The path to Cape Flattery is a twisty, moss-carpeted tunnel underneath red cedar and Douglas fir trees that crowd Washington state’s rugged coastline. Micah McCarty scrambles down the forest trail to a shoreline below, leaping across tide pools and slippery rocks to a point where waves break on shellfish beds. We’ve reached the northwesternmost point of the U.S. mainland, a craggy tip of the Olympic Peninsula that belongs to the Makah tribe.
This group of Native Americans has been fishing and harvesting here for the past 2,000 years. McCarty, the tribe’s 42-year-old former chairman, pulls out a pocket knife and squats down to scrape a handful of mussels and barnacles into his hand. “We call them slippers and boots,” he says. “I’ll make them into a Makah paella tonight.”
McCarty and his family grew up picking these marine delights along the coast. Oysters, clams, cockles, barnacles, and other types of mollusks and shellfish have always been part of the Makah diet, as well as the tribe’s culture. The shells are used both as beads in ceremonial regalia and as musical instruments. But now, changes in the global climate have led to rising ocean acidification that has put in peril the future of the Makah harvest.
Unlike other problems caused by CO2, ocean acidification is spurring some action, possibly because the effects are so visibly tied to the cause. “With climate change there’s often a schism between scientists and those who flat out don’t want to believe it,” says Green. “It’s hard to get a man to believe something if his job depends on not believing it.” But in this case, he says, it’s the people in the industry who are leading awareness. “Talk to shellfish clammers—the guys who dig—and every one of them is on board, especially the old timers. They have seen over the years the populations go from incredibly productive to virtually disappearing in many cases.” One bit of anecdotal evidence diggers have reported is clams with thinner shells—so thin, they say, that sometimes it’s not possible to fill bushel baskets to the top because the fragile shells at the bottom will be crushed.
It is ironic that despite relatively progressive clean energy policies the West Coast is paying an unusually high price for global carbon emissions. Ocean water off the Pacific coast has absorbed so much carbon that it is becoming acidic enough to melt the shells of sea creatures. Our national and global addiction to fossil fuel and unwillingness to seriously reduce carbon emissions is taking its toll, right here, in real time, with profound implications for the Pacific Ocean.
Mr. WHITEHOUSE. Mr. President, there are many signs of the fundamental, measurable changes we are causing in the Earth's climate, mainly through our large-scale emission of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels. These are irreversible changes, at least in the short run, so we should take them very seriously.
Over the last 250 years, the global annual average concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 280 parts per million to 390 parts per million. That is a 30-percent increase. We have recent direct measurements that the carbon dioxide concentration increased by 15 percent since 1980 when it was 339. In 1980 it was 339 and now it is 390. That is just a dozen years in which the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has increased by more than 50 parts per million. Fifty parts per million is a big shift if one is not aware of the scales we are talking about here. For 8,000 centuries--800,000 years--longer than homo sapiens have existed on the face of the Earth, we can measure that the carbon concentration in the atmosphere has fluctuated between 170 and 300 parts per million. A total range of 130 parts per million has been the total range for 8,000 centuries. We are now outside of that range up to 390, and we have moved 50 points since 1980, in a number of decades. So the consequences are going to be profound, and perhaps no consequence of that carbon pollution will be as profound as the increasing acidification of the world's oceans.
The world's oceans are absorbing carbon dioxide at an unprecedented rate and the resulting acidification is transforming marine ecosystems. Hari Sreenivasan reports on how ocean acidification is already affecting oysters and other shellfish in the U.S.