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NRDC: Measuring Up

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Monitoring changes in ocean and atmospheric chemistry is a crucial part of understanding things like ocean acidification and coral bleaching.

Q&A with Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist in NRDC’s oceans program, based in New York, and a specialist in fisheries management and ocean acidification.

Ralph Keeling studies the relationship between oxygen and CO2 in the air, on the land, and at sea. How do rising concentrations of atmospheric C02 affect oceanic oxygen levels?

The careful attention paid to the oxygen-CO2 relationship by Ralph Keeling and others has highlighted an important effect of climate change on the world’s oceans. The rise in atmospheric CO2 is warming their waters, leading to the loss of oxygen in the oceans’ interior and causing the expansion of "oxygen minimum zones" -- regions where oxygen levels are too low to support many forms of marine life. Substantial deoxygenation has already occurred in the North Pacific and tropical oceans. Wherever it has occurred, it has dramatically influenced the composition of marine communities.

Taking measurements over a long time -- as Ralph Keeling does, and as his father did before him -- is sometimes dismissed as "routine monitoring." How important is it?

Because of the the methodical, consistent, and precise monitoring done by scientists like the Keelings, we now understand just how profoundly human activities are impacting the earth. From a scientific perspective, simple but accurate measurements taken over long periods can lead to important discoveries -- think of the Keeling Curve. And from a social and public policy perspective, we need to understand what, exactly, it is that we’re changing. Just as a doctor measures the temperature, pulse, and blood pressure of an incoming patient, scientists must be able to identify the earth’s key vital signs and monitor them continuously and carefully. Long-term measurements are key to making, and explaining, the diagnosis.

Feature Story: Air Apparent

Given its importance, how can we make sure this kind of science gets adequate funding and institutional support?

Historically, these long-term observations were among the duties of agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But given how tight research budgets are these days -- not to mention how vulnerable they are to the whims of politicians -- a diversity of funding sources and strategic partnerships should be established to ensure long-term stability. A good model is the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act (FOARAM) of 2009, which established a research apparatus linking federal agencies, state agencies, and scientists studying ocean acidification. We need to make sure that programs like this are well funded, and then we need to replicate them to help solve our other climate-related problems.

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