Ocean acidification and resilience: a guest post from Beatrice Crona

This is a guest post from my colleague Beatrice Crona at the Stockholm Resilience Center.

During the past week I have spent my days wrapping my head around complex climate and ocean models during the Third symposium on Oceans in a High-CO2 World (23-27th Sept 2012) where I had been invited to give a plenary on ‘Governance in the context of ocean acidification’, based on work done together with my colleagues Victor Galaz, Henrik Österblom, Per Olsson, and Carl Folke as well as others at the Stockholm Resilience Center.

Ocean acidification is one of the nine planetary processes identified by Rockström et al (2009) as likely to reach critical thresholds and exhibit possibly nonlinear dynamics in the future if we do not curb anthropogenic to on our planet.  Approximately 25% of the CO2 that gets emitted into the atmosphere every year is absorbed by the oceans.  Simply put, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere reacts with ocean water creating carbonic acid. As a result the concentration of hydrogen ions increase while the concentration of carbonate ions decrease.

This symposium has summarized a number of disturbing trends. One of the key issues is that ocean acidification interacts with multiple other stressors to affect change to both individual organisms and whole ecosystems. One example is how ocean acidification will interact with global warming. Increased rates of acidification in colder regions will drive populations of species to migrate south, while increasing temperatures will simultaneous force populations to move north thus creating an ‘acidification/temperature sandwich’.

Much of the work presented at the symposium focuses on the impacts of different planctonic communities and the effects of ocean acidification on both physiology and calcification. Another big chunk of the work presented deals with trying to monitor these effects and their effects on ecosystem dynamics.

Beth Fulton of Australia’s CSIRO, used whole system models of both ecological and social components, showed interesting results of how ocean acidification is likely to affect fisheries in the future with likely ecological reorganizations that will impact communities and industries.

In fact, some fish and seafood industries are already feeling the effects. Since 2008 oyster hatcheries on the West coast of the US have seen some 70-80% reduction in hatchery success. This aquaculture sector represents a 100 million USD industry and ocean acidification clearly poses a real threat to both social and economic aspects of coastal communities.

Needless to say it is a gloomy story that emerges – The question is what can be done and I can’t help wonder what the resilience community can do to contribute to sustainable solutions?

Many of the ecosystem service on which millions of people depend are going to be affected but many of them also are also not easily valued with conventional methods. Resilience scholars are already addressing these issues but can we do more, or do it differently?

Governance clearly plays an important role. The ocean acidification issues is linked to climate change as the underlying cause is the same – increasing atmospheric CO2. But relying on climate change governance discussions to solve the issue may not be enough. While discussions for mitigating CO2 have also included reduction of other green house gases, such as methane, these measures will have no direct effect on ocean acidification. At the same time, several other planetary scale processes, like pollution, biodiversity loss, and nitrogen cycles, will create synergistic pressures on oceans. Understanding this and being able to recommend innovative ways of addressing the combined governance of these issue complexes is going to be necessary, and the resilience community can play an important role here- by understanding which governance structures can best address both incremental and non-linear change.

Finally, one of the key messages emerging from this meeting is the the urgency of the problem and the need for innovations to address both mitigation and adaptation at multiple levels. The X Prize Foundation is launching a competition for innovation as a way to speed up breakthrough technologies to advance ocean acidification understanding.  The formation of  multiple coalitions of willing actors – coming together to address the issue from different perspectives (from local to national to regional) – have been mentioned during the course of this meeting.   Studying these and understanding how, and under which conditions they can effectively promote innovation and diffusion of new ideas will be an important contribution.

This symposium is dominated by natural scientists. While sound science is obviously a key prerequisite for understanding the ocean acidification phenomena, transdisciplinary science is what will help us address the underlying causes. I leave this meeting with mixed feelings – downcast by the mounting pessimistic trends, but hopeful in that as a community resilience scholars have a big role to play by continuing to integrate natural and social science.

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