The Science-Policy Intersect: Ocean Acidification and Marine Debris

Climate change-driven shifts in ocean conditions and growing coastal populations are two of the many factors raising uncertainty in coastal and marine resource management.  Fortunately, there is a growing understanding of the opportunity to improve policies and decisions on these issues by drawing on and infusing scientific data into policy and management decisions in order to promote healthy coastal economies and ecosystems. My graduate degree research focused on this intersection between science and policy and how to imbue scientific data into the policy process. In my past few months with the Governor’s Natural Resources Office I have seen two regionally focused efforts in the eastern Pacific Ocean that speak directly to this interface.

The first of these is the establishment of a West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Science Panel (OAH Panel). The OAH Panel, consisting of 20 esteemed scientists representing California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia, was tasked with advancing decision makers’ understanding of drivers and impacts of ocean acidification and hypoxia. Ocean acidification poses a particular threat to the west coastal waters of the United States and Canada, where naturally upwelling waters bring deep water with a low pH to the surface, where it mixes with low pH waters caused by atmospheric deposition of carbon dioxide.  Successive upwelling events also increase the occurrence of seasonally hypoxic (low oxygen) areas of the ocean. Acknowledging the specific threat that ocean acidification and hypoxia bring to the west coast, the OAH Panel is intended to identify the research and monitoring needed to answer practical questions faced by policy makers and managers about ocean acidification and hypoxia. While biological impacts have been seen from ocean acidification and hypoxia, there are still many questions to answer for the purpose of decision making. On my very first day on the job, I was fortunate to attend a meeting between Oregon natural resource agency managers and Oregon-based OAH Panel scientists convened to set an agenda for ways to advance science-informed decision making in Oregon waters. They agreed to work collaboratively to develop accurate and accessible outreach materials to inform policy makers and the public, establish ongoing information sharing and coordination forums on OAH, and identify ways to ensure the science products being developed by the OAH Panel are used by decision makers.

The second effort endeavoring to infuse scientific data into policy and management practices in the eastern Pacific Ocean is the West Coast Ocean Data Portal (WCODP).  The WCODP is a project of the West Coast Governors Alliance on Ocean Health that provides access to ocean and coastal data to inform regional resource management, policy development, and ocean planning. I was able to help at the WCODP’s annual Network meeting in early November to unveil a new feature of the Portal that creates a geographic visual of data, specifically data relating to marine debris. This new feature, the Data Viewer, provides coastal decision makers with a tool to track marine debris and help prioritize clean ups and advocate for policies to reduce the impact of trash on our beaches. As the WCODP charts its strategic plan moving forward, it seeks to continue to be a rich data resource and tool to visualize and map that information, so that ocean and coastal managers can make sound decisions to improve ocean health.

Both of these efforts have established a significant opportunity to sustain and continue to build cross-sector cooperation between decision making and scientific sectors on the west coast. The state is thus poised to more efficiently and effectively protect and preserve the ocean’s critical natural resources. Both the scientific community and decision making community are working to improve ocean health.  Combining forces is helping scientists ask the questions managers need to answer to understand how ecosystem services that people value will be affected, and what steps people might take to try to mitigate and adapt to those changes on the west coast now and in the future.

IMG_0976

Japanese Tsunami – The Global Aftermath

The 9.0 earthquake centered 80 miles off of the Japanese coast was felt by the whole world, not physically, necessarily, but through our kinship as a global community. We were rattled to see such devastation on our computer and television screens, and West Coasters went to the shorelines to watch the ocean ebb and surge as the tsunami reached our coast. For some port towns, it came with fury, jostling boats and tearing up harbors, causing one fatality and millions in damage. For others towns, like Port Orford, OR, it was captivating to see tides in fast-forward, but it was an unsettling reminder that the Cascadia fault line that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to northern California is about 80 years overdue. Next time, it might be all of us.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

Today, almost six months after the Honshu quake, Japan is still reeling. The world has offered its hand in humanitarian efforts, as well as in scientific expertise for the subsequent nuclear crisis. People struggle to rebuild and survive. Food, water and electricity remain in short supply.

What became abundant? Debris. Of all shapes and sizes, from household items, to cars, to whole buildings. When the water receded, anything suspended went along with it back into the Pacific Ocean. This means, in no uncertain terms, that remnants of Japan are headed our way.

 NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#1, 8/31/2011)

NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#1, 8/31/2011)

This brings one question to mind, and that’s “Are we ready?” First, are we ready to act when, or if, this massive amount of debris hits our coastline? Do we have any sense of the magnitude or high-probability areas? Could any of that debris be radioactive?

Most scientists think we have some time before any debris hits. However, there is no clear answer how the North Pacific Gyre will speed up or slow down that movement. In the time it takes to cross the big blue, and the mismatched timing of the Fukushima incident with the recession of the water, NOAA and others consider it “highly unlikely” that Hawaii or the West Coast will have to deal with radioactivity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for monitoring radioactivity.

 Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. The first bits of debris are expected in a year. (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml, 8/31/2011)

Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml, 8/31/2011)

The general consensus is that most of the debris will reach the West Coast in about two years, with debris protruding from the water (e.g. fishing vessels) likely to turn up first because of exposure to the prevailing winds. Other debris may remain in the depths of the Pacific never to be seen by most of us again. To date, I’ve really enjoyed picking up beach treasures from Japan (glass floats and interesting bottles), but I’m not sure I’d be so thrilled coming across remnants of cars or houses.

While some of us have the opportunity to go to Japan and help in the rebuilding efforts, others can do the world a favor by taking part in the clean up on this side of the Pacific.  Whether this means signing up for the SOLV Beach clean up every year, participating in events like the California Coastal Cleanup Day and Washington Coast Cleanup, or just bringing garbage bags with you to the beach, we can all do something.

NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311/ 8/31/2011) NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311/ 8/31/2011)

West Coast-wide organizations, such as the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health (WCGA), addressed marine debris in the 2008 Action Plan. Action 1.4 notes that the three states will establish baseline estimates of marine debris off the West Coast, and support policies to meet reduction goals through recycling, trash maintenance, and litter laws. Members of the Marine Debris Action Coordination Team and the forming Marine Debris Alliance, with folks at EPA Region 9, the U.S. Coast Guard and others, are on regular calls trying to track this debris plume and figure out the “when, where, and how much.” There is a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot going into getting prepared. This includes a NOAA initiative called “Ships of Opportunity” program, which hires non-research vessels traveling in that direction to search for the head of the debris plume. The thought is if they can deploy buoy sensors at the head of the plume, scientists will be able to track the progress of the debris to the West Coast. Who knows? This may be another happenstance opportunity to learn more about Pacific Ocean currents.

Will we be ready when it’s our shoreline that’s quaking? I know there are a lot of communities starting to think along the lines of tsunami preparedness, but what about our families and friends? I have no disaster plan. I have no kit. Do you?  Granted, not everyone is in imminent danger of a tsunami, but the damage from an earthquake means long-term threats for everyone’s way of life. I’m not advocating that everyone run to the store for their dehydrated food kit, or build a survival shelter in their backyard, but I know that I could benefit from knowing a little more and taking some steps to prepare.

I guess the bottom line for me is, let’s learn from this. Let’s keep our Pacific neighbors in our hearts and minds. Let’s get ready, in every way possible, to prepare for the aftermath of the damage already done, and prepare for events to come. I think we can all agree that it’s only a matter of time.

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml; 8/31/2011)

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml; 8/31/2011)