Time to Wake Up: Ocean Acidification and New England’s Marine Life

Mr. President, I am here now for the 128th time to urge that we wake up to the ugly changes that carbon pollution is wreaking on our climate. It is happening all around us, and it is happening right now, not in some far-off future.

As humans we are terrestrial beings. We live on the land. So naturally we pay more attention to the experience where we live--things such as increasing average temperatures on the land and changes in extreme weather when it hits the land. We don't so much pay attention to what is happening in our warming and acidifying oceans.

The oceans are a big deal in climate change. For decades the oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions. Of all the different places the excess heat goes, 93 percent is into the oceans. What we see in the atmosphere--the temperature changes we have already measured, the changes we are seeing in our habitat and what is happening to the western forest--all of that is less than the remaining 7 percent. A study published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that the oceans have absorbed as much energy just since 1997 as they had in the preceding 130 years--as much in 20 years, less than 20 years, as they had in the preceding 130 years. According to an Associated Press write-up of the study's findings, “Since 1997, Earth's oceans have absorbed man-made heat energy equivalent to a Hiroshima-style bomb being exploded every second for 75 straight years.”

That is the energy load of heat that has gone into our oceans--a Hiroshima-style bomb exploded every second for 75 straight years. What does all that excess energy mean for the oceans? It means that sea levels are rising, in part due to melting glaciers but also because of expanding ocean water. It is basic physics, explained by the principle of thermal expansion. When the ocean warms, it expands. It can't go down, so it comes up along our shores.

We have measured sea level rise in Rhode Island since 1930. Since then, the water level is up nearly 10 inches at the tide gauge at Naval Station Newport, and rates of sea level rise are on the increase worldwide. Since 1993, global sea level has risen at a rate approximately double the average rate observed through the 20th century. It is accelerating. Current forecasts confirm that if we do nothing to curb greenhouse gas emissions over the next decades, the oceans could rise as much as 3 or 4 feet by 2100. Our State coastal management agency predicts that we could see as much as 7 feet of sea level rise in the Ocean State, in Rhode Island, by the end of the century. I hope my colleagues understand that when I come to do this, I am deadly serious about things that are predicted to happen in my State.

This week, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reported that global sea levels are rising at their fastest rate in nearly 3,000 years. That study also estimates that about half of the 20th century sea level rise would not have occurred without global warming. The lead author, Dr. Robert Kopp, an earth scientist at Rutgers University, explained in the New York Times, “Physics tells us that sea-level change and temperature change should go hand-in-hand. This new geological record confirms it.”

Sea level rise matters to my constituents and to all coastal communities. A related study, led by Dr. Robert Strauss, found that approximately three-quarters of the tidal flood days now occurring in towns along the east coast are a result of the rise in sea level caused by human emissions. For example, looking at tide gauge data, 32 flood days were recorded in the decade from 1955 to 1964 at Annapolis, MD, and 34 flood days were recorded in that same period for Charleston, SC. In one decade, there were 32 flood days in Annapolis and 34 flood days in Charleston. Scroll forward to the decade 2005 to 2014, and the number of flood days in Annapolis jumps to 394 from 32--in one decade--and 219 flood days were recorded in Charleston.

Sea level rise brings coastal erosion, and it brings saltwater inundation of coastal marshes and habitats. It amplifies the effects of storm surge and flooding as storms ride ashore on higher seas. It changes flood zones and affects flood insurance for homeowners. These are real problems, and they are serious problems.

Dr. Strauss explains in a New York Times article this week, “It's not the tide. It's not the wind. It's us.”

The main culprit is carbon dioxide building up in the atmosphere, which again in 2015 reached new record levels. To put a little context on this, for as long as human beings have inhabited planet Earth, we have existed safely in a range between 170 and 300 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Unfortunately, we broke beyond 300 parts per million early last century, and we haven't looked back. We have now exceeded 400 parts per million.

Among its harms, this excess carbon dioxide has a particularly damaging chemical effect on our oceans. Oceans, in addition to absorbing 90 percent of the heat, I pointed out, are absorbing about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide--it goes right into the oceans--roughly 600 gigatons since preindustrial times. As all that carbon is absorbed into the oceans, it changes the oceans' chemistry. It makes the oceans more acidic. The chemical reaction is simple, but the effects on the ocean are serious.

This chart shows ocean pH--or acidity--over the past 25 million years, and we can see some variation across those millions of years. This is what is projected for the next 100 years: pH drops equals acidity rise. According to a research article published in the journal Nature Geoscience, the rate of change in ocean acidity is already faster than at any time recorded in the past 50 million years. Scientists go back and they can see this in the geologic record. We have broken every record for 50 million years--millions of years before human beings were ever on the planet.

This all may sound esoteric, but it has real hometown consequences for Rhode Island, where coastal life defines our heritage, our culture, and our economy. Fishing is big business in my State. Rhode Island's annual farmed oyster production, for instance, is valued at over $5 million. But carbon pollution is changing the very chemistry in which those oysters must survive.

Research on the effects of ocean acidification on shellfish and other marine life can barely keep up with a rapidly acidifying ocean--another reason we need more money for research. Change is coming at us faster. We have to speed up the pace of research to understand it. But what we do know is that shellfish, such as mussels, clams, and oysters, make their shells from calcium carbonate, and calcium carbonate dissolves in acidified seawater.

Here is how Bob Rheault, executive director of the East Coast Shellfish Growers Association, put it:

The only thing we know for sure is that the larvae, in that first 48-hour period before they start feeding, are tremendously susceptible to dissolution. Their energy budget goes negative because they haven't started to feed yet, and if they haven't got enough energy in that egg and they're starting to dissolve, then it takes extra energy to lay down shell, and they sometimes don't make it.

Here we see normal, healthy oyster larvae in those first few crucial days of development, compared to larvae growing in more acidic ocean water.

NOAA scientists have projected that the world's oceans and coastal estuaries will become 150 percent more acidic by 2100. This could mean disaster for shellfish--a $1 billion industry around the country. U.S. shellfish production is currently expected to see a 10- to 25-percent reduction in the next five decades, according to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Again, pardon me for being serious about this, but it is currently predicted that a major industry in my State is going to be knocked down 10 to 25 percent because we are making our oceans acidic with carbon pollution.

A study published last year found that Rhode Island's shellfish populations are especially vulnerable. Mark Gibson is the deputy chief of marine fisheries at the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, and he calls ocean acidification a “significant threat” to local fisheries. I don't know how many Senators are expected to forget or ignore a significant threat to an industry in their home State because it is inconvenient for lobbyists and for the fossil fuel industry, but I don't think that is a fair thing to ask of me.

But acidification is not the only problem for fishermen. In a 2015 survey from the Center for American Progress, 40 percent of fishermen in the Northeast reported catching new fish species they don't usually see in the waters they fish. Rhode Islanders are starting to catch tarpon and grouper, usually tropical fish; our valuable winter flounder fishery is virtually gone; and our lobstermen have to go farther and farther out to sea to find cooler waters where they can catch their lobsters.

Among the fishermen surveyed, 80 percent of those who noticed “warmer water temperatures” attribute it to climate change. This is new. When I first got to the Senate, if I went down to Galilee--Rhode Island's largest fishing port--and tried to talk to the fishermen there about climate change or ocean acidification, I was lucky if they didn't throw me off the pier. They didn't want to hear about it. But then it started to hit home. Now fishermen come to me and say, “Sheldon, it is getting weird out there,” or “Sheldon, this is not my grandfather's ocean any longer.” These are men who fished with their grandfathers, who fished with their fathers, and who now have their own boats. They know these waters, and when they say that the ocean has changed and it is getting weird out there, we should listen. They are on the water every day, and they see these changes happen before their very eyes.

I hope my Republican colleagues are like those fishermen. I am sure some of them probably want to throw me off a pier for all these talks, but mostly they probably just don't want to hear about climate change. But what I am hoping is that soon they will hear it from the fishermen in their own States, or their farmers or their foresters, and that they will hear it from their State health officials, their State emergency officials, their own State universities, and they will listen. When they do, they will realize the fossil fuel industry has been duplicitous with them and has been leading them away from their own State's best interests. They will learn that the fossil fuel industry lobbyists are false friends as well as greedy ones.

We have a clear scientific understanding of the problem. Yet relentless fossil fuel opposition prevents us from moving toward a solution. It is a disgrace, frankly. It is time to pay attention to reality, to the evidence, to what our farmers and foresters, and, yes, our fishermen are telling us. It is time to shut off the toxic polluter-paid politics that cloud this issue and give Washington a dirty name. It is time, indeed, to wake up.

Mr. President, I yield the floor.