Ocean acidification, resulting from increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, is a growing threat to the world’s oceans. Creatures that live in calcium carbonate homes like corals and shellfish are some of the most vulnerable. But to track ocean acidification requires more than merely dipping a piece of litmus paper in the sea. A tiny, seaside shed in British Columbia now houses one of the world’s most innovative systems to measure this phenomenon. Meet the Burke-o-Lator.
“This is a really exciting piece of equipment. It’s the first of its kind in Canada,” says chemical oceanographer Wiley Evans, who leads ocean acidification research at the Hakai Institute.
Standing next to Wiley in the instrumentation hut—a shed only slightly larger than your average bathroom perched a dozen meters above the high tide line—is the inventor of the Burke-o-Lator, Oregon State University professor Burke Hales. A pioneer in the field of ocean carbon cycles, Hales has come to Hakai’s Quadra Island Field Station to help install his namesake machine, part of a growing network of ocean acidification monitoring sites on the Pacific coast.
Ocean water, pumped up from adjacent Hyacinthe Bay, circulates through white PVC pipes before entering an array of smaller tubes that line the wooden walls. A mini-fridge-sized beige box sits on the countertop next to computer monitors displaying colorful line graphs. Evans and Hales make last-minute adjustments like an excited pair of car aficionados about to show off the hot rod they’ve been working on for months. A clear lid reveals various computer bits and a decorative silver sea star handle to access the machine’s inner guts.
What differentiates the Burke-o-Lator from other monitoring systems is that it can measure multiple parameters of ocean acidification simultaneously. It is not just the pH of the ocean that is important to shellfish. The Burke-o-Lator can also measure the concentration of the mineral aragonite—a form of calcium carbonate that is critical to shell formation—as well as how much carbon dioxide gas is dissolved in the seawater and the total amount of carbon from non-organic sources. All these factors can affect shellfish growth, but many other systems can only measure one.
“The really exciting thing is that we can now monitor all of these ocean conditions in real time,” says Evans.
He points out the window at a wooden raft moored just below the hut in Hyacinthe Bay. The raft houses shellfish being monitored by Vancouver Island University’s Helen Gurney-Smith for symptoms of stress caused by ocean acidification. They are one of many groups eager to use this new source of in-depth information about the region’s oceans.
There are now ten Burke-o-Lators installed at research centers and shellfish facilities from Alaska to California, but, before now, there was a geographical gap in British Columbia. The Quadra Island oceanography data that it will generate is being integrated into regional data sets with the Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems (NANOOS), so researchers can now compare this previously under-sampled region to others across the Pacific region.
A challenging problem like ocean acidification requires cross-border collaboration from a diverse group. Oceanographers, chemists, physiologists, First Nations, policy-makers, and aquaculture operators are coming together to monitor the problem and how it manifests. The Quadra Island Burke-o-Lator is an important cog in efforts to track ocean acidification on the west coast of North America.
“Ocean acidification is the most unifying force in marine studies. Even historically, it was never easy for shellfish in [Pacific] west coast bays, but now we’re closer to the cliff. We are making challenging conditions more challenging for shellfish. If we start to lose shellfish in the Pacific Northwest, that is going to radically alter the entire ecosystem,” says Hales.