In Our View: Undersea, Under Siege

Humans' impact on the world's oceans must be acknowledged, addressed

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The Pacific Northwest is, by an accident of geography, inexorably tied to the Pacific Ocean. The economy, culture and lifestyle of the region have been influenced by the Pacific since humans first appeared in this part of the world.

Because of that, a series appearing in The Seattle Times provides reason for pause. Reporter Craig Welch has detailed the impact that carbon dioxide can have on the world's oceans, pointing out that CO2 has devastating effects on marine life and that those effects are being felt more rapidly than scientists previously predicted.

Among the conclusions: "Already, it has killed billions of oysters along the Washington Coast and at nearby hatcheries. It's helped destroy mussels on some Northwest shores. It is a suspect in the softening of clam shells and in the death of some baby scallops. It already is dissolving tiny plankton, called pteropods, in Antarctica that are eaten by many ocean creatures -- and that wasn't expected for 25 years."

Some of this is the result of natural occurrences; the ocean floor contains vents through which pure CO2 escapes from inside the earth. But much of it is caused by humans: "As the burning of coal, oil and natural gas belches carbon dioxide into the air, a quarter of it gets absorbed by the seas, changing ocean chemistry faster than at any time in human history. . . . New science shows ocean acidification also can bedevil fish and the animals that eat them, from sharks to whales and seabirds. Shifting sea chemistry can cripple the reefs where fish live, rewire fish brains and attack what fish eat."

Certainly, concerns about the world's oceans are nothing new. For years, scientists have known that large bodies of water are susceptible to "dead zones," in which a depletion of oxygen leaves the water unable to sustain life. Dead zones can occur naturally, though they are most common near areas with dense population and heavy development. The Pacific Ocean off the Oregon Coast has experienced an expansive dead zone each summer for more than a decade, and the lack of heavy industrialization in the area has left scientists uncertain of the causes.

But the growing concerns over carbon dioxide in the oceans reflect a new kind of problem.

"I used to think it was kind of hard to make things in the ocean go extinct," James Barry of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California told The Seattle Times. "But this change we're seeing is happening so fast it's almost instantaneous. I think it might be so important that we see large levels, high rates of extinction."

That is presented as a word of caution, not as a sky-is-falling prophecy. History demonstrates that dire environmental predictions are rarely as bleak nor as unimportant as those on the extreme ends of the discussion tend to indicate. In many cases, ocean dead zones have been reversed when the causes have been identified and cleaned up.

Or consider the Documerica photo project of the 1970s, when the newly created Environmental Protection Agency sponsored a program to document subjects of environmental concern throughout the country. Many of the photos depict levels of air and water pollution that would be considered anathema today, and intensified regulation has helped eliminate such extremes levels of environmental abuse.

Such attention must also be afforded to the world that exists underwater. The impact of humans upon the environment — and the production of CO2 gases — will never be eliminated. But effective stewardship dictates that efforts should be made in that regard. Our future depends upon it.