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Carbon Dioxide vs. The Ocean

By Laura Drepanos, IV Form

Carbon Dioxide vs. The Ocean: What I learned at the High School Marine Science Symposium

Are the ocean’s problems really my problems?

This was the only question going through my head as I pulled up to front circle two days before March break at 6:50 in the morning.

The short answer: yes.

When Ms. Lohwater announced at school meeting that there was an opportunity to go to the High School Marine Science Symposium (HSMSS) at Northeastern University, I immediately took it. I have always loved learning about the ocean and visiting the Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution since I was young. Missing a day of classes for this at the end of the academic window required an overwhelming amount of planning ahead: I had to take tests on my own time and finish all of my assignments. However, I left the HSMSS with many takeaways that made it all worth it.

My first takeaway: Sea Acidification is very real.

LEO already features an article that describes this process well, but my experience of learning about this issue was very unique at the HSMSS. Sea acidification was one of the small workshops that I chose, and students from different schools and I got to do a series of experiments and hands-on activities to deepen our understanding of how acidification happens and its exact effect. In simplest terms, seawater is more basic on the pH scale than distilled water. When the water absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2), it becomes carbonic acid and further breaks down into hydrogen and carbonate ions, causing the water to become more acidic. The increased acidity and presence of carbonate atoms causes calcium carbonate to erode. This is a significant issue due to the fact that many species in the ocean have shells that are made of calcium carbonate, so the destruction of these shells can put these species in danger. For example, quahogs have become half their original size throughout history and their mortality rates have doubled due to sea acidification alone.

What made this workshop so impressive was that we were able to find proof for everything we learned about sea acidification. To understand how water is able to absorb CO2 and become more acidic, we conducted an experiment where we breathed through a straw into a solution that contained a pH indicator. In addition to seeing how the CO2 that we exhaled was absorbed by the water, the solution changed colors to demonstrate an increase in acidity. Next, we dropped oyster shells into vinegar, which represented an acidic solution, and we saw how they immediately began to break down as bubbles of O2 rose to the top of the beaker. We observed and weighed shells that were treated in the vinegar and compared these to the untreated shells to understand just how much sea acidification can harm calcium carbonate shells. Lastly, we made predictions about, watched, and answered questions about videos of fish in controlled experiments with acidic water. In these experiments, a fish would first be placed in a small pool of regular salt water. In one area of the pool, the smell of a predator was released, and the smell of prey was released in another area. In this situation, the fish were able to use their instincts to swim towards the prey smell. However, when the same experiment was conducted in more acidic water, the fish were unable to process the smell correctly, and they swam towards the predator smell. We learned from this that sea acidification can harm many sea species’ ability to use their instincts to process smell — a devastating result of sea acidification that is much less commonly known.

Boston being underwater does not need to be the end of the world.

During the Earth Day Chapel last year, we faced the seemingly bitter reality that the rising ocean levels due to global warming will eventually cover Boston and make it underwater. This is because Boston was initially all marsh; it is not far enough above sea level to be able to avoid this issue. While it is true that this is a legitimate concern, as the ocean has trapped most of the heat caused by global warming, city planners are trying to make the best of this situation. To avoid future disaster, these city planners have proposed some ideas to redesign spaces in Boston to accommodate extra water. This would mainly consist of multiple canals flowing through the city, building bridges, and relying on boats as a common mode of transportation. While this layout of Boston would look significantly different, it is a much smarter alternative than avoiding the issue until it gets out of control.

The ocean’s problems are much more relevant than we think.

Considering the ocean’s immense role in life on Earth, it is astonishing to think about how little most people know about it. The ocean is much smaller than most people think it to be, which means that each act of harm done to the ocean has a much more significant negative impact than we realize. Regardless of how relatively small the ocean is, less than 10% of it has been explored, which shows how much information we are lacking.

While there seems to be a lack of interest regarding the ocean, it is quite a significant feature of the globe. It is the source of over half of the oxygen in the atmosphere. It also contains over half the species in the world, including 226,000 identified eukaryotes and likely thousands more to be identified; Researchers possess so many unidentified species samples from the ocean that it would take at least four decades to analyze all of them. To add to the value of the ocean, many of our engineering designs are based off of sea organisms. From mimicking the ridges in shark’s skin on submarines, to preventing growth of bacteria, to designing more aerodynamic cars that model fish, we consistently depend on the ocean for inspiration.

One of the many effects of the harm done to the ocean is the negative economic impact on industries. As global warming causes the oceans’ temperatures to rise, lobsters migrate further North to be in cool water. This has already resulted in a great decrease in the lobster population off of Cape Cod, which has always been a trademark of the area and a key industry. Additionally, research has shown that this same issue will apply to the many fish species commonly found in the area. This is just one example of how these issues for marine life can affect aspects of humanity and society.

CO2, emissions are the real culprit.

Deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels have caused levels of CO2 to increase; a third of the results end up in the ocean. After seeing how CO2 in the air alone has been able to increase the global climate significantly, it is difficult to imagine the extent to which CO2 has caused damage in the ocean. Not only has CO2 caused the sea levels to rise on the rise, but it has made the water so acidic that it has become harmful to a variety of organisms’ abilities to survive. Reducing our CO2 emissions alone might be the necessary step towards protecting the ocean.

We must now revisit the initial question: Are the ocean’s problems really my problems? While my initial suspicion that the answer is yes was correct, I had no idea how much more to the picture there is. Not only are we responsible for these problems, but these issues will eventually negatively affect us and all of the marine species on which we rely. However, I would never share this with the community just to evoke guilt. I hope that whoever is reading this article can realize just how ethereal our ocean is, and that something so abundant with life is worth our time. 

Laura Drepanos is a IV Form day student from Southborough, MA. She enjoys going to the beach, playing field hockey, watching The Walking Dead with her brother, and playing piano.

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