Communicating Ocean Change: Ocean Acid Threatens Food Chain

Communicating Ocean Change is a bi-weekly discussion-starter intended for individuals who are interested in exploring ways of communicating the complex science of ocean change. It is created for an internal audience at the New England Aquarium, but also shared here with colleagues across the country.

Question for interpreters: Can you think of good metaphors to describe ocean acidification? Imagine you are filling buckets to build a sand castle on the shore. Then someone begins to remove the sand from your buckets faster than you can add to your castle. Then you realize that the waves are beginning to lap at your castle. You are trying to build your castle, but someone is taking away your building material, while another force erodes your creation capacity.

The following news article, Ocean Acid Threatens Food Chain, reveals some current ocean acidification research as it relates to little-known, but highly significant creatures, the Pteropods. They are tiny, exquisite, and are critical at the base of the food web. As we study the impact of ocean acidification on their delicate shells, we learn more about the potential broader implications of changing ocean chemistry.

Members of the informal science community across the U.S. are discussing how to communicate the concept of ocean acidification to our audiences in ways that are both positive and effective. In particular, we are discussing using causal chains and metaphors as techniques to help us convey complex messages.

A causal chain describes a sequence of linked events, one causing the next, from an initial factor to a final effect. For instance, this is an example of a causal chain for ocean acidification:

  • Carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere when we burn fossil fuels like gasoline, natural gas, coal and oil. We burn these fossil fuels for electricity, transportation, heating, cooling and manufacturing.
  • Much of the carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere, but about 1/3 is absorbed by the oceans.
  • As it is absorbed, the carbon dioxide combines with water to form carbonic acid. That makes the oceans more acidic—a process called “acidification.”
  • Many shelled animals use calcium carbonate to make their shells. As carbonic acid is formed and ocean water becomes more acidic, less calcium carbonate is available to aquatic animals.
  • Acidification makes it harder for many species to build the shells they need to survive.
  • An increase in acidity may erode shells that have already been built.

How has ocean acidification been addressed in your conversations?

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