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Ocean Acidification Program News

Waters Vast and Cold: NOAA and Partners Sail to the Gulf of Alaska to Study Ocean Acidification

NOAA Ocean Acidification Program

Waters Vast and Cold: NOAA and Partners Sail to the Gulf of Alaska to study ocean acidification

The waters of Alaska are vast, cold and vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification. Although these effects have been characterized in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, on Tuesday July 14 NOAA and partners will depart to survey new waters in the Gulf of Alaska. Researchers from NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) and University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) will set sail on the NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown to survey ocean chemistry and its connections to the base of the food web in the Gulf of Alaska.  

The NOAA ship Ronald H. Brown left port from Seattle on Tuesday July 14th and will make its way to the Gulf of Alaska, where scientists on board will collect data on ocean chemistry and organisms at the base of the marine food web to better understand ocean acidification and its effects. Photo credit: NOAA

“This cruise offers the unique opportunity for data to be collected throughout the Gulf of Alaska,” said Dr. Jessica Cross, chief scientist for this expedition, “This will be the first broad scale, comprehensive survey in this area.”

Ocean acidification is the decrease in pH and carbonate ions in seawater due to an increased amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, a portion of which ultimately ends up in the ocean. High latitude, cold waters like those in the Gulf of Alaska can hold more carbon dioxide, making them vulnerable to the effects of ocean acidification. To understand ocean acidification, scientists on board will measure the carbonate chemistry of Alaskan waters, including the amount of carbon dioxide and carbonate ions in the water. The carbonate ion is a building block for organisms with shells or skeletons like plankton (microscopic plants or animals), crabs and corals.  One of the microscopic organisms found in these waters is the pteropod, a sea snail, which commercial fish species, such as salmon feed on.   
“Scientists can see the impacts of current day carbon conditions on the shells of pteropods by measuring the dissolution of their shells,” Dr. Shallin Busch, a Research Ecologist at the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program and Northwest Fisheries Science Center explains.
The team from University of Alaska will be looking at the distribution of pteropods and other microscopic plants (phytoplankton) and animals (zooplankton) during the survey.  Zooplankton in Alaskan waters support many fisheries, including salmon harvested in Alaskan waters and waters off the U.S. West Coast. Salmon populations from both regions live in Alaska’s ocean waters for part of their life cycle.  Animals such as sea birds and mammals also eat zooplankton Scientists continue to collect plankton in some parts of the Gulf of Alaska to understand how their distribution is affected by climate, but they have not collected such data from the entire Gulf in decades.

Scientists will be at sea for two weeks to conduct an ocean acidification survey of Gulf of Alaska waters.  The blue dots show where scientists plan on collecting chemical and biological data. Photo credit: NOAA
“By looking at much bigger expanses of these waters, we might see a relationship between the distribution of these organisms and the chemistry or physical properties of the water,” said Dr. Russell Hopcroft, professor at the University of Alaska.  “This could allow us to see big patterns in composition or abundance of organisms and the chemistry of the water in which they are found.”

“This is the first time that broad-scale sampling to characterize the carbonate landscape in the Gulf of Alaska will be done, and it is really exciting that the cruise will simultaneously quantitatively sample plankton We need broad-scale biological monitoring to go along with the carbonate chemistry sampling  to understand how ocean acidification may change ecosystems ” said Dr. Busch. “We still don’t have enough information to know exactly which organisms are sensitive to shifts in ocean chemistry in Alaskan waters, but by collecting this data set now we will be able to look back at a future date and see what has changed and determine what good indicators of change may be.”
Another aspect of the cruise is to look forward. The chemical data collected on this cruise, particularly in waters in the eastern Gulf, will be used to refine models to predict carbonate chemistry shifts in this region.
“There are important invertebrate fisheries such as bottom-dwelling geoducks, razor clams, and a crabs in the Eastern Gulf of Alaska, said Dr. Samantha Siedlecki, a research scientist at JISAO, “and we don’t have a good idea of the chemistry in this area.” 
The data collected on this cruise will allow scientists at University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean (JISAO) to make more accurate predictions of future conditions of the Gulf of Alaska. 
 “Alaska has a rich tradition of using a truly integrated research approach to study ecosystems,” said Dr. Cross, “The multidisciplinary approach on this survey will give us a comprehensive chemical to biological perspective across a large area of the Gulf of Alaska.  This cruise is an exciting opportunity and we hope to see this kind of approach become a standard in the future.”


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The NOAA Ocean Acidification Program (OAP) works to prepare society to adapt to the consequences of ocean acidification and conserve marine ecosystems as acidification occurs. Learn more about the human connections and adaptation strategies from these efforts.

Adaptation approaches fostered by the OAP include:


Using models and research to understand the sensitivity of organisms and ecosystems to ocean acidification to make predictions about the future, allowing communities and industries to prepare


Using these models and predictions as tools to facilitate management strategies that will protect marine resources and communities from future changes


Developing innovative tools to help monitor ocean acidification and mitigate changing ocean chemistry locally


On the Road

Drive fuel-efficient vehicles or choose public transportation. Choose your bike or walk! Don't sit idle for more than 30 seconds. Keep your tires properly inflated.

With your Food Choices

Eat local- this helps cut down on production and transport! Reduce your meat and dairy. Compost to avoid food waste ending up in the landfill

With your Food Choices

Make energy-efficient choices for your appliances and lighting. Heat and cool efficiently! Change your air filters and program your thermostat, seal and insulate your home, and support clean energy sources

By Reducing Coastal Acidification

Reduce your use of fertilizers, Improve sewage treatment and run off, and Protect and restore coastal habitats

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You've taken the first step to learn more about ocean acidification - why not spread this knowledge to your community?

Every community has their unique culture, economy and ecology and what’s at stake from ocean acidification may be different depending on where you live.  As a community member, you can take a larger role in educating the public about ocean acidification. Creating awareness is the first step to taking action.  As communities gain traction, neighboring regions that share marine resources can build larger coalitions to address ocean acidification.  Here are some ideas to get started:

  1. Work with informal educators, such as aquarium outreach programs and local non-profits, to teach the public about ocean acidification. Visit our Education & Outreach page to find the newest tools!
  2. Participate in habitat restoration efforts to restore habitats that help mitigate the effects of coastal acidification
  3. Facilitate conversations with local businesses that might be affected by ocean acidification, building a plan for the future.
  4. Partner with local community efforts to mitigate the driver behind ocean acidification  – excess CO2 – such as community supported agriculture, bike & car shares and other public transportation options.
  5. Contact your regional Coastal Acidification Network (CAN) to learn how OA is affecting your region and more ideas about how you can get involved in your community
       More for Taking Community Action