Marine scientists gather for a hearing on top threats to the California coast
Many of the critical threats to the California coast and the ocean environment—such as sea-level rise, ocean acidification, and toxic run-off—are causing harm incrementally over the course of decades. Meanwhile, large-scale response and prevention initiatives by the government to these accumulating, long-term hazards—called “adaptation”—are substantially hindered, largely due to the relatively shorter time frames in which government and politics operate.
To help close the divide between the scientific community's input about the most pressing coastal threats and the ability of lawmakers to form policies that effectively address them, Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Monterey Bay) held an informational hearing entitled “Threats to the Pacific Ocean,” on Tuesday, Oct. 22 at the Long Marine Lab Seymour Center.
The event featured presentations from some of the Monterey Bay Area's top marine scientists, who gave comprehensive appeals about their concerns while Stone and members of the community listened intently.
“Political timelines are much shorter than what it takes to address these big environmental issues, so I'm very interested in that adaptation question,” Stone tells GT.
The committee's concerns related to the whole California coastline, with some emphasis on the Monterey Bay.
Gary Griggs, director for the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz, led the hearing with a breakdown of the historical and current threats of rising sea levels and the potential for future El Niño storms to wreak havoc on infrastructure along the coast.
Sea level will rise six inches in the next 30 years and go up five and a half feet by the year 2100, he reported.
“We can't keep fighting the water,” he told the audience.
Francisco Chavez, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, shed light on how significantly the Earth has been modified by the burning of fossil fuels.
He explained that the ocean and the terrestrial environment are absorbing about half of the human-generated carbon dioxide emitted.
“Over the last hour that we've been sitting here,” he said, “the ocean has taken up about a million tons of C02.”
This prompted muffled gasps from the audience.
The absorption of carbon dioxide is causing the sea's acidity level to increase at a disturbing rate, the long-term effects of which, Chavez stated, are not well known.
Pre-industrial acidity levels in the oceans were recorded at 8.2 to 8.1 pH units, but have given way to an increase of about 30 percent.
Values of 7.8 to 7.9 are anticipated by the year 2100, representing an approximate doubling of the acidity level, according to his presentation.
What is known so far, Chavez said, is that the acidification is causing the dissolution of corals, a decrease in the ocean's oxygen levels, and an increase in the levels of C02 in deep water.
Russell Flegal, professor with the Department of Microbiology and Environmental Toxicology at UCSC, provided some context for the threats posed by mercury toxins found in fish, which directly result from industrial processes like mining and fossil fuel combustion.
“Most of the mercury in the rainwater in the Bay Area comes from fossil fuel combustion in China,” he said.
Flegal expects mercury poisoning, called “Minamata disease” after the Japanese city it was first discovered in during the mid '50s, to be an increasingly serious problem in California.
Annually, he said, about 300,000 women in the United States give birth to children who will potentially have neurological problems due to their mother's consumption of fish containing mercury.
Considering fish is a “brain food” and helps to raise the consumer's IQ, but can also threaten the neurological functions of a mother's unborn child, he joked that some people will be torn between keeping fish on the dinner table and abstaining.
After the laughter this scenario induced died down, Flegal made a strong case for women of childbearing age to eat only fish species that have relatively low levels of mercury.
Raphael Kudela, a professor with the Department of Ocean Sciences at UCSC, told the audience that, in the past decade, red tides—which result from the rapid accumulation, or bloom, of microscopic algae—have been on the rise along the California coast. And while the tides are often non-toxic, research has found that algal blooms can help feed other harmful toxic pathogens.
The resulting toxins are turning up in sea life such as muscles and oysters, which are, in turn, causing otters to die after feeding on them, he said.
One major factor impeding adaptation efforts on the state and federal levels is the fact that the country is just emerging from the Great Recession.
Organizations are severely limited in staff capacity and finances, not just to make projects happen, but to even begin planning and assessing what the risks are, said committee speaker Susanne Moser, a social science research fellow at Stanford University's Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.
To address these issues and implement effective adaptation plans, Moser tells GT, it is crucial that governments on the city, county, state, and federal levels all work together and support one another's efforts. Currently, adaptation is happening mostly on the local level, but the issues are of such great magnitude that they require larger scale collaborations, she says.
Both the City of Santa Cruz and Santa Cruz County have Climate Adaptation Plans in place that extend into the next two decades, but for the most part, local governments in California have not been able to implement adaptation measures.
The majority of the efforts taking place currently are toward “readying the political playing field,” “priming a working stage,” and “ building capacity” in order to get plans in motion.
“There is not a heck of a lot of action—yet,” Moser says.
“We need to set up a process for ongoing learning,” Moser said at the event. “We need to figure out how to create policies under conditions of uncertainty and increasing pressures, as well as proceed carefully to avoid doing things that make our situation worse. It requires a lot of thinking and a lot of public debate to decide what we are aiming for.”
But first, she says, it is crucial that governments operate with a longer view into the future and have the capacity to confront the problems that wait there.
“We make five-year plans; we make one-year budgets; we think about the next election cycle,” Moser says. “Maybe some strategic plans are made for 10 years, maybe 15 years, but they're pretty general policy ... These [big environmental] problems exist in a much larger time frame.”
Stone, who chairs the Assembly Select Committee on Coastal Protection, says that his current goal is to become informed on the issues, and then begin formulating policies that position state resources so that they are available for local jurisdictions and programs that protect the coastline and ocean.
“That connection between science and policy is often tenuous, and getting effective policy can be very difficult,” he says. “That conversation between policy makers and the science community isn't always the easiest thing, and this [event] is a way to facilitate that. Getting the scientists here, and to talk about what they see as the main issues and the impediments to getting those issues solved—that gives us a way to tackle it from a policy perspective.”
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