08 Sep

Changes in Oregon and the ocean heat up the neighborhood

This year, it wasn’t clear we would make it to Labor Day.

In Portland, the summer-defining liquid has traditionally been craft beer, not sunblock. Occasionally in August, the temperature might peep over 90, but mostly we spent summer basking, like pinot noir grapes, in temperate days and cool evenings.

This year, before even finishing August, we broke the local record for days over 90. Portland shattered its record for average summer temperature by almost three degrees, with just half our usual rainfall, as climate change works to turn our weather into Phoenix.

Oregon State oceanography professor Jane Lubchenco didn’t catch all of Oregon’s summer; in her capacity as U.S. Science Envoy for the Oceans, she spent a lot of time on the other side of the world. But in her years as director of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Agency (2009-2013), she saw “the most extreme four years’ weather,” with 70 Atlantic hurricanes, 770 major tornadoes, six major floods and “unprecedented” blizzards, and “the patterns are only continuing.”

It seems the Earth wants us off.

And unlike Portland, the planet can’t go to the ocean for relief.

“Climate change is well under way, affecting the oceans,” points out Lubchenco. “They’re hotter, they have less oxygen, they’re more acidic. Some of the effects of this are expected. Others are unexpected, and still mysterious.”

Especially, as we’ll see later, if you’re a sea star.

Warmer oceans affect wind patterns, says Lubchenco. Together, scientists think, they’re affecting a change in weather patterns, as well as the rise in sea levels. “That’s not so much a problem for us,” she notes, “but it’s huge for the mid-Atlantic,” displayed in Superstorm Sandy.

Then there’s ocean acidification, which isn’t exactly caused by climate change; it’s just caused by the same thing. “Ocean acidification is the equally evil twin of climate change,” says Lubchenco. “Both are caused by too much carbon in the atmosphere.

“When the oceans absorb carbon dioxide, they become more acidic. They’re now about 30 percent more acidic than 100 years ago.”

Nobody knows the full effects of acidification. But last week, results of a survey led by Oregon State researchers, published in The Journal of Shellfish Research, found that most oyster growers thought it was a problem. Lubchenco suspects it might also be weakening other shellfish, such as clams, mussels and crabs, as well as tiny snails – sea angels or sea butterflies – that are an important food supply for fish.

Acidification, she notes, also interferes with fish’s sense of smell, interfering with defenses against predators – and with salmon’s ability to return to their birth streams to spawn.

Lubchenco has seen the issue from both a faculty office and NOAA. Like any D.C. experience, hers was mixed.

“I was frustrated, but also greatly encouraged,” she explains. “It’s just so unfortunate that the issue has gotten so partisan, so polarizing. It’s not about facts, it’s not about logic, it’s about politics.”

Still she sees progress – although “certainly not in Congress” – but in cities and states, and in the world outside Washington: “People’s real experience with all this weird weather has been changing people’s thinking about climate change.”

She’s seen substantial change in the business community, and the religious community, from evangelical Christians talking about “Creation care” to statements from Pope Francis.

Lubchenco points out that “Social change can happen very quickly once the tipping point is reached,” citing sizable attitude shifts on drinking and driving, smoking and same-sex marriage.

People’s thinking might also be affected by changes that keep happening in the oceans, often in ways nobody quite understands.

All along the Pacific Coast, from Canada to Mexico, “Over the past two years, there’s been a massive die-off of all species of sea stars, just melting into mush,” reports Lubchenco.

Sea stars, it turns out, are a “keystone predator,” limiting especially the spread of mussels, who might otherwise turn some beaches into a “monoculture.”

We don’t know why the sea stars are dying, or what else it might mean. It does seem the ocean is telling us something else we shouldn’t ignore.

Just across from the Hatfield Marine Center in Newport is the Rogue Brewery. At the suggestion of Oregon State graduate student Jenna Sullivan, Rogue has just released Wasted Sea Star Purple Pale Ale, the color of the sea stars, with some of the proceeds to go to the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans.

In our future summers, Oregon will have an unpredictable ocean, and more need of sunblock.

At least there’s still craft beers.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian 9/6/15.