The big chill of ocean warming

As ocean temperatures rise and the water becomes more acidic, everything from shellfish to real estate is at risk of eradication.

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      “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.)

      In nature, there are always winners and losers. But according to Becca Gooding, a 27-year-old UBC marine-ecology PhD student, ocean acidification is altering the game.

      For example, acidic waters decrease the ability of bivalves like oysters, mussels, clams, and scallops—all vital to B.C.’s shellfish industry—to reproduce and that of their vulnerable larvae to survive. And because acidity also reduces the amount of dissolved oceanic calcium carbonate—an essential component of mollusk shells—the creatures that do survive are smaller and have thinner shells than their predecessors. This makes them easier pickings for B.C.’s predatory purple sea stars.

      Working at sites along this coast, Gooding has recorded evidence of mass barnacle die-offs at Bamfield, on Vancouver Island’s west coast. And at Anacortes in Washington state, foreshores that historically sustained millions of mussels are now devoid of shellfish and covered deep with green algae. Similar telltale acidification/warming events are occurring everywhere along the B.C. shoreline.

      In her noisy UBC laboratory, with compressors running and CO2 being bubbled into a simulated tidal pool, Gooding can gradually raise the seawater’s temperature and acidity until they reach levels projected for this coast in the coming decades—and watch how the sea stars and algae thrive and how the shellfish succumb.

      Until seven years ago, UBC associate professor of zoology Chris Harley, 39, had—like most marine scientists—never heard the phrase “ocean acidification”. There were not even established scientific base lines in B.C. against which to measure rising acidity. There was virtually no ongoing research and no public policy. And because acidification tends to affect the smaller creatures of the marine food chain most—not the much more visible salmon or whales—it was largely overlooked.

      But as recent data came in, Harley realized that, to use his words, “something really extraordinary was happening.” The waters of coastal B.C. were becoming poisonous. Researchers like Gooding, his graduate student, were seeing wild mussel beds wiped out. Tiny, free-swimming mollusks called terapods—a primary planktonic food source for pink salmon—were swimming deeper to avoid the effects of the warmer, acidic ocean surface.

      Trend lines now indicate that ocean acidity will climb 120 percent more in this century as an additional 30 billion tonnes of carbon are added to the earth’s atmosphere each year. That could produce an ocean pH level, Harley says, unseen in 20 million years. If this were to happen, the entire oceanic food chain—beginning with the microorganisms and culminating with the whales—would face a domino-style collapse. “It’s already a bad time to be a mussel,” he adds with a rueful laugh. “They seem to be particularly vulnerable. In fact, they’re the poster child for everything that can go wrong here: acidification, warming, increased salinity. They’re our canary in the coal mine. And they’re dying.”

      From the perspective of Victoria zoologist Colin Campbell, 65, there’s a lot to be said in favour of ocean acidification, ocean warming, and sea-level rise. He’s science adviser for the Sierra Club of B.C. and author of the newly released Blue Carbon—British Columbia: The Case for the Conservation and Enhancement of Estuarine Processes and Sediments in B.C.

      The point he makes in his report is that along the province’s 900 kilometres of ocean and its 25,700 kilometres of convoluted shoreline lie hundreds of estuaries. And it is there, in those largely unloved salt marshes, that prodigious amounts of eelgrass grow. Eelgrass, unlike mussels, does very well in warm, CO2–rich, acidic water. More importantly, eelgrass and its coastal sea-grass relatives sequester CO2 far better than B.C.’s trees, up to 90 times better. Eelgrass is, in other words, a vital oceanic carbon sink. That’s why his report is titled Blue Carbon.

      If it were only a matter of carbon sequestration, Campbell says, then acidification and rising sea levels along the province’s coast would be hugely beneficial: as the rising sea creeps inland, ocean waters and sediments will inundate intertidal marshes and the ever-expanding eelgrass estuaries that take in carbon. There, with the eelgrass buried at the end of its natural life cycle, the carbon could no longer damage the ocean or the air.


      Campbell has to laugh at the misanthropic implications of what he’s telling me. He suspects the prediction of a one- to two-metre 21st-century sea-level rise may well be a conservative one. It’s not just the melting of continental glaciers like those of B.C.’s Coast Mountains—or even the melting of Antarctic and Greenland ice—that matters. There’s the simplest of physics ahead: as the ocean warms—and it’s warming rapidly—it expands upward. Behind Campbell’s laughter is this paradox: what’s good for B.C.’s carbon-gobbling eelgrass (and the planet) spells calamity for the hundreds of thousands of people and the billions of dollars’ worth of infrastructure, industries, and homes that occupy the province’s dike-lined Fraser River Delta.

      “We’re reminded in this field,” Campbell says by phone of his role as a spokesperson for the Sierra Club, “not to be fear-mongering. People’s inertia rises when hope looks slim. But given what we now know, fear-mongering may be necessary.”

      In an age of 140-character tweets and instant YouTube celebrity, it’s often difficult to regard as important something as slow as sea-level rise. But Andy Yan, a planner with Bing Thom Architects, has looked at what will happen to Vancouver if the projected one- to two-metre rise actually occurs this century. (And what would happen if the rise is worse.)

      His 2010 presentation is titled The Local Effects of Global Climate Change in the City of Vancouver: A Community Toolkit and Atlas and makes for sober viewing. With a two-metre rise and without diking, parts of horsy Southlands go underwater. So does Wreck Beach. And with a high tide and a storm surge, the ocean spills into Granville Island and threatens the Richmond-Delta dikes. At three metres, Southlands disappears. So does the city’s riverside industrial land between Marpole and Knight Street. So do the city’s beaches and some waterfront areas along Point Grey Road.

      Says Yan: “We thought we were being alarmist when we ran these simulations. But the models are extraordinary! It’s not just Jacqui Cohen’s oceanside home in Kitsilano that’s affected. It’s Annacis Island. It’s the Port of Vancouver. It’s goodbye Granville Island! When you start engineering for these possibilities, it gets really expensive really fast.”

      And that’s just Vancouver, Yan adds. Because most major infrastructure is designed to last 100 years, engineers and planners across the province today are just starting to look at how B.C.’s ferry terminals, airports, bridges, coastal mills, harbour facilities, and low-lying, dike-lined residential areas may need to be protected or relocated, given the latest sea-level projections for the 21st century. The price tag will, almost certainly, have 12 digits to the left of the decimal point.

      The third great force confronting the B.C. coast—ocean warming itself—will have an impact, say scientists, so wide-ranging that no one and nothing will, in the decades ahead, escape what’s happening. During the past 50 years, the ocean temperature here has risen, on average, 1.2 ° C. And the rate of increase is accelerating.

      There has also been an increase in the frequency and duration of warm-water, storm-producing El Niños. As anyone who has followed the tracking of North American hurricanes knows, storms gain strength over Caribbean waters and lose strength as they swerve into the colder North Atlantic. Similarly, Pacific storms passing over a warming ocean off this coast strike B.C. with increasing severity: more rain, more wind, more flooding, and more erosion. But it’s what the warmer ocean does to marine creatures that’s the real issue.

      As the ocean’s surface temperature rises, the population of warmth-loving, oxygen-guzzling bacteria explodes, especially in protected waters like those of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. This creates oxygen-depleted dead zones where diseases and parasites thrive. Oolichan, smelt, and free-swimming marine-mollusk populations then decline, and with them the populations of fish that normally feed on this region’s abundance. This cascading effect is already evident along the ever-warmer California and Oregon coasts, where the chinook salmon population has declined precipitously in recent decades, and in the Strait of Georgia, where the North Pacific–bound juvenile sockeye regularly succumb before reaching the open ocean.

      It’s not inevitable that the $140,000,000 wild-salmon industry in B.C. will disappear, but it’s almost certain that it will decline—as it has for decades—as coastal waters continue to warm. In a Darwinian world, where there are winners and losers, all things, animal and plant, must adapt to change or die—or move.

      The speed of modern oceanic change far exceeds that at which most species can adapt genetically. So, many coastal marine creatures, especially the plankton and krill, die. But faced with diminishing food sources, the larger and less vulnerable fish like salmon can (and do) move—toward colder, more nutrient-rich waters. Put succinctly: what’s bad for the fishermen of B.C. will be, in time, a bounty for the fishermen of Alaska.

      This is something UBC fisheries professor Daniel Pauly, 65, knows a lot about. He wrote his first prophetic paper on the effect of temperature change on fish 32 years ago, long before anyone had heard of global warming, and he is today an international authority on the consequences of climate change and human impacts on fish.

      On his office computer, he runs a map-based program showing current research on (and projection of) the dispersal of food fish worldwide. The program shows how, in the Northern Hemisphere, fish populations are shifting (and will continue to shift) due to ocean warming. In the North Sea, off Korea, along the B.C. coast, the regions of darkest red on the computer screen indicate greatest food-fish densities. And as Pauly clicks on past, present, and future decades, the red patterns swirl and coalesce, moving in increments inexorably northward.

      “Climate change is a great engine,” he tells me. “Temperature governs where fish live. If it’s bad, creatures leave. New creatures invade. Some get stuck in cul-de-sacs and die. But the lucky ones are able to move from one good environment,” he says, drawing two circles and colouring in the overlapping portion, “to the next good environment. But if there’s no overlap—no suitable thermal environment, no adjacent food source, a deep gulf ahead—well, that’s tough luck. Fish can’t negotiate with physics.”

      As he scrolls, I watch the decades pass and the amorphous red blob indicating greatest Pacific salmon density slide relentlessly toward the Gulf of Alaska. That’s what has already begun to happen off California and Oregon and what will happen here in the decades ahead. In fact, the planet’s temperate food fish, salmon included, are moving northward, on average, 40 kilometres per decade. (Temperate terrestrial plants and animals today are shifting northward under the force of global warming at a rate of 16 kilometres per decade.)

      The species that may be “winners” in this ecological turmoil—still in its early stages here on the B.C. coast—are local marine mammals and the invasive creatures moving up from the south. At present, there’s little evidence ocean warming or acidification is affecting B.C. whales, seals, sea lions, or sea otters. They’re sufficiently big and adaptable, it appears, to weather the changes so far. In fact, all their populations on the B.C. coast are stable. However, if B.C. salmon continue their northward shift, the predatory whales, sea lions, and seals will simply follow them into Alaskan waters.

      If acidification ends up destroying B.C.’s abalone and other wild shellfish, on the other hand, the resurgent sea otters—confined for now to the west coast of Vancouver Island—will, in time, lose their food supply. And gradually moving into the ecological niches provided by a warming North Pacific come two-metre-long Humboldt squid, jellyfish, mackerel, giant leatherback sea turtles, and the occasional sunfish. Nature, after all, abhors a vacuum.

      When Qualicum Bay scallop farmer Saunders discovered the toxicity of the Strait of Georgia’s waters last year, he bought expensive machinery—as other B.C. shellfish farmers have also done—to regulate the acidity and temperature of the incoming ocean water that nourishes his vulnerable larval shellfish. His farmed scallops and oysters and mussels are safe for now. But out in the wild, the story is different.

      Shellfish that have survived 400 million years of planetary turmoil are now succumbing to acidification and warming all along the B.C. coast. Like the doomed polar bears trapped along the shorelines of a warming Arctic Ocean, they have no place to flee.

      And if a great-grandson of coastal-erosion expert Ian Walker were to visit Haida Gwaii’s Rose Spit region on an October day 70 years from now, he’d encounter a world forever altered. Far across Hecate Strait to the east, the Coast Mountains would appear a misty denim blue. The snowy glaciers that had existed there for millions of years would be mostly gone. The strait would be warm and acidic, the coastal clams and mussels dying. And the salmon would be moving north. More prophetically—in the face of rising sea levels and more powerful North Pacific storms—Rose Spit itself, always a narrow, wave-washed finger of land, would most likely be gone as well.

      It is, according to ancient Haida mythology, precisely there at Rose Spit that Raven first encountered a giant clam that, under his relentless pecking, released humankind onto the Earth. What was once a great story of creation may one day, not too far in the future, be an ironic epitaph on human folly.




      Oct 20, 2011 at 6:44am

      While this long story may or may not prove true, the pacific ocean near the equator has been cooler than normal due to La Nina. Too bad these researchers didn't bother leaving BC to study world ocean climates.

      Paul Rideout

      Oct 20, 2011 at 10:05am

      Since we have not made any real effort to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels or to stop spewing carbon into our atmosphere, it strikes me that the ecological cataclysm that is predicted in this artile is inevitable. We are so addicted to the big oil machine that we are unable to shut it down. Because of this failure to act we face a future that scares us and when a society is fearful of the future, instead of hopeful, bad things happen. I believe it is this fear that is driving the orgy of greed and the rapid increase in inequality that we are seeing and that thousands, the world over, are protesting. The thinking, perhaps subconsciously, goes like this.."There are bad times coming and to hell with democracy and peace and all that crap, I have to accumulate as much as I can, as fast as I can so that MY progeny have a slightly better chance at surviving the coming environmental breakdown." I think that is why we are living in an age of greed.


      Oct 20, 2011 at 11:57am

      What a bed-wetting load of crap;. Most of the "scientific claims" in this artcile can't be verified. Air temperature increasing? The GISSTemp record says otherwise. Ocean Acidification? The ocean is still in an alkyd state. Ocean warming? The Argo buioy system says otherwise. As much as we have a repsonsiblity to keep our environment clean the addition of CO2 to the atmosphere is not driving cataclysmic climate change and stupid scare stories like this serve no useful purpose.


      Oct 20, 2011 at 5:18pm

      La Nina is periodic. The warming ocean is long-term. There is a difference.

      Get a life!

      Judy Cross

      Oct 20, 2011 at 6:01pm

      CO2 is as much plant food in the ocean as it is on land and the pH varies according to how close to shore, what time of day, sunny or cloudy and season to season. Organisms like occolithofores gobble it up as fast as they can get it and sequester it, so do shellfish and yes, starfish.
      This is just more pathologizing of the perfectly normal. Problem/reaction and the solution is more taxation? Oh, yeah!

      B ready

      Oct 20, 2011 at 8:16pm

      Aqua-culture currently monitors Ph/alkalinity to improve larval success for onshore tank culture of oyster. Success means money and to the many doubters out there the people who need to pay attention are paying close attention.


      Oct 20, 2011 at 8:22pm

      NoLeftNut: I see your extensive research in climatology and marine biology has taught you a lot.

      Steven L. Jones

      Oct 20, 2011 at 10:58pm

      The phytoplankton produce 50% of the planets oxygen. If things get so bad that they can make their shells and die, walking on sea level will be like trying to climb Mt. Everest.


      Oct 21, 2011 at 4:28am

      I ran into two fairly prominent marine biologists down south from the University of Oregon who were conducting, or rather preparing to conduct, experiments to test for the presence of deep ocean acidification and warming. To their knowledge they were the first to do so (perhaps only pertaining to that depth though?). I have yet to read the report, if it's been published yet.

      I'm always interested to ask, why are people so angry about this happening exactly?