Acid test for local action

Richard Black
Former environment correspondent

image copyrightAFP
image captionMuch of the oceanic food web will be affected by pH changes as well as by warming

Whether you prefer the term "ocean acidification" or the less compelling but more accurate "ocean de-alkalisation", there's little doubt that the addition of carbon dioxide to the seas threatens to change them fundamentally over the course of the century.

Ocean acidification 101 says that the oceans absorb some of the extra CO2 going into the atmosphere.

That slowly makes seawater less alkali - or more acid, as you prefer - with major and potentially catastrophic impacts on sea life.

The science is well documented, so I won't go over that ground again except to raise an alert to look out for an interesting study coming out in the next few days.

If global ocean acidification from global CO2 emissions is the issue, you might think that the solution would necessarily be global as well.

That's certainly the way it's mainly been talked about - and in the long run, curbing carbon emissions probably is the only way to protect the coral and other shell-forming creatures that depend on seawater maintaining a constant average pH around 8.2.

But in an article in the journal Science this week, a group of US-based scientists and lawyers is making a different argument: local initiatives can be effective too, they say.

There are a couple of main strands to their argument.

Firstly, the pH of seawater varies from place to place; and in some coastal zones, it's already been pushed toward the acid by local pollution.

Secondly, there's a large and growing mound of evidence to suggest that keeping reefs, for example, safe from disease and destructive fishing and local pollution and invasive species gives them greater resistance to climate-related threats.

A couple of years ago, in sediments around Chesapeake Bay on the eastern US coast, scientists found that the northern quahog - a type of clam whose name will resonate with fans of the Family Guy cartoon series - were in trouble.

The problem was a lack of the calcium carbonate minerals from which they fashion shells.

One of the projected impacts of ocean acidification is a decline in the availability of carbonate, which many sea creatures extract to form aragonite and calcite.

So here in Chesapeake Bay, the authors of the Science article suggest, is evidence that localised measures could provide some defence against the global trend.

If that's a science-based approach, laws and regulations may also help.

Enforcing rules on coastal erosion, and the quality of water in rivers running into the sea, can reduce local pollution that's pushing in an acidifying direction, the article argues.

image copyrightOther
image captionThe northern quahog benefited from recycling

And they imply that anyone who takes an interest in the issue should scrutinise local laws to see what remedies may be available.

The US, for example, has the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Coastal Zone Management Act and many others at federal and state level that might be deployable.

As discussed here a few weeks ago (and more recently by David Adam in Nature Climate Change), campaign groups have regularly attempted to use legal avenues to force action on emissions - not, it should be said, with a vast amount of success.

The latest case - an intriguing twist - has been brought by Micronesia against plans to enlarge the Prunerov coal-fired power station in the Czech Republic.

Whatever the merits of the case, it's clearly one where lawyers will have ample scope to argue about the limits of jurisdiction, the attribution of climate impacts, and indeed the scale of impacts given that projections of sea level rise are far from accurate.

Lots of the difficulties melt away when local laws are used for local change.

It might not be a strategy that solves the problem - but it could bring some relief to beleaguered bivalves.