Map showing water monitoring sites across the Northeast US
Ocean Acidification

Monitoring ocean acidification takes a village (or many!)

Research reviewed: Gassett, P. R., O’Brien-Clayton, K., Bastidas, C., Rheuban, J. E., Hunt, C., W., Turner, E., Liebman, M., Silva, E., Pimenta, A., R., Grear, Jason., Motyka, J., McCorkle, D., Stancioff, E., Brady, D., C., & Strong, A., L. (2021). Community Science for Coastal Acidification Monitoring and Research. Coastal Management, 49(5), 510–531.

An acidifying ocean

Marine microorganism with disformed, transparent shell due to ocean acidification
One of the impacts of acidification is that it causes thin, deformed shells in marine organisms. (Credit: NOAA, Flickr)

If you’ve found your way to Oceanbites, you’re probably familiar with the idea of ocean acidification. This is a large-scale ocean change, driven by increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere. As seawater absorbs CO2 (because yep, that’s a thing), it also creates carbonic acid. A certain amount of hydrogen ions busting out from that carbonic acid can be buffered, leaving ocean pH relatively unaltered. But here in the 21st century, we’ve overshot the CO2 limit and the result is an acidifying ocean.

That’s bad news, both for marine ecosystems and human communities. We don’t know the full extent of ocean acidification impacts, but we do know that more acidic ocean water is tough on corals, bivalves, echinoderms, and fish— even zooplankton struggle to survive in increasingly acidic waters. The negative effect of acidification on marine organisms ripples out to humans by disrupting seafood, tourism destinations, and coastal protection.

Though we know ocean acidification is happening, we don’t yet have a clear picture of how quickly it’s progressing at local scales. This is because local oceanographic influences— things like freshwater input, upwelling, or nutrient loading— influence the acidity and buffering capacity of seawater. We need a much finer-scale understanding of these patterns in order to know where ocean acidification is hitting the hardest. That fine-scale knowledge could also help local communities prepare for a more acidic ocean, and direct mitigation efforts that can push back against the increase in acidification.

There’s a problem: collecting ocean acidification data at the resolution and spatial scale that we need far exceeds the current reach of the traditional research workforce. Luckily, researchers working across the northeastern US are finding ways to think outside the boundaries of traditional research. The solution? Drawing on the power, reach, and passion of community science to strengthen ocean acidification monitoring and responses.

Community scientists train a lens on acidification

Image shows three people taking sand measurements at the beach
Community scientists pursue a number of beach and coastal monitoring projects. (Credit: Leitzel, Flickr)

Community science is scientific research carried out with participation from members of the public, as opposed to traditional research conducted solely by professionally-trained scientists.

Few community science projects are specifically dedicated to ocean acidification, at least in the northeastern US. Indeed, the equipment required to measure water samples for their carbonate chemistry— the gold standard for assessing acidification— are prohibitively expensive, and beyond the reach of most community science endeavors.

However, community science has a longstanding history of monitoring other aspects of water quality. Today, there are more than 1600 community science programs that actively monitor water quality. These programs are more common for freshwater systems than marine systems, it’s true, but they demonstrate that community science is capable of rigorous methods and a far geographic reach— both good things for filling the gaps in ocean acidification monitoring.

The only issue, then, is to make sure dedicated community scientists are trained up and provided with the gear they need to contribute to the ocean acidification monitoring cause. That is precisely what ocean acidification researchers working across the northeastern US sought to do.

Connecting community scientists 

Map showing water monitoring sites across the Northeast US
The northeastern US is dotted with community science ocean monitoring sites. (Credit: Gassett and O’Brien-Clayton, Storymaps)

Researchers began by making sure they knew the current state of marine-focused community science across the northeastern US, deploying on a regional survey to identify how various groups were pursuing ocean water monitoring, what their motivations were, and the obstacles and opportunities presented by their water monitoring work. From there, organizers rolled out a series of training activities— webinars, workshops, data collection tools and materials— to strengthen each group’s sampling efforts and to build a sense of collaboration among farflung groups. They capped their efforts with one big collection event, Shell Day (so named because of the impact acidifying seawater will have on shells of sea creatures). Shell Day demonstrated the power of coordinated community scientists, as volunteers all the way from Long Island to the tip of Maine headed to the coast for a synchronized sample collection event at low tide.

Researchers showed that, when properly trained and coordinated, community scientists have what it takes to track ocean acidification. Working as a northeast-wide network, these local scientists are able to fill gaps in existing ocean acidification data, helping to identify places where ocean acidification is progressing especially quickly. By drawing on the power of community science, we have an important tool to help us understand and respond to a global change.

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