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Originally published May 28, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified May 29, 2008 at 4:04 PM

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Cantwell, Inslee focus on increasing acidity of oceans at Seattle hearing

Move over, global warming. There's a new environmental anxiety on the block: more acidic oceans. Days after scientists announced finding unusually...

Seattle Times environment reporter

Move over, global warming. There's a new environmental anxiety on the block: more acidic oceans.

Days after scientists announced finding unusually acidic ocean water in shallow areas off the West Coast, Sen. Maria Cantwell and a fellow Washington Democrat, Rep. Jay Inslee, on Tuesday sought to put the issue on the political center stage.

Sitting before a school of coho salmon in a giant tank at the Seattle Aquarium, Cantwell hosted a hearing about climate change, ocean acidification and its effects on Puget Sound and the ocean.

"From an acidification standpoint, the ocean is on fire," declared Inslee, whom Cantwell invited to the forum.

Inslee has long pushed for regulations tackling climate change. Tuesday, he latched onto acidification as a problem that even global-warming skeptics can't deny, thanks to its relatively simple, undisputed science: Parts of the ocean have grown more acidic, as excess carbon dioxide generated by fossil fuels reacts with saltwater, creating carbonic acid.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are also blamed for global warming, by trapping heat inside the Earth's atmosphere.

It's less clear, however, what acidification means for the complex networks of predators and prey that underpin saltwater ecosystems such as Puget Sound.

"We don't know at this point what the impacts will be," said Terrie Klinger, a University of Washington researcher in the School of Marine Affairs. "In my own opinion, they're very unpredictable at this point."

Still, there are reasons for concern, Klinger and other scientists warned. A 2007 survey found ocean water rising toward the surface along the West Coast that was acidic enough to gradually dissolve the shells of tiny creatures, which are the food source for many other marine animals.

Christopher Sabine, one of the scientists who led that research, said even if acidification doesn't kill animals outright, it could stunt their ability to grow or reproduce.

What's not known is how animals will adapt to changing ocean conditions, and whether other creatures might replace ones less suited to more-acidic water, said Sabine, a chemical oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle.

The problem of ocean acidification has been known for several years, but Sabine said observers hadn't expected to see it in relatively shallow water for another 50 years.

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"The potential biological consequences of these new findings need to be assessed immediately," he said. "We are finding it happening today right outside our back door."

The West Coast could be particularly vulnerable, because the currents that move seawater around the globe bring more-acidic water close to the surface here.

It encounters shallow ocean water made more acidic by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Sabine said.

The potential threats hit home for Brett Bishop, co-owner of a family shellfish growing business in south Puget Sound, between Olympia and Shelton.

He said he fears what acidification, combined with other potential impacts of climate change, could do to his business.

"I heard about it last week; I haven't forgotten about it since," Bishop testified at the hearing. "I am scared."

Inslee and Cantwell are co-sponsors of legislation that would boost funding for more research.

Ed Miles, a professor and leader of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, said he and colleagues are working to create a center at the marine lab in Friday Harbor to study acidification in the north Pacific Ocean.

Miles said policymakers need to prepare to adapt to the potential effects of climate change as well. Possible effects in Puget Sound include rising sea levels, warmer water temperatures, decreasing water supplies in streams during the summer, and weakened salmon runs.

"We cannot afford to focus just on ocean acidification, as massive and as shocking as it is," he said.

Warren Cornwall: 206-464-2311 or wcornwall@seattletimes.com

A story published on May 28, 2008 was clarified on May 29. A story about a Senate field hearing in Seattle concerning ocean acidification and global warming was unclear in referring to acidic oceans. Parts of the oceans are becoming more acidic as a result of saltwater reacting with carbon dioxide. But the oceans are still slightly alkaline, meaning they have a pH higher than 7. However they have grown less alkaline ­­- more acidic - which is why the phenomenon is called ocean acidification.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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