“O Oysters,” said the Carpenter, “you’ve had a pleasant run!”


Tuesday saw the release of Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States. It represents the consensus of thirteen federal agencies and is considerably more current, as far as it goes, than the last IPCC report.

It is difficult to imagine how the website could have been made any clumsier to navigate, try as they might. (It was one hot mess on release day, but seems to be getting a little better every day.) It is for that reason that I quote so much of the report below.

Here are the Key Findings

1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced. Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.

2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow. Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snowmelt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow.

3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase. Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change.

4. Climate change will stress water resources. Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snowpack are important in the West and Alaska where snowpack provides vital natural water storage.

5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged. Agriculture is considered one of the sectors most adaptable to changes in climate. However, increased heat, pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production.

6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge. Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected.

7. Threats to human health will increase. Health impacts of climate change are related to heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts.

8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses. Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone.

9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems. There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected.

10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today. The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable.

The GCIUS report is lavishly illustrated with the usual foretastes of hell. For instance, I probably won’t be taking the grandkids fishing in my dotage, at least not fishing as I used to know it.

Here is a video of the White House event announcing release of the document, with a Q & A period at the end. I’m afraid it is 56 minutes long, but I repost it here because you don’t see many clips anywhere else.

And that is a great shame, because John Holdren and every other speaker, especially the brilliant Jane Lubchenco, went to great pains to hammer home the facts that while climate change is affecting us now, it is not too late to head off the worst futures and that the quicker we act, the better our future will be. No one said it better than Lubchenco, who begins at about minute 5. (Still my favorite Obama appointee.)

This report stresses that climate change has immediate and local impacts. It literally affects people in their backyards. . . . . Trends are not destiny.

In a sane world, this would be an hour long presentation on American television, and I would know far less about the president’s golf game, the inane, irrelevant opinions of Charles Krauthammer and Peggy Noonan, Chris Mathews and Keith Olbermann for that matter, or Sarah Palin’s latest episode of projectile vomiting. What little media coverage I have seen would embarrass the author of a fourth grade book report with its headlines about Hope and plenty of time. Yes, presuming we act, something that seems to escape the notice of Media, Inc.

These are quite literally our best and brightest, yet their opinions are not even considered worth noting on the nightly news or in the increasingly irrelevant “political” blogs.

Sections of the report discuss impacts organized by geographic region and by sector (agriculture, human health, etc.) Looking for “ocean acidification,” this is what I found:

In the sector Ecosystems, under the subheading Coasts:

But rising temperature is not the only stress coral reefs face. As the carbon dioxide concentration in the air increases, more carbon dioxide is absorbed into the world’s oceans, leading to their acidification. This makes less calcium carbonate available for corals and other sea life to build their skeletons and shells. If carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise and the resulting acidification proceeds, eventually, corals and other ocean life that rely on calcium carbonate will not be able to build these skeletons and shells at all. The implications of such extreme changes in ocean ecosystems are not clear, but there is now evidence that in some ocean areas, such as along the Northwest coast, acidification is already occurring.

In the portion of Regional Climate Impacts devoted to Coasts:

In addition to carbon dioxide’s heat-trapping effect, the increase in its concentration in the atmosphere is gradually acidifying the ocean. About one-third of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities has been absorbed by the ocean, resulting in a decrease in the ocean’s pH. Since the beginning of the industrial era, ocean pH has declined demonstrably and is projected to decline much more by 2100 if current emissions trends continue. Further declines in pH are very likely to continue to affect the ability of living things to create and maintain shells or skeletons of calcium carbonate. This is because at a lower pH less of the dissolved carbon is available as carbonate ions.

Ocean acidification will affect living things including important plankton species in the open ocean, mollusks and other shellfish, and corals. The effects on reef-building corals are likely to be particularly severe during this century. Coral calcification rates are likely to decline by more than 30 percent under a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, with erosion outpacing reef formation at even lower concentrations. In addition, the reduction in pH also affects photosynthesis, growth, and reproduction. The upwelling of deeper ocean water, deficient in carbonate, and thus potentially detrimental to the food chains supporting juvenile salmon has recently been observed along the U.S. West Coast.

Acidification imposes yet another stress on reef-building corals, which are also subject to bleaching – the expulsion of the microscopic algae that live inside the corals and are essential to their survival – as a result of heat stress. As a result of these and other stresses, the corals that form the reefs in the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Pacific Islands are projected to be lost if carbon dioxide concentrations continue to rise at their current rate.

That ain’t much on a subject about which dozens of papers have been written in the last year, and which appears to be landing on us much faster than anyone thought. That is not a criticism of the authors of the report. After all it is already almost two hundred pages; they are to be applauded for attempting to cover so much and to relate it all in plain English. It is rather a reflection of just how manifold and various these impacts are.

How about a closer look at how acidification effects one little corner of the country, and a $111 million industry?

(Life cycle of the Pacific oyster. Adults are male and female – although that’s a little dicey too, fit for one of Miss D’s steamier Sex in the Wild Kingdom posts – and release sperm and eggs willy-nilly. The fertilized egg develops into the trocophore larva.)

For the fifth year in a row, Pacific oyster larvae in the northwest are failing to set, that is, to form a foot, attach to substrate, and grow a shell. They are dying first instead. An excellent recent article by Craig Welch in the Seattle Times is being widely reprinted: Oysters in deep trouble: Is Pacific Ocean’s chemistry killing sea life? strongly suggests that upwellings of acidified water are the cause. Rather than parsing it here, I simply strongly encourage you to read it for yourself.

For the first time since his grandfather started the company in 1934, Sheldon plans this year to spend thousands buying oyster seed — larvae attached to shells — from hatcheries, rather than counting solely on wild reproduction. He expects he’ll make only half as much as he would in a normal year.

“It perplexes me that we are still, as a country, and really, globally, denying that there is something going on,” he said. “I don’t have the background in the natural sciences to tell you it’s one thing or the other. I can just say that over the last 10 years it’s clear to me … something’s changing. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

There is an interesting ongoing critique of this article as “science journalism.” It seems to me that the typical reader of the Times knows she is reading primarily a human interest/business failure story, with speculation as to the cause of the oyster collapse, and not a peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Biogegraphy. It can also be read as a detective mystery, one explanation after another being ruled out until the only one left has to be true.

Further, where was all this criticism last year, when the bacterium Vibrio tubiashii was presumed to be the cause? It has currently been ruled out as as least the sole or primary cause, as the current article explains. Even when it is filtered out, reproductive rates are still far below normal at hatcheries using fresh seawater, although it is notable that its numbers explode under acidic conditions, adding to the problem.

Finally, a reporter can surely be forgiven for accepting the opinion of NOAA researchers who have studied the case as having some merit, even without checking with Senator Inhofe first.

NOAA oceanographer Chris Sabine:

But this is not something that’s off in the future. This is not something for our children’s children. It’s happening now.


Trailer for the film A Sea Change:


Further Reading:

Shellfish Face Uncertain Future in High CO2 World: Influence of Acidification on Oyster Larvae Calcification and Growth in Estuaries reaches the extremely preliminary conclusions typical of all current studies on the subject:

Our results suggest that temperate estuarine and coastal ecosystems are vulnerable to the expected changes in water chemistry due to elevated atmospheric CO2 and that biological responses to acidification, especially calcifying biota, will be species-specific and therefore much more variable and complex than reported previously.

Evidence for Upwelling of Corrosive “Acidified” Water onto the Continental Shelf presents irrefutable evidence for the same type of upwelling discussed in the Times article. and is cited repeatedly in the GCIUS report (Reference 259).

Shellfish Reefs at Risk documents that 85% of the world’s oyster reefs have already been destroyed by other factors. While all eyes are on the coral reefs, the few remaining temperate mollusk reefs are disappearing in “our back yard” as Lubchenco would have it, and we remain oblivious.

Anticipating ocean acidification’s economic consequences for commercial fisheries gives a good idea of the difficulty of getting a handle on the real economic costs involved, particularly the knock-on effects. Repeats the common guesstimate that a ten percent loss of mollusks leads to a twenty percent loss in fish weight in salmon and other commercial fish that feed on the larvae.


The only two foods I can think of whose names remain the same from the heyday of ancient Greece til now are the oyster (ὄστρεον) and asparagus (ἀσπάραγος) – but there are surely others. Testament to an undying popularity and maybe the unshakeable belief in the aphrodisiac properties of both? That last is a bit odd – and this ties in with Miss D’s interest in the sexual oddities of the animal kingdom – in view of the fact that most oysters, including the Pacific, start out as male and at some point later in life make the transition to female. The transformation is total, each individual going from releasing viable sperm to releasing viable eggs. It is hard to believe that devotees of oysters as male aphrodisiacs in particular would embrace them as a dietary item if they were aware of these facts.

Asparagus has problems of its own involving odors and aftertastes we needn’t go into in detail. But ambience is everything in these matters. Consider the harvest, with its rambles through the riparian brush, lots of bending over and crouching, and the sweat worked up. Enough to excite a number of appetites. Maybe it is the same with oysters.


16 Responses to ““O Oysters,” said the Carpenter, “you’ve had a pleasant run!””

  1. cometman Says:

    If you haven’t already seen it, check out Encounters at the End of the World. Another tremendous documentary from Werner Herzog. Beautiful cinematography and it touches on a few of the issues you’ve discussed here recently – even gay penguins, believe it or not. That was one of the funnier scenes in the film. The researcher Herzog talks to about it didn’t seem all that amused.

  2. artemis54 Says:

    The squid overlords are in a way the ultimate expression of a theme that’s always appealed: predator/prey relationships that seem against nature at least to us. Kind of paybacks between groups, like a praying mantis eating hummingbirds, or shrimp that eat fish.

    Our growing season here really got delayed by cold soggy weather too. Hardly any tomatoes at the farmer’s market yesterday. The honey lady wasn’t there either. She’s my source of info around here, knows everyone, so I have to catch up with her to see what’s really going on.

  3. cometman Says:

    Oh, and one more thing (can’t seem to collect my thoughts into one post and I’m not even drinking on a Saturday night).

    One of the reasons that we chose the cephalopod theme for our blog was because we had joked around at a now deceased blog about which animals would take over after people screwed up the planet. Squid are very intelligent and thrive in warmer waters. In recent years, Humboldt squid have proliferated in huge numbers off the coast of California. They are big, mean, swim in large packs and are very hungry. I saw a TV show about them which talked about a couple fishermen who fell in the water into a group of them and were so chewed up that dental records were needed to identify the bodies. Here’s an article about them.

    Meet your future Overlords

  4. cometman Says:

    Here’s a crustacean-related sexual oddity for you: Size Did Matter: Evidence Of Giant Sperm Found In Microfossils.

    The mystery of giant sperm present in some living animal groups today has now taken on a new dimension — in one group of micro-crustaceans new evidence shows that it is a feature at least 100 million years old.


    A human sperm would have to be over 17 meters long in order to measure up against one group of modern ostracods, whose sperm are up to ten times as big as the animals themselves.

    17 meter long human sperm would be kind of a turn off for most women I’d think – kinda like being injected with a tapeworm every time you bump uglies. 🙂

  5. cometman Says:

    Not sure why we are still debating the issue of global climate change when at this point about all you have to do to realize something is seriously screwed up is to look out the damn window. The weather has been very strange in the Northeast in recent years. The old saw in New England (and probably everywhere) is “If you don’t like the weather here, just wait a minute”. Well lately weather patterns have been hanging around for weeks. It’s been cool and rainy here for a few weeks now and I’m about to plant the lettuce and spinach in my garden for the third time now in an attempt to get the seeds to sprout. Same thing last year and the year before – the first three years I’ve had a garden at our house. I spoke with some neighbors at a BBQ today and found they were all having the same problem. Plants that were started in a greenhouse and then transplanted are doing OK but the weather is just to cold and wet to get the seeds to sprout when planted directly in the ground and that should NOT be the case at this time of year. Interesting parallel to the oyster farmer you mentioned in your post who was having to buy oyster seed because the natural processes weren’t working anymore. Might not seem like much when it’s just your own small garden, but when you realize others are having the same problem you have to figure that the larger farmers are having similar problems too.

    • cometman Says:

      Meant to add that Kumamoto oysters from WA State had been a big seller in recent years in this neck of the woods but after reading your article it occurred to me that I haven’t seen any being ordered recently. Going to have to check and see if it’s because other types are being used instead or there just aren’t any Kumamotos around right now.

  6. artemis54 Says:

    Off topic – Ha! – but I am curious how you feel about oysters as a food item.

    I have very little interest in them raw, or cold. For me, the flavor comes out when they are cooked. That can be sauteed a la Ivar’s at the pier in wine, butter, garlic, or rolled in cracker crumbs and pepper and quickly pan fried. Those would be my favorites.

    My father was a great fan of oyster stew, in all weathers. So much so that he often resorted to making it himself, one of his few efforts in the kitchen, when my mother was not enthusiastic about it, and she usually wasn’t. His stew was quite good, but I have only become a real fan in the last few years.

    • cometman Says:

      Not a huge fan myself, especially of the raw variety. But the Wild Ginger in Seattle used to make a mean bacon-wrapped oyster satay. Tastee.

  7. Stemella Says:

    I can testify to the “taste” issue with asparagus. Not recommended.

    Excellent article, Meltemis!

    It makes sense that increased acid in the ocean would be incompatible with the calcium carbonate homes of shellfish. Bubblee.

    I saw an article about a week ago I can’t find now that said that oceanic change due to warming and acidity had pretty much wiped out wild salmon off the CA and OR coasts this year. While searching I did find this good news article, however:


    The Oregon Senate approved a bill this afternoon that authorizes the state’s first two fishing-free marine reserves and requires study of four other areas. The bill, approved earlier by the House, now goes to Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

    The reserve system included in House Bill 3013A is smaller than originally proposed by Kulongoski. But environmental groups applauded the 24-3 vote, saying it marks an important start.

    The bill implements November recommendations from Kulongoski’s Ocean Policy Advisory Council.

    It establishes two fishermen-endorsed pilot reserves — Otter Rock off Depoe Bay and Redfish Rocks off Port Orford — that would take up less than 1 percent of Oregon’s territorial sea, a 3-mile-wide strip along the 360-mile coast.

    It requires state agencies to evaluate potential reserves at Cape Falcon south of Cannon Beach, Cascade Head near Lincoln City and Cape Perpetua near Yachats. It tells the agencies to support a reserve proposal for the Cape Arago-Seven Devils area, south of Coos Bay.

    Here’s an article about problems with OR oysters: http://www.naturaloregon.org/2009/05/26/saving-oregons-native-oysters/

    And another recent article about Oyster problems in the NW in general: http://www.usnews.com/articles/science/2009/06/15/oysters-in-deep-trouble.html

    It seems to repeat much of the info you have here.

    • artemis54 Says:

      Your third link is a reprint of Welch’s article in the Times.

      Your second is really a great exploration of the plight of native oysters. What happened to them iin the first great rush of logging, etc, parallels the horrible erosion and degradation of habitat in the Palouse country before farmers adopted better-suited methods. I could show you places where little creeks carved gorges fifty feet deep during those first years of massive soil erosioin and have since nearly recovered.

      One of the reasons I am a little bit hopeful about Lubchenco at NOAA is that she knows all of these issues backwards and forwards from her previous career.

      Welch was talking just about the Pacific oyster, which of course is non-native, an aquaculture introduction but now a well-established economy of its own. I suppose there are a few who would say to hell with them, they’re not native. Neither I nor the Nature Conservancy are anywhere near that extreme.

      Strangely, your comment landed in the holding pen for some reason. Sorry about that.

  8. sisdevore Says:

    excellent, excellent.

    I’ve really started to have qualms about buying seafood, feeling that we need to pay attention to ensure these critters survive.

    otherwise, we will be watching “oyster cam” someday.

  9. artemis54 Says:

    I am tempted to turn the header color to oyster in solidarity.

    • sisdevore Says:

      my best attempt at oyster.

      meltimis. I love it.

      • artemis54 Says:

        Kind of a tough one, isn’t it? The real thing would have to have a touch of almost metallic sheen, something you can’t really do in html.

        How I love our little spidey hole, far from the madding crowd. But why does wordpress have to include that reminder

        You are the author of this post.

        Shouldn’t I already know that?

        — meltemis navir

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: