Cold Ocean Chemistry: Scientists unravel state of ocean ecosystem

Kelsey Gobroski / Sun Star Reporter
June 3, 2011

Elena Fernandez set down a copy of Suzanne Collins’ novel “Catching Fire” on the oceanography commons’ conference table in the O’Neill Building. “I live and breathe fish,” Fernandez said. “I don’t need to read about fish, too.”

Fernandez, a graduate student with brown hair, brown eyes, and embroidered clogs, traveled to Newport, OR for her thesis. Fernandez studies the anthropologic implications of ocean acidification – that is, how recent and future changes in ocean chemistry might impact humans. More specifically, whether tomorrow’s oceans could sustain Pollock fisheries.

Alaska Pollock, a mottled silvery fish around Alaska and Russia, is the largest commercial fishery by weight in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. Its white meat has been used in everything from McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, frozen fish sticks, and surimi – an imitator of other seafood – according to the SeaFood Business Magazine website.

Biologists find that each fish population differs in its response to ocean acidification. Fernandez took the young Pollock for her experiment from the chemical mess of Puget Sound in Washington. Her fish responded within their comfort zone to what oceans might look like 300 years from now, she said.

“Will we have fish sticks in the future? The results show we will,” Fernandez said.

Oceans are, of course, not one organism – they look like a whole other Earth compared to what we see every day on land, with countless creatures and communities. Experiments look at species, even populations, of animals. No one question can lead scientists to discovering ocean acidification’s impact on life as a whole. To understand an engine, they must look at every individual part. Plankton, Pollock, snowshoe crabs, corals, salmon, whales – each responds differently. Scientists slowly check species off the list.

Even if some fish survive, the food chain might cave out from under them. Fish eat some plankton, and other plankton eat fish corpses. If these creatures have shells, they may be in danger. A German biologist found a snail-like plankton’s shell dissolves under acidification. Ocean acidification, in addition to adding hydrogen, robs water of usable calcium carbonate, a key ingredient in many marine shells. Predators only marginally surviving ocean acidification’s impact on their bodies would be more sensitive to their food source diminishing.

Russell Hopcroft, of the School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, urges caution. Many oceanographers moved to ocean acidification when the concept  (and with it, funding) first blossomed, he said. With this enthusiasm comes a curiosity to know results as quickly as possible, he said.

Worst-case scenarios are the easiest questions to ask, Hopcroft said. Many biologists study what happens to today’s marine creatures in tomorrow’s oceans. Ocean acidification’s impacts are new and far-reaching, and scientists can’t prophesy what will happen. They try to seek limits in different scenarios and observe oceans in real time. Experiments are meant to be a warning bell, not a crystal ball. It is difficult to mimic adaptation

How resilient Alaska’s ecosystems are remains to be seen. However, the questions do not negate the widespread changes. It turns them into an invisible enemy. With research and models, that fog could lift enough for Alaskans to learn how to react.

Jessica Cross, one of Fernandez’s fellow students at OARC, likes being around other oceanographers at sea. Eventually, the researchers start really talking to one another. They discover how their research relates. They introduce someone to Josh Whedon’s television series “Firefly.” They bond by saying and doing crazy things out of exhaustion.

The whole experience of being on the ocean is daring. “Thinking about the absolute hubris of standing on a piece of wood in the middle of the ocean … It’s an incredible feeling that man has figured out how to stand on top of water.  It’s bold, and terrifying, all at the same time,” Cross said. There are those moments at sea when you’re alone, with only the sound of the engine, she said. “You can climb up, to the uppermost deck on the ship, and turn 360 degrees, and see nothing but horizon.”

This is part 3 of a 3 part series on ocean acidification research at UAF.

PART 1 – Cold Ocean Chemistry: Ocean Acidification turns Alaska’s seas into science lab
PART 2 – Cold Ocean Chemistry: UAF tackles mystery of Alaska’s oceans

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1 Response

  1. January 21, 2012

    […] This became The Sun Star’s three-part profile on UAF’s Ocean Acidification Research Center. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) […]

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