No More Sea Shells by the Seashore -- New Evidence of the Impacts of Rising CO2 Levels


Sometimes I think the planet would be much better off without us. At least it would be much healthier.

Last week, I was eating a nice cup of New England clam chowder for lunch when a journal article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) came across my desk about a new study by Stony Brook University researchers Stephanie Talmage and Christopher Gobler.

The pair looked at how predicted increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere affect shellfish development, growth and survival. They also looked at levels that were around in preindustrial times and those we are experiencing today. What they found out was not good for the shellfish.

Suddenly my bowl of chowder took on new meaning.

The researchers used the Northern quahog, or hard clam, and the Atlantic bay scallop, two economically- and ecologically-significant shellfish. As the photos indicate, those clams and scallops that were grown in pre-industrial conditions displayed significantly faster growth and development and had higher survival rates compared to those grown in today's conditions. In addition, the shells of "tomorrow's shellfish" (those grown under conditions scientists predict we'll encounter later this century) were malformed and eroded.

But wait, there's more! Scientists call acidification of the oceans the hidden partner of climate change. As CO2 levels rise, the water becomes more acidic and the amount of carbonate (needed to make calcium carbonate -- the compound that most shellfish and corals use to build their shells and skeletons) decreases. Eventually there is so little carbonate that shells or skeletons don't form properly or can't form at all. Talmage and Gobler's results suggest that current CO2 levels, which are already increasing the acidity of ocean water, may be contributing to the global decline of some shellfish.

To those who dismiss the impacts of carbon dioxide on our planet, think again. According to Gobler:

People have traditionally assumed that the problems of fossil fuel burning will manifest themselves at some distant time in the future... The truth is that the 30% increase in atmospheric and ocean CO2 levels which has occurred since the 19th century has already significantly impacted the chemistry and biology of our oceans.

I read the study on the heels of participating in the New Green City Fair at Union Square, where some colleagues and I handed out educational materials and talked to people about our programs, which advocate a conservation ethic. At one point a guy came up to the table and tried very diligently to dismiss every point we had to make. He was much more concerned about the efficiency of production and cost effectiveness of our current industrial systems than with any sense of a need to conserve. With regards to our campaign to get power plants to update their cooling systems, he said that it really doesn't matter if the fish around power plant water intake structures are sucked into or otherwise maimed or killed by those structures and that their impacts will be minimal on the surrounding ecosystem. As for eating less meat, he was certain that there should be a hamburger on every table and asked, if we're so concerned about saving water what would happen to everyone's hamburger, and besides why should anyone in New York City bother to conserve water anyway?


I sighed, probably a little too audibly, reluctantly climbed up onto my soap box and told him all about how ecosystems are connected and how we get our water from a system that is up in the mountains far away from the city and how any place is subject to water shortages and droughts at any time and really, why wouldn't you want to develop a conservation ethic? He didn't say much, just sort of muttered, "Yeah, well, I uh... " and wandered away.

I think the guy doesn't like being told what to do, and he perceived that we were there to take away his personal freedoms. Thankfully, most people at the fair were more receptive, but it was a frustrating discussion to have, mostly because while he was arguing for personal freedom, he was also arguing for keeping his head in the sand (which works well for clams but not so much for people). There is just no denying that conditions on the planet are changing, and it stands to reason that many of those changes will eventually impact us, just as they do other species.

On a personal level, I'm not ready to give up chowder. Are you?

So what do we do? Scientists say that a CO2 level of 350 parts per million (ppm) is the upper limit of what is considered safe (as of August 2010 we were just below 390 ppm), where we can stabilize the planet and prevent disaster. Bill McKibben, the mastermind behind the 350 campaign, is demanding that our political leaders first acknowledge that climate change is happening, and then take actions that will bring atmospheric CO2 levels back to 350ppm, and McKibben has thousands, maybe millions, of people behind him.

Check out 350 for a list of actions you can take at the local level. In fact, Global Work Party Action Day is coming up on October 10 (10/10/10!). Check it out and find out what you can do to reduce CO2 and save the shellfish and, well, us. Because what's good for the clams is good for the planet.