Federal Watchdog: U.S. Government Not Doing Enough To Stop Oceans From Turning Acidic

CREDIT: AP Photo/Reed Saxon

In this Jan. 15, 2010 file photo, a sea otter is seen in Morro Bay, Calif. From sea otters to blue whales, marine mammals are under stress from climate change, ocean acidification, hunting and other threats.

The federal government agencies tasked with studying, monitoring, and preventing the widespread acidification of our oceans have not been doing their job as well as they could be, according to a report released Tuesday by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Science Foundation, and NASA have indeed been spending money on efforts to study ocean acidification, a phenomenon that happens when oceans absorb the carbon dioxide humans emit from power plants, deforestation, manufacturing, and driving. But more of that money needs to go toward actual strategies to mitigate and stop ocean acidification if detrimental impacts to ocean ecosystems, and by extension the U.S. economy, are to be avoided, the GAO said.

“GAO recommends the appropriate entities within the Executive Office of the President take steps to improve the federal response to ocean acidification,” the report said. “[That includes] estimating the funding that would be needed to implement the research and monitoring plan and designating the entity responsible for coordinating the next steps in the federal response.”

Ocean acidification is one of the biggest and least-talked-about effects of global warming. More than 25 percent of all human-made carbon emissions are absorbed by the ocean, and because of that, their acid levels have increased by a staggering 26 percent over the last 200 years, according to the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

The acidity that results does not mean that the ocean is actually acid, or falling below a pH level of 7.0. The term “acidification” refers only to the process of the oceans becoming less alkaline than they were previously. The U.N. says it is possible, however, that oceans could eventually fall into the acid category if emissions keep rising over the next 100 years.

Increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide in the oceans affects their entire chemistry, thereby impacting marine ecosystems, potentially compromising the health of the oceans — not to mention their ability to provide economic services to the U.S. and beyond. The science on just how bad these impacts will be is still developing, and federal agencies are required under the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009 to create a plan to monitor and address the situation.

The GAO does note that things have been moving. NOAA formally established an ocean acidification program in 2011, which spends about $6 million a year on monitoring of ocean acidificaction and researching its potential impacts. The National Science Foundation has spent an average of $11 million every year on supporting ocean acidification research, and has designated it as a “specific agency focus” for fiscal years 2010 through 2014, the report said. NASA has also contributed by maintaining satellites that collect data on the global carbon cycle and ocean ecology — data that is essential for researchers when studying ocean acidification.

That’s all well and good, the GAO said, but agencies have also been lackluster in working together to actually do anything about the problem. According to the report, the agencies have so far failed to develop strategies to conserve marine life and ecosystems by both stemming ocean acidification and/or adapting to its effects. That’s not good, the report said, because action needs to be taken relatively quickly in order to avoid detrimental effects.

“The [agencies] have not developed the adaptation and mitigation strategies to conserve marine organisms and ecosystems exposed to ocean acidification that are required,” the report said. “In regard to mitigation, many officials and stakeholders we interviewed said that without timely action to mitigate its root causes, ocean acidification is likely to have significant impacts.”

Scientists predict ocean acidification could have a number of impacts. For one, it can make it harder for coral and some plankton to produce their skeletons and shells, and increase the risk of those shells developing incorrectly or dissolving. Acidification can also change the behavior of marine fish and some invertebrates, making them more susceptible to predators. The U.N. recently cited reef fish larvae as an example, observing that fish exposed to elevated CO2 lost their abilities to distinguish between different habitat types, to distinguish between kin and non-kin, and to smell predators. Fish, the report said, become “no longer able to learn.”

All that could be bad for humans, too, because ocean ecosystems “help create human well-being and economic wealth,” the U.N. report said. Specifically, ocean ecosystems support a number of industries: commercial fishing, shellfishing, tourism, leisure, and recreation. Reduced coral health can impact their natural defense against storms and erosion, making it more costly to maintain coastlines.

The GAO recommends that the federal government agencies tasked with dealing with ocean acidification can improve their response by “facilitating collaboration.” One possible approach, the GAO said, would be “to create an independent national ocean acidification program office to coordinate the next steps in the federal response.” In order to to that, however, the GAO notes that there needs to be a consensus on how that office will be funded — an effort that has so far proven dismal.

In all, the GAO said it’s most important that the federal government figure out exactly which agency is fully responsible for solving the problem.

“Until greater clarity is provided on the entity responsible for coordinating the next steps in the federal response to ocean acidification,” the report said, “completing important actions, such as implementing the research and monitoring plan, will be difficult.”