Atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are currently approaching 395 ppm, a value that is 40% higher than those of the preindustrial period and exceeds CO2 levels of at least the past 800,000 years. Perhaps more significant is the rapid rate of increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration, a rate that is unprecedented over the last 55 million years of the Earth’s history. The ocean plays a critical role in governing atmospheric CO2 levels. By absorbing a substantial share of the CO2 released through varied human activities, the ocean reduces atmospheric levels of this greenhouse gas and thus moderates human-induced climate change. However, this beneficial effect of CO2 uptake by the ocean has resulted in potentially damaging consequences due to a lowering of ocean pH and related changes in ocean carbonate chemistry, collectively known as “ocean acidification.”
Since the start of the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century, the average pH of the upper ocean has decreased by about 0.1 pH unit, corresponding to an approximately 30% rise in acidity, and is projected to decrease by an additional 0.3 to 0.4 units by the end of this century, corresponding to a 100 to 150% rise in acidity since preindustrial times. The current and expected magnitude and rate of ocean acidification argue for an expeditious and detailed investigation of ocean acidification and its associated impacts on ecosystems and natural resources. Additional environmental stressors—such as rising temperatures and decreases in dissolved oxygen—that may exacerbate the effects of acidification on marine organisms further highlight the urgency of this challenge. In par-
ticular, understanding the effects of ocean acidification requires research on the changes in the chemical composition of seawater; the direct and indirect influences of ocean acidification on chemical, biological, and ecological processes; socioeconomic impacts; and the capacities of biological systems and human societies to adapt to the challenges arising from ocean acidification. This requires a multi-focused yet coordinated program that integrates knowledge about ocean acidification across the natural, social and economic sciences to provide a foundation for predicting the future consequences of acidification and for development of effective strategies to address these consequences.
Decreasing seawater pH has already been shown in laboratory experiments to have widespread influences on biological processes and numerous types of additional effects likely remain to be discovered. Many—and perhaps most—of these effects of acidification will have negative impacts on individual species and the ecosystems in which they are enmeshed. For example, ocean acidification decreases the availability of carbonate ions at calcification sites, making it increasingly difficult for many calcifying organisms such as corals, oysters, and calcifying phytoplankton to build their calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. However, calcifiers differ in their responses to ocean acidification, notably in the case of different species of reef-building corals. In contrast, some processes or certain species (e.g., photosynthetic carbon fixation in some plants), may benefit from rising CO2 and bicarbonate levels. Disparity among species in responses to ocean acidification remains a critical unknown for efforts to predict what ocean acidification portends for marine life. In addition, many metabolic and cellular processes besides calcification and photosynthesis are affected by ocean acidification due to decreases in the pH of blood and cellular fluids. Falling pH can impede oxygen uptake by certain marine animals and directly or indirectly reduce metabolic rates.
The full suite of biological processes and structures perturbed by ocean acidification is difficult to predict. Some recently discovered effects of ocean acidification were wholly unanticipated. For example, laboratory studies of coral reef fish have revealed that neurological and behavioral processes can be affected by a decrease of seawater pH. These behavioral abnormalities may translate into changes in predator-prey interactions and capacities for locating suitable sites for settlement and recruitment.
Most of our knowledge of the effects of decreasing pH on marine organisms is from controlled laboratory and field mesocosm studies; we know much less about ocean acidification’s effects on natural (or wild) communities and ecosystems. Thus, efforts are under way to extrapolate from controlled laboratory experiments and limited in situ observations to impacts at the community and ecosystem level. However, predicting the future consequences of ocean acidification for the marine environment
and society is a challenging endeavor due to the complexity and dynamic nature of marine ecosystems and the likelihood that the effects of acidification will differ among species and ecosystems. Furthermore, interaction of stresses from acidification with other simultaneous stressors such as warming, eutrophication, and deoxygenation remains poorly understood.
Assessing the socioeconomic impacts from ocean acidification represents an even greater challenge. Globally, fish represented nearly 17% of society’s animal protein intake in 2009 and 6.5% of all protein consumed and it is uncertain how ocean acidification will affect these resources. Although the broader potential socioeconomic impacts of ocean acidification are poorly known, impacts have already been observed on key industries like shellfish aquaculture. For example, the Pacific Northwest aquaculture industry, which is estimated to contribute approximately 270 million dollars per year and 3,200 jobs to local coastal communities, has recently experienced major failures in its oyster hatcheries due to effects of low pH waters on oyster larvae. Whereas these low pH values are due in large measure to upwelled water with low pH, the effects seen on larvae illustrate potential consequences of acidification resulting from entry of atmospheric CO2 to the oceans. It is also important to point out that, at these sites in the Northwest and at other coastal sites influenced by runoff from land, effects of eutrophication on CO2 content and pH are likely to be substantial. Thus, the effects of rising atmospheric CO2 on pH are compounded by other anthropogenic influences. In response to threats posed by reduced pH (from any sources) some aquaculture operations are currently adapting their practices by monitoring pH changes in their water intake systems and timing water intake during favorable conditions. However, many other oyster farms lack the ability to monitor or predict such changes and will need to develop these capabilities. Many options to offset reduced pH and carbonate saturation in situations like oyster aquaculture (or other mariculture operations occurring around the globe) seem impractical due to the energy costs (and release of CO2) associated with adding compounds like lime to increase pH.
The build-up of coral skeletons, which form the structural basis for coral reef ecosystems, is also pH-sensitive. These marine ecosystems support vast biodiversity and generate large amounts of dietary protein in the form of fish and shellfish, and provide physical protection from storms in coastal regions. Deep water coral communities serve as important nursery habitats for many species. How the direct and indirect effects of ocean acidification will translate into the health and sizes of fish and shellfish populations and, thereby, into food production, is an important but unanswered question in the broad arena of socioeconomic impacts of ocean acidification.
STUDY’S ORIGIN AND THE COMMITTEE’S TASK
In 2009, Congress passed the Federal Ocean Acidification Research And Monitoring (FOARAM) Act (as part of PL 111-11), which directed an Interagency Working Group on Ocean Acidification (IWGOA) to design a National Ocean Acidification Program (referred to as the Program in this report) and develop a Strategic Plan for Federal Research and Monitoring of Ocean Acidification. The FOARAM Act also directs NOAA to request the National Research Council (NRC) convene a committee to review the IWGOA Strategic Plan. In particular, the NRC committee was asked to review the IWGOA Strategic Plan for federal research and monitoring on ocean acidification based on the program elements described in the FOARAM Act of 2009 and the advice provided to the IWGOA through the 2010 NRC report Ocean Acidification: A National Strategy to Meet the Challenges of a Changing Ocean. Specifically, the review committee was asked to consider the following elements: goals and objectives; metrics for evaluation; mechanisms for coordination, integration, and evaluation; means to transition research and observational elements to operational status; coordination with existing and developing national and international programs; and community input and external review (for full statement of task see Appendix A).
MAIN CONCLUSIONS FROM THE COMMITTEE’S REVIEW
The Strategic Plan presents a comprehensive framework for improving our understanding of ocean acidification, broadly defined to span the physical, chemical, biological, and socioeconomic sciences. It does an excellent job of covering the breadth of current understanding of ocean acidification and the range of research that will be required to advance a broadly focused and effective National Ocean Acidification Program. Because the committee’s charge was to conduct a critical analysis of the Strategic Plan, the comments below focus on aspects of the Plan that could be improved, rather than on the Plan’s many strengths.
The Strategic Plan follows the seven Themes laid out in the FOARAM Act. While these themes encapsulate the effort required to advance the understanding of ocean acidification, the Strategic Plan currently treats the themes largely as independent sets of activities without elaborating on how coordination among the agencies and integration of themes will be accomplished. While the committee recognizes that this is a strategic document and not an implementation plan, the Plan lacks sufficient detail on how objectives and goals will be reached and how the strategy will move toward implementation. The following modifications would remedy these shortcomings in the Strategic Plan:
• Articulate a clear vision statement concerning ocean acidification in relation to the importance of ocean resources to society.
• Describe a process that would ensure better integration across the seven Themes and illustrate the interrelationships among the themes. More specifically, the various Themes describe important goals, but monitoring (Theme 1) and technology development (Theme 4) are required to advance research to understand responses to ocean acidification (Theme 2), modeling to predict changes and impacts on carbon cycle and ecosystems (Theme 3), and assessment of socioeconomic impacts (Theme 5). To better communicate the rationale and importance of the National Ocean Acidification Program, the goals and rationale for the various activities in each Theme need to be better integrated across the Themes and stated upfront. For example, research on socioeconomic impacts and societal adaptation is presented in isolation and the description implies that such research could be postponed until impacts on organisms and ecosystems are better known. However, the priority research questions in the socioeconomic Theme ought to be used to define and drive, where appropriate, priorities and research questions in the natural sciences, and therefore the socioeconomic priorities need to be better integrated into the other themes.
• Specify a mechanism for coordination among federal agencies and with other ocean acidification efforts in the U.S. and abroad. Currently, the Strategic Plan does not specify the roles of the individual agencies nor does it describe a process for coordination among the agencies to ensure that resources are used in a cost-effective manner, without unnecessary duplication, to strategically address priority research goals.
• Describe a process and criteria by which the IWGOA will set priorities within and among themes. The current draft of the Strategic Plan provides a comprehensive list of research goals to be accomplished by the National Ocean Acidification Program, but neither sets priorities nor explains how priorities will be established as part of the implementation plan. The process for setting priorities needs a mechanism to ensure broad stakeholder participation.
• Develop a process for periodic reevaluation of priorities, including metrics to evaluate progress toward the Program’s goals. Such metrics will be needed for the IWGOA to report on the Program’s progress every two years as required by the FOARAM Act. These progress reports could be used by the IWGOA to refine its strategy for the renewal of the Strategic Plan in 5 years, as called for in the FOARAM Act. Much remains to be learned about ocean acidification and critical new and unconventional research needs may appear as studies move forward. Thus, it is critical to build flexibility into the Program to allow for innovation, ongoing evaluation, and iterative adjustments in Program priorities and direction.
The committee commends the IWGOA for calling out the need for a National Ocean Acidification Program Office (referred to as the National Program Office in this report) and agrees strongly with the Strategic Plan that this office will be central to the successful implementation of the Program. The committee recommends that the plan provide greater clarity regarding the creation, function, and governance of the National Program Office. Although the Strategic Plan gives the National Program Office the responsibility for developing the implementation plan, it does not explain how or when the National Program Office will be set up. Therefore, a plan for the creation, function, and governance of the National Program Office is essential for the timely development of the implementation plan.
Based on previous experiences with national research efforts, the following functions are fundamental for a successful program office:
• coordinating research across the federal and state agencies;
• coordinating activities with international efforts;
• engaging the broader stakeholder community in developing research priorities and metrics for evaluating progress;
• communicating important results among agencies, policy makers, stakeholders, and the public; and
• ensuring that the nation receives the highest return from its investment in the National Ocean Acidification Program.
Many models exist for the structure and governance of program offices. The committee views the following aspects as important to an effective program office: independence from any single federal agency and the ability of successfully gaining the buy-in and commitment from various stakeholders—such as the research community, affected industries, non-federal agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. An independent National Ocean Acidification Program Office could help engage all stakeholders in developing processes to guide the priorities of the diverse activities described in the Strategic Plan. The National Program Office will be the foundation and catalyst for a successful National Ocean Acidification Program.