When you think of carbon dioxide emissions, what comes to mind? For most people, that is probably something along the lines of fossil fuels, greenhouse gases, and global warming. But for me, I think about ocean acidification. Often referred to as “the other carbon dioxide problem”, ocean acidification, or OA for short, is a lesser-known by-product of excess carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere. Between 25 – 30 % of the carbon dioxide produced since the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by our oceans. This buffering capacity of the ocean has actually helped reduce some impacts of global warming and greenhouse gases, but, as we’ve discovered in the last decade or two, it has come at a great cost to our oceans.
When carbon dioxide (CO2) enters the ocean, it reacts with seawater to form excess hydrogen (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3–). Increases in hydrogen ions are what makes liquids more acidic and reduces their pH, hence the term “ocean acidification”. But the main consequence of increases in hydrogen ions in seawater is that hydrogen ions bond readily with the carbonate ions (CO32-). Carbonate is naturally occurring in seawater, and it is a crucial building block for organisms that build calcium carbonate hard parts, like clams, oysters, lobsters, corals, and even the tiny plankton that serve as the base of the ocean’s food chain. The less carbonate ions available in seawater, the harder it is for organisms to make their hard parts. In the past 15 years or so, there has been considerable research demonstrating the negative effects of OA on calcifying organisms. These calcified structures can take more energy for organisms to form, grow smaller, slower, and/or weaker, or even start to dissolve! Increased seawater acidity can also affect organism survival, particularly in early life stages. On the west coast of the U.S., there have already been several seasonal mass die-offs events of oyster crops that have caused significant and repeated financial losses to the aquaculture industry, most likely attributed to OA.
As most societies, particularly coastal communities, depend on the oceans for both food and livelihoods, monitoring and mitigating OA has become a global priority. The UN has declared the next decade (2021 – 2030) the Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. Many countries, including Canada, have committed to the Ocean Decade and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). OA is directly addressed in the Ocean Decade plan under SDG 14.3 – to “minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels”. To this end, the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) has created a database where researchers can make sure their data adheres to SDG 14.3.1 methodologies and then contribute their data to this global OA database. There are also many other national and international OA groups that have been created in recent years to help create and share OA knowledge and research.
Canada and Ocean Acidification
Canada faces several unique challenges with respect to OA. First, we have the largest coastline of any country in the world. Second, Canada is more vulnerable to OA given our latitude and colder ocean temperatures, as carbonates are naturally more soluble in colder waters. Thirdly, Canada is surrounded by three connected ocean basins, each with unique properties that make them vulnerable to the effects of OA. In the Pacific, OA is exacerbated by seasonal upwelling, where deep, naturally acidic ocean waters are forced to the surface by wind patterns. The Arctic is vulnerable due to rapidly increasing freshwater input from melting sea ice and glaciers from warming temperatures (freshwater is more acidic than seawater). In the Atlantic, OA is exacerbated by ocean mixing patterns and freshwater input from the Arctic. Finally, Canada’s coastal communities, of which there are many given our extensive coastline, are socioeconomically vulnerable to OA.
As a country, Canada is contributing to regional, national, and global OA research efforts through several means, such as independent research projects, local community action plans, and through our federal Fisheries and Oceans department (DFO), just to name a few. But Canada is a big country, and it can be hard to connect across such a wide geographical area. This is where our Ocean Acidification Community of Practice (OA CoP) comes into play. Funded by Canada’s Marine Environmental Observation Prediction and Response network (MEOPAR), the OA CoP is one of several MEOPAR Communities of Practice. The goal of MEOPAR CoPs is to facilitate knowledge mobilization and integration by uniting groups with shared concerns on particular topics (in our case, OA).
Our community was initiated in 2018, and is comprised of two Co-Leads from academia and government science, a coordinator (me), and an interdisciplinary Steering Committee consisting of experts from industry (aquaculture and fisheries), academia, DFO, and NGOs at all career stages (student representative to senior-level management) and from all across the country. Our goals as Canada’s OA community are to coordinate across all sectors and disciplines to share OA expertise and data (particularly to end-users), identify pressing needs for OA research/knowledge in Canada, and foster a collaborative and supportive environment for groups affected by OA. We also act as the Canadian leads for international collaborations and OA research efforts, such as GOA-ON, the OA Alliance, and the OA Information Exchange.
Anyone who is interested in or affected by OA in Canada is welcome to join our community. We currently have over 170 members, including individuals from aquaculture, fisheries, and NGOs, academics, federal and provincial government scientists, Indigenous community leaders, graduate students, and members of other international OA organizations. Members receive our quarterly newsletters, and updates on any upcoming events that might be of interest. We also encourage our members to join Team Canada and participate in the OA Info Exchange, an international forum that is a great place to discuss and share new ideas, research, and see what experts from around the world are doing to address and learn about OA.
What do we do?
As the OA CoP Coordinator, my job is to keep growing our community, seek new research and community-building opportunities, facilitate our involvement in the broader global OA community, provide, maintain, and create new resources for our members, and stay updated on the latest OA research and news. Here are some of the things I’ve been working on for Canada’s OA Community.
Canada’s OA Website
One of our biggest activities has been to create a website that acts as a central hub for all of the resources we’ve gathered for Canada’s OA community. The website, oceanacidification.ca, is always growing, and we regularly add new OA resources and materials. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us all the importance of online resources, so a large part of my focus over the past year has been to develop new online content for our community that will allow us to connect, even if we are unable to gather in person for regional workshops. The goals of these new resources are to help increase awareness and engagement with our community, and further our CoP objectives.
Our Map of Canada’s OA Resources
On the International OA Day of Action (January 8, or 8.1, the current pH of our oceans) this year, we launched an exciting new resource, an interactive map of Canada’s OA Resources, where visitors can search for OA projects, experts, and resources from across Canada, or browse the resources available in their area. We update the map regularly to make sure our community has all the latest information.
Our New Blog Series
In December, we launched four new blog series aimed to increase engagement and awareness, and provide new resources for our community. The first blog series, OA News (You Could Use), is a weekly snapshot of OA news and activities happening around the world. Posts contain 3 – 5 OA-related news items, including upcoming events, news stories, recent publications, and new resources. The second series is called Research Recaps, where we interview researchers, particularly early career researchers, to get an inside perspective on their recent publications. The posts are written in accessible language, allowing a wide audience to get a glimpse of how the scientific process works, and how researchers create new OA knowledge. The third blog series is called Scientist Spotlights, where we interview individuals to learn more about their research backgrounds and interests in OA. These posts allow the average person to learn more about why researchers are interested or motivated to study OA-related subjects. Our fourth series, Meet the CoP, is similar to our Scientist Spotlight series, but we interview our leadership team to learn more about why they are motivated to lead Canada’s OA community. The goal of the Meet the CoP series is to inspire and help us understand why the OA research and our community matters to Canada. A lot of my inspiration in creating these four blog series came from working with Time Scavengers.
I’ve been working to increase our online social media presence since October, 2020, posting at least 3 – 4 times a week on Twitter, and 1 – 2 times a week on Facebook and Instagram. Using some of the things I’ve learned volunteering with Time Scavengers, I’ve started to try out different visual graphics to go along with our posts to see what is appealing to viewers. An interesting trend I’ve noticed so far is that while we get the most engagement on our Instagram posts (likes), Twitter is the predominant source of our social media web traffic, and is our third most common source of web traffic (behind direct visits and google searches).
Ongoing and Future Projects
One of our biggest projects that we are hoping to start working on this summer (funding and COVID dependent) is our Critical Ocean Acidification Sensor Technologies for Coastal Industries and Communities (COAST to Coast) OA sensor package. The plan is to partner with aquaculture operators to deploy OA sensors that will not only allow us to contribute to larger OA monitoring efforts, but might also allow operators to determine and predict OA events. Another goal of the sensor package is to assess the viability of newer, lower cost sensors, as most of the well-established OA sensors are very expensive, which is cost-prohibitive for individual aquaculture operators. We are also working on a couple of research papers, including meta-data analyses of OA research in Canada, and regional OA vulnerability assessments in partnership with both DFO and NOAA’s joint OA Working Groups, that will include biological, physical, and socio-economic data. I’ve been collecting and using the meta-data I gather to make a database of Canada’s OA publications as well that we hope to release in the coming months.
What I’ve Learned
It has been a great experience getting to work with such an interdisciplinary group to learn more about the many disciplines involved in OA research. While a lot of my Ph.D. research involved the effects of ocean acidification on molluscs and their shells, as a palaeontologist, I typically think about OA from a deep-time, biological perspective. In this role, I’ve thrown myself into the modern world of OA, and learned about everything from government and interagency science, to policy, oceanography, chemistry, aquaculture, fisheries, social science, and more. I’ve been able to meet and listen to OA experts from around the world, including and Mexico and the U.S., as well as countries in Europe, Africa, South America, and Central America. The international OA community is really welcoming and collaborative. I’ve also learned a lot about chemical oceanography and carbon cycles in the Arctic from the lab where I am a postdoc.
I’ve been able to apply and grow my skills in science communication by getting to interview and interact with so many people who all think about OA so differently. I’ve had a lot of fun interviewing researchers and writing blog pieces, as well as facilitating conversations with groups from all different sectors. It has helped me become a more well-rounded scientist and science communicator. As someone who is interested in conservation palaeobiology and the implications of the fossil record for modern conservation and climate change issues, being able to “speak the language” of a wide range of modern scientists and stakeholders is also a valuable skill when trying to identify research priorities, build collaborations, or seek funding opportunities. My experiences working with Time Scavengers have also helped me think of new and creative ways to help grow our OA Community in Canada.
To learn more about the science of OA and ocean chemistry, Check out this Time Scavengers webpage.
Thank you to OA CoP Co-leads, Dr. Helen Gurney-Smith and Dr. Brent Else for reviewing this blog post.