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The Future Ocean Podcast Series

NOAA Ocean Podcast: Episode 51

In this episode, we share a new series from the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network called The Future Ocean. It's about the effects of ocean acidification and ocean warming on coastal Alaskans and the seafood industry. However, you don’t need to live in our 50th state to listen: the themes featured in this series are global. Hear interviews with a number of experts talking about changing ocean conditions and what it means to put a price on carbon emissions as a tool to accelerate renewable energy infrastructure and drive down carbon emissions.

Homer Alaska port with ships in dock

Explore ocean acidification and the connection between acidification, ocean warming, and harmful algal blooms in this podcast preview of The Future Ocean. This episode features a discussion with marine scientists who are engaged in ocean acidification research and monitoring harmful algal blooms in Alaska. The Future Ocean podcast series is a project of the Alaska Ocean Acidification System, which is supported in part by the Alaskan Ocean Observing Network — a U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System partner. Shown here, fishing and tour boats fill the harbor at Homer, Alaska. Credit: Wikimedia Commons


HOST: This is the NOAA Ocean Podcast, I’m Troy Kitch. We have something special for you in this episode. We’re going to play the first of a six part series called The Future Ocean. Now, this series may be set in Alaska and of particular interest to coastal Alaskans, but you don’t need to live in our 50th state to listen: the themes of ocean acidification and ocean warming are global. The series features interviews with a number of experts to discuss changing ocean conditions and what it means to put a price on carbon emissions as a tool to accelerate renewable energy infrastructure and drive down carbon emissions. The first episode which you’re about to hear is called Exploring Ocean Acidification and the Connection Between Acidification, Ocean Warming, and Harmful Algal Blooms. It features a discussion with marine scientists — two of them from NOAA — who are engaged in ocean acidification research and monitoring harmful algal blooms in Alaska. The Future Ocean podcast series is a project of the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network, and is supported in part by the Alaska Ocean Observing System — which is partnered with the U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System, which is part of the National Ocean Service. Check our show notes for the link to this podcast series so you can subscribe to hear the full series. Here is the first episode, hosted by Maggie Wall of KMXT (that’s Kodiak, Alaska’s NPR station).

JAMIE GOEN: Anything happening in the oceans, including ocean acidification, affects our livelihood. It affects our understanding of the crab, and for us to have our jobs, we need to make sure that crab resources remain sustainable.

MAGGIE WALL: That was Jamie Goen, who’s one of our guests on today’s podcast. Welcome to The Future Ocean. What can carbon policy do for the ocean and our fisheries? This is a podcast for coastal Alaskans. Why are we talking about the future ocean and carbon policy? Well, we have a problem. The ocean is becoming more acidic and the water is warming up. Both phenomena have the same root cause - that is, the building up of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere from the combustion of fossil fuels for energy. A consensus of scientists tells us there is no more time to waste. They show that we have to reduce carbon emissions soon enough, and at a scale sufficient to stem the tide of ocean warming, the other manifestations of climate change, and ocean acidification. It’s time to apply the amazing power of human ingenuity to the challenge, but it calls for all hands on deck.

The Future Ocean podcast is a series of conversations with people who have expertise in, first, what is happening to our ocean, and next, various policies for reducing carbon emissions. We’ll focus on policy tools that put a price on carbon emissions, as a way to accelerate the transition from a reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas, to renewable energy systems. Paying a price for emissions is a tool to stimulate investment in clean energy and innovation. Economists widely agree that putting a price on carbon emissions is a component of what a total solution to the ocean warming and acidification problem should include. But let’s say you’re a fisherman. You might be wondering, what about my diesel-powered vessel? What about the cost of shipping seafood to markets? What about the cost of energy in rural communities? Lots of questions for sure. We're going to learn what's at stake if we do nothing, and how carbon pricing might work so that we can be better prepared to engage as decisions are made.

The Future Ocean Podcast is hosted by the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network. It's an informational discussion about the mechanics of putting a price on carbon emissions. What the policy options are, how they work, what the terms mean. We'll also explore what's happening regionally and nationally. We have to know what the conversation is about and be able to explore strengths and weaknesses of different policies in order to be, effectively, at the table. I’m your host, Maggie Wall.

This is episode one. We're going to start with some help from marine scientists who are observing changes to our marine ecosystems and fisheries. We're focused today on ocean acidification. We'll also hear about how the combination of acidification and warming may alter the ecosystem and the resources that we rely on in coastal Alaska.

First we'll hear from scientist Jessica Cross, who is an oceanographer researching ocean acidification at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Lab in Seattle. Her research uses data collected from ships, at sea moorings, and remotely operated autonomous vehicles like underwater gliders and sail drones. She's going to talk to us about the process that leads to ocean acidification, and what's significant about Alaska. Then, NOAA scientist Kris Holderied will talk about the intersection between ocean acidification, ocean warming, and harmful algal blooms. We'll also speak with Jamie Goen, who will share some perspective from the Bering Sea crab fleet. Here’s oceanographer Jessica Cross.

JESSICA CROSS: Ocean acidification is a process that happens all over the world. Essentially, as we, as humans, emit carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean performs an essential service for us, providing an important check and balance on the amount of carbon dioxide that's in the atmosphere by soaking up that carbon dioxide. But the more carbon dioxide is soaked up by the oceans, this causes a cascade of chemical reactions that ultimately result in the ocean becoming more acidic and less of an ideal environment for some marine organisms. There are lots of natural processes, especially in Alaskan waters, that can cause carbon dioxide to build up in the oceans. Some of those are really long-term processes where carbon dioxide has just been building up in these waters for millennia. Some of them are based on temperature, where cold water simply holds more carbon dioxide, right? It's the same reason that your soda stays fizzy for longer if it's cold when you pull it out of the fridge.

But we also know that by itself, those natural processes simply aren't enough to be able to cause the levels of pH that we see right now. And so we know that it's the combination of these natural vulnerabilities and this human CO2 that makes ocean acidification conditions around Alaska.

MAGGIE WALL: These natural processes, combined with human-caused carbon emissions, are certainly key to the Alaska story. But we asked Jessica Cross, why is it so important, what happens in Alaska?

JESSICA CROSS: Sure. So there's two reasons. One of them is that high latitudes - you know, the Arctic Ocean, our polar regions - are essentially the bellwether for some of this ocean acidification that is going to happen at the global scale, but is happening now. So in a way we are some of the first waters that are going to experience these levels of ocean acidification for the rest of the globe. The second reason that Alaskans are really interested in ocean acidification is because many portions of our marine food web are naturally vulnerable to ocean acidification. And that's based on some laboratory experiments that we've done where we've exposed larval and juvenile crab, for example, to the conditions that we experience right now, the acidified conditions we experience right now, as well as the acidified conditions that we expect these organisms may experience in the future.

And it's those future scenarios, those future levels of ocean acidification, that can have a big impact on some of our commercial and cultural and subsistence species around Alaska. I try to study where ocean acidifications are most severe and when ocean acidifications are most severe. So we see a strong seasonal cycle; generally in the spring and in the summer, things are okay. During that time, phytoplankton in the surface ocean are naturally absorbing a lot of carbon dioxide. And that pulls that carbon dioxide out of the water, it brings our pH levels back up, it reduces the acidity, and that makes a really nice environment. But, later in the season - in fall and in winter - bacteria break those vital plankton down, releasing that CO2 back into the water. And that's the time of year that we see really severely acidified conditions around Alaska.

MAGGIE WALL: Scientists are considering how ocean acidification may unfold in Alaska.

JESSICA CROSS: In Alaska in particular, you know, everything is extreme, right? The seasonal changes in Alaska are just huge. And so right now, probably the number one thing that is impacting our fisheries are changes in temperature. And those big changes in our fisheries that are happening as a result of temperature have the potential to mask any of the impacts from ocean acidification that are happening right now. And so we want to make sure that even though we might not be able to see the impacts of ocean acidification yet, we want to understand if eventually ocean acidification might overwhelm the impacts of temperature and eventually be the number one thing that is impacting fisheries. We want to make sure that we understand what the impacts of ocean acidification are going to be on the entire food web, not just direct impacts on specific species or specific groups, but also, how does that cascade through the food chain? It's the combination of these natural factors that cause carbon dioxide to build up naturally in Alaskan waters. Plus, the human-caused carbon dioxide that we have put into the atmosphere and which the ocean has soaked up. So you take this natural CO2 buildup and you add just a very little bit, and it's the combination of these two pressures together that pushes Alaskan waters over a threshold. When you have that much carbon dioxide in the water, pH changes really fast.

MAGGIE WALL: Scientists are concerned about the speed or rate of change happening in the ocean today, and the intersection between ocean warming, acidification, and food web dynamics.

JESSICA CROSS: So if your temperature is changing really quickly, and your pH is changing really quickly, and your oxygen levels are changing really quickly, and there's been disruptions in the food web, and and and and and… You add all of those stresses together and you're probably going to have a really stressed population or a really stressed system. We're looking at that in the laboratory, where we're able to run experiments that both change temperature for organisms, as well as change pH for organisms over time. And trying to understand what the impacts of these multipally-stressed systems might be.

MAGGIE WALL: That was scientist Jessica Cross. One of the specific concerns about ocean acidification is that lower pH or acidified conditions can cause marine waters to become corrosive to living habitats like coral, as well as the calcium carbonate shells of some marine species. These include certain zooplankton at the base of the food chain, as well as shellfish. Let's talk to a crab industry leader to get their perspective.

JAMIE GOEN: I'm Jamie Goen, Executive Director for Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. We represent the crab fishermen that fish for king, snow, and bairdi crab in Alaska's Bering Sea. Anything happening in the oceans, including ocean acidification, affects our livelihood. It affects our understanding of the crab, and for us to have our jobs, we need to make sure that crab resources remain sustainable. So we have a vested interest in understanding ocean acidification, changing water temperature, changing ocean conditions - that all plays a role.

MAGGIE WALL: Jamie Goen described how the Alaska Bering Sea Crab group is engaged.

JAMIE GOEN: So if it changes their ability to have fertilized eggs and for those larvae to grow up into adult crab, that all affects our sustainability of our resource and our livelihoods. So all throughout the different life stages, we want to understand how ocean acidification or changing water temperatures or ocean conditions could be affecting that. So some of the things we're doing to be engaged in ocean acidification and what's happening with changing ocean conditions, we're tracking developments through the Alaska Ocean Acidification Network. I'm actually on the executive committee there. So tracking what's happening and research coming out. We also recently held a workshop this past spring with crabs and ocean acidification and climate scientists presenting to our skippers. It was a great forum, so they presented the latest that's known on how it may impact crab, and we had discussions. I think that kind of forum is really important to help share information between skippers and scientists and better understand what's happening with the resource. There's also a national emphasis now on climate resilience with the Biden administration, so we're engaging that way as well as an industry.

MAGGIE WALL: The crab fleet is also on board with supporting crab research.

JAMIE GOEN: And then recently we started seeking some grants, because our vessels are out on the water at different times of year than the NOAA Survey and some of the other ocean acidification work. So we think our vessels could be a platform of opportunity to collect some of this environmental data. So we're seeking some grants to put sensors down on our pots. You know, we fish from October through March, April timeframe, and to have sensors down on our pots in various parts of the ocean that could collect some of this data.

MAGGIE WALL: That was Jamie Goen with the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. Next up, tiny tidbits about big things with Cheryl Nugent.

CHERYL NUGENT: The ocean is 30% more acidic today than it was before the Industrial Revolution. This change is traceable to increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from fossil fuel combustion, and change in land use like deforestation and loss of wetlands. As human-generated carbon is released into the atmosphere, about half of it stays there, contributing to the greenhouse effect, but much of the rest is absorbed by the ocean. By the end of this century, if our carbon emissions continue unabated, NOAA estimates that acidity levels at the ocean surface will increase by 150%. This will result in corrosive water conditions that the Earth's oceans haven't experienced for more than 20 million years.

When it comes to tracking local near-shore waters, Alaskans are not waiting around. Citizens in over 20 coastal communities, primarily tribes, are collecting weekly water samples to develop baseline data to ocean acidification. Local area time series add to the broader scientific array of ocean acidification monitoring. These include at-sea moorings, underwater gliders, and ship-based studies. They even take samples from the ferry Columbia that runs between Bellingham and Skagway.

MAGGIE WALL: Now, let's hear from scientist Kris Holderied. She’s studying how multiple stressors, such as the combination of acidification and warming, might alter coastal systems and affect communities in Alaska.

KRIS HOLDERIED: I’m Kris Holderied, I’m Director of the NOAA Kasitsna Bay Lab, which is located on Kachemak Bay in south-central Alaska. My training is in physical oceanography and coastal ecosystem science. And really it's about trying to understand the changes that we're seeing now up here in our Alaska coastal ecosystems. A couple of the big issues facing marine resources here, you know, the fish, the shellfish and all that - and people of course - are harmful algal blooms, ocean acidification, ocean warming, and the intersection of those. And really we're trying to look at those combinations, both through a combination of a field research and monitoring, and then developing tools that help address those.

MAGGIE WALL: Coastal Alaskans are learning more about harmful algal blooms because so many communities are now monitoring their local waters and sharing information with each other. But let's start at the beginning. What are harmful algal blooms?

KRIS HOLDERIED: So harmful algal blooms for Alaskans, really the thing that most folks are familiar with is paralytic shellfish poisoning, or PSP. And really that's a type of a harmful algal bloom, or HAB as we'd like to shorten it to. These are small microscopic plants in the water, otherwise known as phytoplankton. Some of them produce toxins that can be dangerous to people, marine mammals, and seabirds. And so you'll also hear them referred to as toxic algae.

MAGGIE WALL: There's a lot of emerging research on harmful algal blooms. So we asked Kris Holderied to disentangle what we know from what we don't know yet.

KRIS HOLDERIED: So that's one of the interesting topics. We tend to think about paralytic shellfish poisoning, PSP in terms of people, and that it can make people sick or, unfortunately sometimes kill them - rarely, but it's very unfortunate. It’s what we really want to avoid. But there's also effects on marine organisms, like seabirds and marine mammals. And we know less about that. There's been a lot of research done after the marine heat wave that we had in 2014, 2016, when the whole North Pacific was really warmer than normal, quite a bit warmer than normal. And it was that very large die-off of murres in particular - seabirds. And they found that that was primarily from starvation. But they couldn't rule out that having more exposure to these toxic algae might've had an effect on the birds as well, perhaps in that they weren't able to feed as well. So mainly, probably it was a change in their food. But were they also not able to feed as well because they were a little bit sick? And they don't know the answer to that. It's just possible. Where we have seen marine mammal die-offs and seabird die-offs associated with the toxic algae has been on the West Coast. And there was also quite a bit of this during the heatwave.

MAGGIE WALL: This West Coast toxic algae is a different phytoplankton species and it can cause amnesic poisoning, which affects the brain. Kris Holderied and her colleagues are concerned that this more southern toxic algae will become a problem in Alaska if ocean warming progresses.

KRIS HOLDERIED: They've had a large problem with that on the West Coast, and that issue is moving up into British Columbia. We haven't had those species produce a lot of toxins in Alaska and I'm going to say, yet. It's something we're keeping an eye on. And with warming waters, we're worried about that moving up here as well. I think the one of the bigger issues for our coastal communities in Alaska is really how these things intersect as combined stressors. So if you are - I'll use an oyster farm again as an example - you have to think about, well, what does warm water do? And hey, maybe my oysters grow faster. Hey, maybe their food changes a little bit - could be in a good direction or not. Maybe I have some more harmful algal blooms. That's not good for selling product. And then, oh, the ocean acidification could affect the little larvae, the oysters when they're first growing. And if I'm a farmer, I have to think about all those things.

MAGGIE WALL: As reported in the journal Arctic Today, there is emerging evidence that the algal blooms causing PSP and amnesic poisoning produce more toxic effects in acidified water. This raises concerns that ocean acidification may worsen the risk and effects of harmful algal blooms in the future. Looking at trajectories for ocean warming, acidification, and harmful algal blooms, Kris Holderied leaves us with this.

KRIS HOLDERIED: And so the connections between warming and ocean acidification might not be so important in and of themselves. The combined effects of all of them really matter to all of our marine species and especially species that we’re interested in harvesting or farming.

MAGGIE WALL: That was scientist Kris Holderied. Thank you to Jessica Cross and Kris Holderied, both scientists with NOAA, for sharing your insight on ocean acidification, warming, harmful algal blooms, and the intersection between them. And thanks also to Jamie Goen for her perspective from the Bering Sea crab fleet. In the next episode, we'll talk to scientist Francis Wiese about ocean warming in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. He'll also discuss the scientific basis for reducing carbon emissions as the necessary solution to ocean warming, the many other consequences of climate change, and ocean acidification. For more information about the topics we've been discussing, please visit thefutureoceanpodcast.com. You can also find all six episodes there, or you can listen by subscribing to The Future Ocean on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

In the meantime, don't get down in the doldrums. We all can do things that contribute to big solutions. It's tempting to fall prey to doomsday warnings as if this is “game over”. But as author Paul Hawken says, maybe this is “game on”. Here are some ideas on what you can do to be part of the change. One, talk about climate change and acidification with your friends, your family, your fishing partners, the people you do business with, and your elected leaders. Science is non-partisan. Two, learn more about solutions. Pick up the book Drawdown by Paul Hawken, which is a compelling read for a broad audience. Good for anyone curious about technologies and practices that reduce carbon emissions and improve our children's future. Or go to the website at www.drawdown.org. Just the way it sounds: D-R-A-W-D-O-W-N dot org. And finally, number three, listen to the rest of this podcast series for ideas about policy options intended to scale up our success.

Ocean Acidification Network is produced in Kodiak, Alaska, where electricity is generated nearly 100% by renewable energy. Music in this episode is by Chris Ansuini. I'm your host, Maggie Wall.

HOST: We hope you enjoyed this preview of The Future Ocean, the six-part podcast series from the Alaska Ocean Acidification System. Now head to our show notes so you can go subscribe and hear the full series. This has been the NOAA Ocean Podcast. We'll be back soon with another episode.