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A Swell to Quell the Dissolution of Shell

Five ways the Hakai Institute is tracking ocean acidification in the North Pacific.
October 27, 2016

The world’s oceans absorb one-third of the excess carbon dioxide humans emit into the atmosphere. This is a big problem for animals—from corals to clams—that use a special form of calcium carbonate called aragonite to make their skeletons or shells. The oceans are typically favorable for animals to build their skeletons. But as the ocean absorbs more CO2, aragonite becomes more likely to dissolve, and that is a major problem if you need a shell to survive.

Multiple research groups must combine their efforts to study how ocean acidification affects different regions of the ocean. Through collaborations, we can get a greater coverage of precise ocean measurements compared to what a single institution could do alone. Here are five ways the Hakai Institute contributes to tracking ocean acidification in the North Pacific.

Hakai Burke-o-Lator and Research Boats

Burke-o-Lator Hakai Quadra Island
Hakai scientist Wiley Evans and Oregon State University Professor Burke Hales make adjustments to the Burke-o-Lator ocean acidification equipment on Quadra Island. Photo by Josh Silberg

A small seaside laboratory at the Quadra Island Field Station houses one of the world’s most innovative systems to track ocean acidification. After ocean surface water is pumped up from adjacent Hyacinthe Bay, it flows through a machine called the Burke-o-Lator. The Burke-o-Lator, named after its inventor Oregon State University Professor Burke Hales, takes real-time measurements of the bay’s water properties. Hakai research boats also collect seawater samples from select sites throughout the northern Salish Sea and the BC Central Coast, before processing the samples in the Burke-o-Lator on Quadra Island.

By constantly sampling the seawater, Hakai scientists can understand what happens in the ocean during short-term events, like a major windstorm. Even a single storm can cause the amount of CO2 in the water—and its acidity—to swing wildly over the course of a few days. Sampling so often lets us capture these vital ocean dynamics, which in turn lets scientists and shellfish growers understand the effects on ocean ecosystems.

Shellfish Aquaculture and Other Research Stations

Shellfish aquaculture is one of the industries most vulnerable to acidification. The Hakai Institute provides expertise and equipment to shellfish hatcheries and farms in BC and Alaska. In partnership with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Ocean Acidification Research Center, and both the Alaska and Northwest Association of Networked Ocean Observing Systems, we installed in-situ sampling equipment at hatcheries in Seward in the northern Gulf of Alaska, Ketchikan in Southeast Alaska, and Bamfield on the West Coast of Vancouver Island.

In addition, Sawmill Bay Shellfish on Read Island, which neighbors Quadra Island, collects water samples for us. We’ve also partnered with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska by providing guidance and oversight for a new Burke-o-Lator installation in Sitka to monitor conditions in their region.


The ferry M/V Columbia, part of the Alaska Marine Highway System, will be outfitted next year with a platform to measure ocean acidification along the Inside Passage from Washington to Alaska. Photo by Gillfoto via Wikimedia Commons

M/V Columbia Ferry

Beginning next year, the Hakai Institute, Alaska Ocean Observing System, Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are partnering to put ocean acidification sampling equipment on the M/V Columbia—a 625-passenger ferry that travels the 3,000 km round-trip from Bellingham, Washington through the Inside Passage to Skagway, Alaska. When it sets sail, this will be the most geographically extensive near-shore platform to measure ocean acidification in North America’s coastal waters.

Surface Moorings

Environment Canada’s sea surface buoy at Sentry Shoal, 27 kilometers southeast of Hakai’s Quadra Island Field Station, adds another data point to our shore and boat-based sampling of ocean conditions across the northern Salish Sea.

The Hakai Institute is also repurposing a decommissioned mooring from Alaska and will redeploy it on the BC Central Coast in the spring of 2017. The mooring, called KC10, will sit in Fitz Hugh Sound within sight of the Calvert Island Field Station. KC10 will collect continuous information, including acidification data, about Fitz Hugh Sound.

Citizen Science

In collaboration with the Pacific Salmon Foundation, Hakai Institute technicians trained British Columbian citizen scientists in Lund, Powell River, and Baynes Sound to collect seawater samples in their local waters. These samples were sent to Quadra Island Field Station where they are analyzed with our Burke-o-Lator. Using trained citizen scientists is a terrific way to engage coastal residents and extend the geographic area covered by these ocean sampling efforts.

All of this measuring is already yielding results. The Hakai Institute’s intensive monitoring around Quadra Island revealed that, compared to the BC Central Coast, the northern Salish Sea has a lower saturation of aragonite. This makes it comparatively harder for shellfish to make shells in the northern Salish Sea. By comparing these sites and working with partners all along the coast, Hakai scientists can track how ecosystems respond under both favorable and unfavorable conditions for animals to make shells.

Scientists need cross-border collaborations to track a global issue like ocean acidification. Hakai Institute data are thus sent to two regional partners in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, who then feed the data into an international database called the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON).

The ocean’s surface has become 30 percent more acidic since the early 19th century, and conditions will only worsen as the oceans absorb more CO2. However, much like temperatures on land, the effects of ocean acidification will not be spread evenly across the globe. In addition, some species will be winners and losers, which will reshape ecosystems and the functions they provide. Regional efforts, such as those in the North Pacific, will add critical knowledge to our understanding of ocean acidification and how ecosystems and people will be affected. 

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