UW researchers conduct ocean acidification experiment

Posted on The Daily, University of Washington, 29 April 2013: By Jack Lau

 The world’s oceans are always changing, and with ocean acidification adding to this process, it is unclear how these changes will affect oceanic and terrestrial life.

This is what James Murray, a UW chemical oceanography professor, hopes to clarify.

Murray is working with several researchers and students at the UW marine research facility in Friday Harbor to conduct a quarter-long experiment centered on the use of mesocosms. This is the third experiment of its kind performed at Friday Harbor, which remains the only place in the United States to use this technique.


Mesocosms are essentially large plastic bags placed below the surface of a body of water that allow carbon dioxide to be added manually. The team arranged nine of these bags off the dock of their facilities, filled them with natural ocean water, and increased the carbon dioxide levels of six of the bags, leaving three as unchanged control variables.

By placing the bags in a real oceanic environment, Murray hopes to better simulate the acidification effects and achieve more accurate findings.

“These mesocosms are unique in that they’re kind of a bridge to the natural world,” Murray said.

As the biology of the organisms in the mesocosms flourish, they begin to increase carbon dioxide consumption, causing a decrease in its concentration. In the two prior mesocosm experiments performed at these facilities, these levels were allowed to fall. During this round of experiments, the team is working to keep these levels constant throughout the whole study by continuously adding more carbon dioxide in hopes of uncovering new findings that may better explain the effects of acidification.

Murray leaves most of the work to the undergraduate and graduate students who live at the research facilities in Friday Harbor for all of spring quarter. In this 15-credit course, students take on individual assignments of identifying and measuring organisms of the different mesocosms to explore the effects of acidification.

For 20 days, the students will take samples and record observations based on their individual tasks in a repetitive process. They will culminate their unique findings in a 20-page research paper analyzing resulting data.

“A lot of it is getting research experience,” sophomore Natsuko Porcino said. “It’s kind of a way to dive head first into something I might want to do for my future.”

Florida Institute of Technology graduate student Philip Gravinese moved to Washington for the quarter to participate in the research. He said he thought the UW program could provide him with hands-on experience he couldn’t get elsewhere. Gravinese, who studies marine biology in Florida, said the experiment in Friday Harbor would benefit his degree.

“[Students] get a chance to really see what research is like … and actually be on a research project that has a potential to make a difference and be significant, not just busy work,” Murray said.

Murray said he believes that unless people make drastic changes to our consumption of fossil fuels, the effects of ocean acidification on the environment are inevitable. He said he sees this project as an exploration of the effects of acidification rather than a solution to it.

“The amount of carbon and carbon dioxide going into the ocean is so immense there’s no extraction technique,” Murray said. “Really, what we’re trying to do at this point is just see if we can understand what these impacts might be.”

Jack Lau, The Daily, University of Washington, 29 April 2013. Article.