The big chill of ocean warming
“I have very bad news for you. Are you man enough to take it?”
“God, no!” screamed Yossarian. “I’ll go right to pieces.”
—Joseph Heller, Catch-22
In 2001, Ian Walker, a 40-year-old associate professor of geography at the University of Victoria, began walking the desolate, kelp-strewn beach south of Rose Spit, the northeasternmost tip of Haida Gwaii. And each year that followed, he returned. An expert in coastal erosion, he’d look at 1990s Geological Survey of Canada air photos of the place and look at the modern shoreline bluffs and feel amazed.
In places, 30 metres of land had disappeared in a year. Could it be connected, he asked himself, to anecdotal reports from local Haida that North Pacific storms were getting worse? Or that the sea level was rising? The latest predictions were a rise of one to two metres this century. If these things were so, what did it mean for the more than 300,000 people who live below sea level and behind dikes in Richmond and Delta?
The news gets worse.
In 2010, Rob Saunders, long-time CEO of Qualicum Bay’s Island Scallops, set out 12 billion young scallop larvae to be nourished in the Strait of Georgia near Nanaimo. But as the weeks passed, 99.95 percent of them died. “It was catastrophic!” he says today. He suspected a biological cause: a toxin or disease. But chemical testing revealed that the ocean was far more acidic—and far more saline—than ever recorded. It was the water itself that was lethal.
Up and down the coast, others in the $38-million-a-year B.C. shellfish industry were seeing the same thing. Saunders didn’t fully appreciate then that ocean acidity is increasing exponentially worldwide. Or that this acidity most affects the sea’s smallest creatures—larvae, phytoplankton, zooplankton, and krill—the very animals that sustain the entire marine food chain.
The news gets worse.
The story you are about to hear is complex, and has mostly been submerged by the discussion about atmospheric carbon dioxide and global warming. It has only been in the past few years that scientists have begun to grasp how the world’s dramatically warming and acidifying oceans—covering four-fifths of the planet—may have far more influence on the near future than previously understood. Virtually all local marine scientists say the latest data reveals something ominous happening. But the forces are many, the data thin. And research funding is limited. The metaphor I hear most frequently from experts is the proverbial “elephant in the room” image: something so big, so hard to measure, and so unpredictable that it’s difficult to discern the outcome.
What, for example, does it mean for this region if—as scientists now report—the glaciers of B.C.’s Coast Mountains are melting at a faster rate than anytime since the end of the ice age 12,000 years ago? That in itself is cataclysmic. But how will this affect migrating, cold-water-loving B.C. salmon? Or the bears and eagles that depend on those salmon? Or the province’s 442 coastal eelgrass estuaries that act as nurseries for many fish? Or increased marine salinity and acidification caused, in part, by decreased freshwater runoff? Or B.C. fishers who depend on the sea’s bounty?
These are the kinds of questions that Victoria’s Walker spends his time considering. He’s the lead author for the B.C. chapter of From Impacts to Adaptation: Canada and the Changing Climate, a massive 2007 federal report that was buried by the then newly installed Harper government. Working with 30 other B.C. scientists, Walker tried to see the Big Picture. He tells me on the phone that at the current accelerating rate, the air temperature on the B.C. coast, already 2 ° C warmer in the past few decades, will likely rise 5 ° C more this century.
It will not only be warmer here, there will be eight percent more rain and a lot less snow. As a result, it’s expected that 97 percent of the current coastal alpine habitat will vanish before 2100. This will be good for subarctic firs, which will, as the tree line ascends, gradually occupy today’s alpine meadows. It will be bad for the wildflowers and the marmots and snowmelt. In fact, current projections say Coast Mountain glaciers will be entirely gone by the century’s end. And rivers like the Fraser, already also 2 ° C warmer than a few decades ago, not only will be warmer (and lower) in the decades ahead as runoff slows in late summer but may well become increasingly inhospitable to autumn’s annual salmon migration. And once this diminishing supply of fresh water reaches the B.C. coast, the cascade of consequences, experts say, only multiplies.
Barring a great subduction earthquake off the west coast of Vancouver Island, there are three forces that will most affect maritime B.C. in the coming decades. First, every scientist tells me that advancing ocean warming will reshuffle the deck as to which creatures remain here, which ones succumb, and which ones—like the marine mammals—simply retreat north to colder Alaskan waters. Second, sea-level rise will have a negligible effect on the province’s mostly rocky coastline but will have—in time—a calamitous effect on B.C.’s low-lying deltas and coastal estuaries, with their rich wildlife habitats, their farmlands, their industrial infrastructure, their port facilities, and their urban populations.
It is, however, the third force—ocean acidification—that experts suspect may be the trump card, both globally and locally, in humankind’s precarious future.
The details of atmospheric warming caused by the burning of carbon-rich fossil fuels are too familiar to reiterate. What’s less well known is this: since the start of the Industrial Revolution around 1760, more than 30 percent of all atmospheric CO2 has—in a complex chemical reaction—been absorbed by the world’s oceans. This is a huge benefit for the air. But this interaction alters the ocean’s pH, turning surface waters acidic. That’s because CO2 plus water equals carbonic acid. In fact, since 1760, ocean acidity worldwide has risen 30 percent. This toxicity becomes even more extreme—as Qualicum Bay shellfish farmer Saunders recently learned—in enclosed waters like those of B.C.’s archipelago-lined straits.
(This past summer, in a curious, related footnote, scientists announced they’d finally resolved the mystery of the great Permian-Triassic extinction of 251 million years ago, the single most catastrophic event in the planet’s history. The cause? Atmospheric CO2—probably the result of massive Siberian volcanic activity—produced ocean acidification so toxic that 96 percent of the planet’s marine species went extinct.)