaks down into bicarbonate and a hydrogen ion.

The pH of a solution (how acidic or basic it is) is determined by the concentration of hydrogen ions – the more hydrogen ions, the more acidic. Ocean water hasn’t become an actual acid, but its alkalinity is declining.

Surplus hydrogen ions then bond with carbonate ions also found in seawater to form more bicarbonate.

Impact on shellfish

Many types of shelled organisms build their shells by combining carbonate ions with calcium to form calcium carbonate. But because some of the carbonate ions have already bonded with hydrogen ions, shellfish, mullusks, corals, and other shelled creatures face a scarcity of carbonate ions with which to build their shells.

“The first time we really noticed this was happening was with oysters in the Pacific Northwest of the United States,” says Spalding. “The largest oyster farming business in the world … saw a dramatic loss in production as a result of some acidic events.”

Since then, ocean acidification has become an ongoing concern for shellfish farmers, particularly for operations in developing countries lacking the technology to monitor and react to pH changes.

Shellfish are most vulnerable to acidity as tiny, newly hatched larvae, when they have to exert a tremendous amount of energy to build their first shell. The scarcity of carbonate can either prove fatal, or the shellfish “end up with very deformed shells and thinner shells, and become more susceptible to predators,” says Spalding.

The same threat applies to urchins, snails, seastars, and corals, although the exact chemical process can vary. In a study conducted near a volcanic seep which emulated future CO2 levels, “triton shell” sea snails were found to have their shell thickness halved, and in some cases so dissolved their body tissue was exposed.

The most urgent example of shell corrosion may be to creatures near the base of the food chain called pteropods, commonly known as sea butterflies.

“They look like minuscule snails with wings,” says Spalding, “and they’re having a very, very hard time forming their shells.”

Field observations have recently confirmed that pteropod shells in an area of increased acidity in the Gulf of Alaska are dissolving.

“If the ocean continues to have its chemistry change … we could have a rippling effect where the food resource for other animals in the ocean, and up the food chain, has a rippling collapse,” says Spalding.

For corals, ocean acidification is only one ingredient: “warmer waters, thanks to climate change, nutrient pollution, oxygen deprivation, and then you add in ocean acidification, and you’ve got a horrible recipe for collapse of coral systems,” says Spalding. “The current predictions are losses of 90 percent or more of our coral reefs by 2030.”

At rock bottom on the marine food chain are diatoms – microscopic, single-celled algaes encased in shells of transparent silica. They live near the surface of the ocean, transforming sunlight to sugars via photosynthesis. When they die, a percentage fall to the ocean floor, sequestering carbon.

Iron uptake in diatoms

Diatoms are immensely important to the marine food web, and to all life on earth – cycling about 20 percent of the oxygen we breathe. Research published in Nature in 2018 suggests ocean acidification could threaten diatom populations – but not by hindering shell formation. Increased acidity, for an unknown reason, prevents the uptake of iron that diatoms need to proliferate.

Diatom numbers are already in decline, and rising surface ocean temperatures are suspected. A crash in diatom populations could cripple the ocean’s ability to cycle carbon dioxide, accelerating further climate change.

Fish are not off the hook in the struggle to adapt to a more acidic environment, either. Tests conducted in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries research lab showed salmon exposed to future pH levels were less responsive to the smell of salmon skin extract, which would normally warn the fish of a predator attack and prompt them to hide or flee.

Testing of the salmons’ nose and brain tissue indicated that the fish could still detect the scent, but were not interpreting and acting on the trigger.

Other behaviours relying on scent – reproduction, navigation, and finding food – are also likely affected. Similar research has shown elevated CO2 concentrations to blunt prey detection in sharks, and affect the ability of reef fish to discern healthy reef habitat.

Some species are predicted to benefit from ocean acidification, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing. Research from the Canary Islands suggests the algae Vicicitus globosus, found from temperate regions to the tropics, will thrive in rising CO2 levels. Toxic blooms of V.globosus are already known to cause fish kills, and now, researchers say, “may pose an emergent threat to coastal communities, aquaculture and fisheries.”

Krill probably OK

Other organisms may shrug off ocean acidification altogether. Krill are small crustaceans found in all oceans, and an essential food source for marine mammals and seabirds in the Southern Ocean.

In a 2018 study published in Communications Biology, adult Antarctic krill, in acidity simulating near-future conditions, were able to go about their business undisturbed. The krill’s resilience is attributed to a special structure in their gills able to balance body fluid pH. Krill eggs and embryos, however, don’t have this ability, so the results are not definitive.

The sum of these effects (and several more) put future food security in doubt. Evans says that the capacity of the oceans to feed us could be threatened when we need it most.

“We need to divest from cattle production, as they’re major contributors to CO2 emissions, and we’ll be relying more on aquaculture and fishing … and so we essentially could be in a bottleneck, where some of these species that we’re going to try and grow are going to have difficulty,” he said.

Ocean acidification may have caused events in the earth’s history that go well beyond concerns over food security. Research published in Science in 2015 puts forward the theory that modern day ocean acidification has chilling parallels with the Permo-Triassic mass extinction, also known by its cheerful nickname, the Great Dying.

Around 252 million years ago, volcanoes belched huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over tens-of-thousands of years. This in turn triggered a spike in ocean acidity that the research suggests killed up to 96% of marine life. During the Great Dying, CO2 levels in the ocean shot up about as quickly as they are today.

“Climate change is physics, and ocean acidification is chemistry,” says Spalding, “but they’re both the same carbon dioxide molecules. Our ocean is our biggest sink for our carbon emissions, but there are limits. It can only take so much.”

Gavin MacRae is the assistant editor of the Watershed Sentinel, which is a publishing partner of Decafnation

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT IS OCEAN ACIDIFICATION?

For more than 200 years, or since the industrial revolution, the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has increased due to the burning of fossil fuels and land use change. The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of the CO2 that is released in the atmosphere, and as levels of atmospheric CO2 increase, so do the levels in the ocean.

When CO2 is absorbed by seawater, a series of chemical reactions occur resulting in the increased concentration of hydrogen ions. This increase causes the seawater to become more acidic and causes carbonate ions to be relatively less abundant.

Carbonate ions are an important building block of structures such as sea shells and coral skeletons. Decreases in carbonate ions can make building and maintaining shells and other calcium carbonate structures difficult for calcifying organisms such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton.

These changes in ocean chemistry can affect the behavior of non-calcifying organisms as well. Certain fish’s ability to detect predators is decreased in more acidic waters. When these organisms are at risk, the entire food web may also be at risk.

Ocean acidification is affecting the entire world’s oceans, including coastal estuaries and waterways. Many economies are dependent on fish and shellfish and people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein.

— from National Ocean Service, a division of NOAA

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