M/V Columbia starts its study of ocean acidification

An Alaska state ferry recently started work doubling as an ocean research platform.

The M/V Columbia, which conducts weekly runs between Bellingham, Washington and Alaska, has been installed with a seawater monitoring system to study ocean acidification, a byproduct of human-caused climate change which could affect sea life in Alaska and around the world.

The Columbia travels the same route every week from Washington to Skagway, making it an ideal research platform. Every three minutes along the 1,854-mile journey, the Columbia will measure the seawater temperature as it enters the vessel through a port in its bow, about six feet below the sea surface.

The seawater is then pumped to a monitoring system on the ferry’s car deck, where sensors will again record temperature along with dissolved oxygen, salt content and CO2 levels.

By continuously tracking these variables, scientists will be able to study changes in ocean chemistry, how it varies from place to place and what drives those changes.

“Ocean acidification is a moving target. It’s the trajectory of our coastal waters being forced by increasing atmospheric CO2 content and in order to capture that we need to make measurements over a long period of time,” said oceanographer Wiley Evans, of Canada’s Hakai Institute in a release.

The round trip between Bellingham and Skagway is the longest ferry run in North America, according to the Alaska Coastal Rainforest Center. The Columbia’s schedule will allow researchers to gather about 11 months of data before the boat is put up for repairs.

The ocean is actually alkaline, not acidic. Ocean acidification is a process linked to climate change by which sea water has become more acidic — less alkaline — which could have a big impact on marine ecosystems, especially shellfish. Scientists predict varying degrees of changes depending on the amount of CO2 humans continue to put into the atmosphere.

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