Did you know the University of Washington operates one of the U.S.’s leading testing and research facilities dedicated to ocean acidification? Located on San Juan Island, Friday Harbor Labs is crucial to discovering more about this phenomenon.
I visited the labs with a group from Livnot Chai, a pluralistic Jewish high school program that meets on Tuesdays in Bellevue and on Thursdays in Seattle. We were also the first group ever of high schoolers to take a retreat to the labs, and I had a great time. We had the entire campus to ourselves, as the researchers were on break, and it was fun to explore the island a little bit.
We designed our own Shabbat service, and performed Havdalah on the dock. In our group were 11 kids and three wonderful group leaders: Kate Koester and Julie Hayon, who co-founded Livnot, and Marci Greenberg, a marine biologist in the Jewish community. It was really exciting to learn about marine biology in a Jewish context, a new experience for most of us.
Ocean acidification (OA) is the process associated with the decreasing of pH in our oceans. Acidification is happening across the globe, as it comes from the introduction of carbon dioxide into the environment, 30 to 40 percent of which is absorbed by the oceans. This is especially pertinent to Washingtonians, as large parts of the state have coastline and an important part of our diets comes from the ocean. When the pH of the water decreases, this messes up the entire aquatic food chain, as animals aren’t adapted to living in those circumstances. If an organism on the food chain is negatively affected by OA, everything that eats that organism (including humans) will be introduced to these negative effects, some of which can be quite toxic. This can lead to the demise of an entire ecosystem. This is what Friday Harbor Labs is researching.
When the lab was initially started in the early 1900s, there were species in the water that are now gone. The pH of the water, which is crucial to marine life survival in addition to our own, has gone down significantly since then as well. This puts the lab in a unique position to observe these ongoing changes, and to figure out the long-term consequences of OA before other parts of the world.
What really surprised me was that OA is a relatively new occurrence. While it has been going on for decades, only recently was the phenomenon fully recognized and viewed as a potential problem. Since OA hasn’t happened before in human history, no one knows exactly what it will lead to — hence, all the experimentation.
One of the biggest thing I got out of our weekend was the sheer beauty of the landscape around us. I know it’s cliché, but it’s true. Walking along the beach at night with just headlamps to guide us, it terrified me to think about how many innocent marine lives I might literally be crushing. But above that, I got another reminder of just how important tikkun olam, or taking care of the earth really is. If humans don’t make a concerted effort to lower our collective carbon footprint, the next generation might not experience these same wonderful beaches, and the organisms that live in the oceans, that we take for granted.