The Washington Post

Washington state confronts ocean acidification

Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) ordered state agencies on Tuesday to take steps to address the ocean’s increasing acidity, making it the first state to adopt a policy to take on what scientists describe as a growing environmental concern.

Ocean acidification poses a threat to the state’s $270 million shellfish industry, as well as to critical habitat off its shores.

The order signed by Gregoire, whose term will end in January, calls on the state to invest more money in scientific research, curb nutrient runoff from land, and push for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions on a regional, national and global scale. It accepts the recommendations that a blue-ribbon panel issued Tuesday on how to assess and limit the effects of ocean acidification. The group was co-chaired by former Environmental Protection Agency administrator William D. Ruckelshaus and former Gregoire chief of staff Jay Manning.

“Let’s get to work,” Gregoire told an audience at the Seattle Aquarium, adding that she would propose that the legislature reallocate $3.3 million in state funding to pay for research and other actions. “Let’s lead the world in addressing this global challenge.”

Ocean acidification stems from the sea’s absorption of human-generated carbon emissions. The ocean absorbs 30 percent of the carbon dioxide put into the air through fossil-fuel burning. This triggers a chemical reaction that produces hydrogen, thereby lowering the water’s pH.

The ocean is becoming more acidic worldwide, but certain regions are affected more than others because local factors such as ocean currents or farm runoff can intensify the impact. Washington state policymakers have focused on the problem for several years because increasingly corrosive waters off the state’s shores threaten oyster-farming operations.

“Washington’s moving not by choice but out of necessity,” Manning said in an interview. “Ocean acidification came and found us.”

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Administrator Jane Lubchenco, who said she expects other coastal states to follow suit in the coming years, praised Washington for “seizing this issue and really wrestling with what can be done.”

California has commissioned a panel on ocean acidification, and officials in states including Alaska, Maryland and Oregon are studying its impact.

Scientists are just beginning to document how the change in the ocean’s pH — which is 0.1 lower, or 30 percent more acidic, than pre-industrial levels — is affecting marine organisms worldwide.

On Sunday, American and British researchers published a study in the journal Nature Geoscience showing that the shells of snails essential to the marine food web are dissolving off Antarctica because of more corrosive seas.

“We simply cannot sit idly by while this happens,” Ruckelshaus said of ocean acidification. He added in an interview that it will be difficult to implement some of the panel’s recommendations.

“The hardest thing to do is the thing we’ve been trying to do for decades: try to control runoff from land,” he said. “We haven’t figured out as a nation how to do that.”

Jay Inslee (D), who will become Washington’s governor on Jan. 16, expressed support Tuesday for Gregoire’s actions.

Inslee spokesman Sterling Clifford wrote in an e-mail: “We know that the leading cause of ocean acidification is carbon pollution, and Governor-Elect Inslee is committed to reducing carbon pollution in Washington and setting an example for other states to follow.”

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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