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Global warming hurts oysters; the carbon cost of reading on newsprint

Oysters play an essential role in ocean ecosystems, filtering up to 50 gallons of water per day.

I happen to like oysters, in the way that a bear likes honey, and so it caught my eye last week when Oregon researchers published what they call the first research definitively linking the ocean’s rising acidity to big problems in the oyster beds.

You, on the other hand, might not care for oysters at all – but even so, this bad news should concern you for reasons that have nothing to do with appetite.

Oysters clean up the brackish waters where they live, provide essential habitat for other animals and plants, and otherwise deliver “ecological services” that qualify them as a keystone species in their communities. Their contributions are prodigious.

Filtering 50 gallons a day, each

Some years ago I went out with a group of oystermen, scientists and resource managers into Chesapeake Bay, which is both the nation’s largest estuary and one of its most befouled. Two unforgettable statistics from that day:

  • An adult oyster of the bay’s native species can filter the man-made crud from as much as 50 gallons of water per day.
  • If the Chesapeake’s oyster populations could be restored to their natural levels, they could in turn restore the bay to near-pristine conditions in about a week.

Now, back to Oregon: According to a summary by the National Science Foundation, the scientists there

found that increased seawater carbon dioxide (CO2) levels, resulting in more corrosive ocean water, inhibited the larval oysters from developing their shells and growing at a pace that would make commercial production cost-effective.

As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to rise, this may serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine for other ocean acidification impacts on shellfish.

The study took place at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery at Netarts Bay, near Tillamook, a fourth-generation operation that is among the West Coast’s largest suppliers of seed to oyster farms.

Starting in 2006, the operators noticed unusually high mortality among oyster “spat,” as the larval stage is known, that couldn’t be traced to a virus or other typical pathogen.

Rising acidity disrupts shell formation

They sent seawater samples to a lab at Oregon State University, which found them to be abnormally acidic because “ridiculously high” levels of dissolved CO2 – and further linked those levels to absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

A good backgrounder on Whiskey Creek’s problems and ocean acidification generally is at Yale Environment 360. In it, Elizabeth Grossman explains that higher acidity impairs the oysters’ ability to take up shell-building calcium in a form called aragonite:

In the first 24 to 48 hours of an oyster’s life, as it forms its first shell, the larvae go from being almost 0 percent shell to at least 70 percent shell before they begin to grow more tissue, explains George Waldbusser, assistant professor of ocean ecology and biochemistry at Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences. Lower aragonite saturation means the tiny larvae — much smaller than a poppy seed — need to expend more energy to make their shells.

 “If too much energy is used at one stage, they may not be able to survive to a subsequent stage or overcome the stress,” says Waldbusser.

 Acidic water sometimes kills oyster larvae outright, so that they fail to survive past the egg stage. At other times, the eggs hatch, but larvae fail after a week or two.

The new research has brought some pushback from people who point out that ocean acidity at the surface is also increased by wind-driven “upwelling” of acidic water from the ocean depths, where dead and decomposing material releases CO2.

Nobody really disputes that, just as nobody really disputes that the ocean is absorbing an awful lot of CO2 from the atmosphere. Indeed, the global-warming deniers have seized on this “buffering” effect as another reason we don’t need to worry about how our fundamental reformulation of earth’s atmosphere is changing everything else, too. Some think oysters have the evolutionary capability to adapt to the new conditions.

In the short run, operations like Whiskey Creek can cope because their oysters are hatched and raised in confinement, which means the rising acidity can be countered — at considerable expense — by filtering organic matter out of the water or treating it with baking soda.

How much baking soda would be needed to keep the Chesapeake and other U.S. estuaries habitable for oysters is a statistic I’ve not been able to find.

The carbon cost of newsprint

Two more interesting numbers from last week’s news stream: subscribing to a home-delivered daily newspaper adds 208 pounds, on average, to a person’s annual greenhouse-gas contributions. Reading the paper online adds only 54.

I read it in The New York Times: The RAND Corporation, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, made the calculations to illustrate its approach to “energy services analysis.”

The number in either case is a mere rounding error in the overall problem of greenhouse gases, with the average American emitting something like 20 short tons a year. But newspaper subscriptions are only a convenient example – RAND sees opportunities to rethink our habits in relation to clothing, food, waste disposal, transportation, health care and other aspects of life …

The idea is that focusing on the human wants and needs that energy is used to satisfy, and working backward from there, would free people to see the gross inefficiencies that may be lurking within our old habits.

I happen to like newspapers, too, almost as much as oysters, and I’m among those who thought he could never get used to life without a fresh one on the doorstep every morning. But then came the day I realized that I was taking each day’s copy of the Strib straight from my doorstep to the recycling bin and reading it online instead.

The sheer amount of wasted wood pulp was the main motivator for going newsprint-free; the CO2 savings is a nice added benefit – and an interesting example to counter the buzz about how much “invisible” energy we consume with our digital devices.

Yes, it’s a lot of juice and, yes, most of it still comes from coal, but every alternative has its costs. And surely any reduction in greenhouse gases is worth consideration.

The full RAND study is available here as a PDF – it runs to 82 pages and discusses a wide range of other applications for its analytic method. Please try not to print it out.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Nick Coleman on 04/16/2012 - 01:30 pm.

    Dear God: The newspaper made me ruin the environment

    I wouldn’t litter my steps with the things, but the greedy bastards make you buy them in order to read them online. I now get three Sunday newspapers in order to read them “free.”
    And, as you say, they go straight into recycling. Unless I have fish to wrap.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 04/16/2012 - 03:50 pm.

    Try subscribing to just the digital edition. All newspapers have that option, Nick.

    And I think even Ron’s article misconstrues the “evil” of newsprint: first, the internet’s false idea that you can get news–real news–for free created a public resistant to paying for anything they read on-line. Then, people like Ron Meador start blaming the paper industry for polluting so we all go on-line and complain abut having to pay for aan on-line paper. Sigh.

    And I must admit to being confused: here I thought the article was all about how paper plants cause the CO2 problem with oysters. Turns out the oysters are getting sick from the air, whose CO2 the water is absorbing. Most of America’s CO2 is produced by coal-fired power plants (you know, they power our computers as well as printing presses and paper plants). Even I could have figured out some vague way to blame newspaper makers for the plight of the oysters.

    This piece was not well done, actually. Let’s get with it, MinnPost.

  3. Submitted by Richard Lee Dechert on 04/16/2012 - 09:17 pm.

    Right on Ron!

    “Emissions from pulp and paper mills, like the one shown above, are the fourth largest
    industrial source of greenhouse gases in the United States.”

    “Oceans Acidifying Faster Today Than in Past 300 Million Years”

    The rest can be pondered without newsprint at and

  4. Submitted by Beryl John-Knudson on 04/17/2012 - 07:50 am.

    Read all about…no more print, no more paper…

    Is there a computer heaven for all those dead computers – a new model replacing the one you bought yesterday; replace soon tomorrow?

    And for all their attendant parts?

    Picture public and private investor landfills overflowing with computer parts.

    Looks like a choice between which Waste Hell one wishes to support…

    Paper over plastic and all that generates its own waste space that will not recycle well?

    At least one can make a paper airplane and fly to never never land. Try that with your old computer?

    My last point is probably the wisest since there are no such simple answers… and I could say my doorstep is faced with more than an ‘existential threat’ ; that is, my mailbox daily stuffed with cheap advertizing flyers…

    Why not recycle the advertisers and sneaky coupon pushers who push their products on my doorstep? Save a lot of slick colored paper crap?

    It’s all in the paper and what we waste it on?

    Save Print News. Save jobs like the newsboy; and other ‘print-workers’ jobs going up from there?

    Now I will print out news from the Asia Times and BBC etc; and any other substantive diverse news sources with our morning coffee, okay? Minn Post?

    Take your computer to breakfast…but do a print-out first.

    Save the paper.. But then I suppose as Future gods know, old newspapers sadly, may replace old bookstores…and then one can weep at the coming demise also of the .”Book”?

    Can’t win these days. The future will be bound in smaller and smaller plastic boxes gating out the newspaper as we once remembered it? Enough all already..

    But… even the computer will one day have its demise as it takes away privacy in so many areas and when the only “journalism’ is an army of not too well informed bloggers with such tall tales validating little… until truth is an unknown sacrificed in the process…then too this is not too valid an argument, arguments…enough!

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