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July 22, 2011
Why science is important to everyone
At NOAA, we do ecological research as well as other kinds of science. NOAA stands for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
We produce daily weather forecasts and severe storm warnings. We monitor climate. We manage fisheries, restore coastlines, and support marine commerce. NOAA’s products and services support the economy and protect lives and property. NOAA’s dedicated scientists use cutting-edge research and high-tech instrumentation to provide citizens, planners, emergency managers, businesses and others with reliable information they need when they need it.
Our mission is science, service, and stewardship. Our job is to understand and predict changes in climate, weather, oceans, and coasts, to share that knowledge and information with others, and
to conserve and manage coastal and marine ecosystems and resources.
Science at NOAA builds the knowledge we need to make environmental predictions. Science guides us toward the best tools for protecting our oceans, our coasts, and Great Lakes, and the people who live there. And these tools are the solutions to many of the very daunting challenges we face on our planet today. They are our hope for ending the overfishing that has depleted fish populations in the ocean. They are our hope for maintaining the biodiversity the planet needs to maintain healthy ocean ecosystems. They are the hope for helping people all over the world prepare for drought, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events. All of that can come out of science.
Now, I’m going to show you one small part of the science we do at NOAA. And I’m also going to tell you how that science became a solution to a practical problem. I think you’ll see some similarities between the science we do at NOAA, and the science from my grad school days.
You see on the poster here and on your handouts a picture of a marine pteropod, a swimming sea snail about the size of a pea. Some call it a sea butterfly. It’s easy to see why:they fly delicately and gracefully through the water.
Pteropods live in the upper depths of oceans all over the world. They live in cold, fragile Arctic waters, in temperate zones, and warm, tropical seas.
Pteropods are a major food source for many species of fish and other marine species.
Like other snails, the animal lives inside its shell. The shell is made of calcium carbonate, not unlike the shells of oysters, except that in pteropods, the shell is thin.
Scientists recently discovered that the chemistry of the ocean is changing in ways that affect pteropods. Specifically, the burning of fossil fuels has caused an increase in carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. This carbon dioxide, or CO2, doesn’t just stay in the atmosphere – roughly 30 percent of it is absorbed by the ocean. When oceans absorb CO2, they become more acidic. This is the process called ocean acidification. We know based on direct measurements that oceans are now about 30% more acidic than they were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. They have been absorbing more and more CO2 and thus becoming more acidic.
What are the consequences of these changes in ocean chemistry? And what is likely to happen in the future?
Using ocean models, we can make projections of changes in ocean acidity, or ocean pH over time. And we can simulate future likely conditions in the laboratory. The images you see on the poster and handouts describe what happened to pteropod shells when they were in ocean water that is similar to what scientists expect to occur by the end of this century. Because the ocean water is more acidic, the shell dissolves away.
Scientists expect that most plants and animals in the ocean that have external shells or skeletons made of calcium carbonate will be affected by ocean acidification. This includes oysters, clams, corals, lobsters, crabs, sea stars, sea urchins and many kinds of microscopic plants in the ocean.
Some call ocean acidification ‘osteoporosis of the sea’.
This is clearly a potentially serious problem. NOAA and other scientists are busily gaining more information about rates of change, how these changes impact different kinds of species, how changes in some species like pteropods will affect other species such as salmon, and what in addition to reducing release of CO2 into the atmosphere might be done to help with this problem.
How Science Turns into a Solution
Now I want to show you how science is transformed into a solution.
Now we’re going to jump to an oyster hatchery in Oregon to see how knowing the science of ocean acidification helps us.
About six years ago, some oyster hatcheries – commercial oyster farms – in the Pacific Northwest began to see an alarming decline in oyster production. Their oyster larvae were dying and they didn’t know why.
By 2008, the oyster harvest at Whiskey Creek, a major Oregon supplier to the majority of West Coast oyster farmers, plummeted 80 percent. At about the same time, scientists were documenting acidified seawater along the West Coast.
Something had to be done. Oyster production accounts for more than $84 million of the West Coast shellfish industry, which supports more than 3,000 jobs. The oyster hatchery owners needed to know why their oyster shells were dissolving in water.
Scientists in Oregon who were part of an international team studying ocean acidification thought that ocean acidification might be the culprit. First, you have to understand how the hatchery works. Water from the local bay is used to grow oyster larvae at the hatchery. During warmer months, the water is more acidic and oyster larvae were dying. Since ocean acidification is a relatively recent event, hatchery owners had only seen this lethal effect in recent years.
Once scientists determined that ocean acidification was a probable cause for their production problems, hatchery owners knew to ‘neutralize’ water during times when water was more acidic.
Today, real-time data from a network of offshore buoys that can detect harmful seawater acts as an early warning system for shellfish hatcheries. The buoys signal the approach of cold, acidified seawater one to two days before it arrives in the sensitive coastal waters where larvae are cultivated. The data help hatchery managers schedule production when water quality is good and avoid wasting valuable energy and other resources when water quality is poor.
Armed with better information about the ocean conditions that oysters can and cannot tolerate, Taylor Shellfish Farms was able to adapt its operations accordingly. Last year was its best year since 1989. Whiskey Creek also enjoyed substantial increases in its oyster harvest. In 2008, productivity for Whiskey Creek was at just 20 percent of its normal level; by 2010, it had risen to 70 percent.
Ocean acidification is an emerging global problem, particularly because shelled organisms like oysters and pteropods are key species in the marine food web. As human food and a source of income, shellfish also sustain many millions of people worldwide. Keeping an eye on changing ocean conditions through buoy networks and other sophisticated observing systems is paramount.
Ocean acidification is one of many changes we face in the world’s oceans today. In the United States, President Obama signed the first National Ocean Policy calling for actions that would ensure healthy oceans.
Science is about documenting what happening. We do this by observing in many ways: satellites in space, planes in the air, radar on the ground, buoys in the water, and gliders under the sea. Science is using those observations and basic scientific knowledge to build and constantly improve our understanding of what’s happening and how it’s happening. These are our models of how the Earth system works. And science can point us to solutions
I know that you’re serious about science. Come take a look at NOAA. We have an enormously wide range of career opportunities to explore. Whether you’re interested in weather, oceans, biology, ecology, physics, atmospheric science, microbiology, chemistry, or being an ocean explorer, NOAA could be a good fit for you.
We can’t do the science or develop the solutions without the people to do the science. I like to say that at NOAA people are our greatest asset.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco
Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere
and NOAA Administrator