Local communities empowered to take on ocean's acidic hotspots

By Martin Leggett - 26 May 2011 18:0:0 GMT
Local communities empowered to take on ocean's acidic hotspots

We're often asked to think globally, but to act locally, when it comes to many environmental problems. And that's exactly what a group of US legal and scientific experts have done, in order to find ways to imaginatively tackle to problem of ocean acidification. By close study of local legislative and regulatory powers, their paper - published in the latest issue of Science – shows that US citizens have the legal tools 'at hand' to help tackle more acidic seas. That is especially the case when this global phenomenon reveals itself locally, in acidic 'hotspots'.

The acidification of the oceans is one the most serious consequences of rising CO2 levels. But it is one that is often overlooked, amongst feverish worries over global warming. As CO2 concentrations rise in the atmosphere, the oceans are absorbing more of this greenhouse gas. In the process, the acidity of sea-water rises - and it is now some 30% higher than it was before we started industrializing.

But that acidification is not spread evenly over the ocean. Some places are absorbing more CO2 -  and becoming more acidic - because of a complex interplay between ocean currents, sea temperature and human-sourced pollution. That results in local areas of extreme acidification, which can contribute to dead zones in the oceans. It can also cause damage to coral reefs, local fisheries and commercial oyster beds - as residents of Chesapeake Bay and Puget Sound can attest.

Although these acidic hotspots can be devastating for local communities, the good news in this paper - written by a team pooling experts from Stanford University, Oregon University, the NOAA, and the EPA - is that they can do something about it. It turns out that a lot can be achieved, quickly, just using existing legal and practical measures.

''Since an acidification hotspot can negatively impact a community, its causes need to be tackled quickly,'' said Melissa Foley of the Center for Ocean Solutions, a lead author of the paper. ''We identified practical steps communities can take today to counter local sources of acidity.''

The paper's authors stress the importance of being pro-active at the local level, in order to reduce, or prevent the problem in coastal waters. That can include monitoring precipitation runoff, carefully assessing and controlling coastal erosion, more intelligent land-use planning and the enforcing of existing emission limits for pollutants.

Individual cities and coastal communities can undertake these actions without relying on the state or federal authorities to come to the rescue. That is an empowering message. As Ryan Kelly, from the Center for Ocean Solutions, and another lead author says ''The alignment of a localized ecological harm with a local policy solution is rare.''