Fairbanks holds front-row seat in the future of the oceans

Pull out a map of Alaska, and trace your fingers along the rays of roads that lead out of Fairbanks. From here, you can go to Prudhoe Bay, Canada, Valdez, or Anchorage, and all the stops on the way and beyond. The Golden Heart of Alaska looks simultaneously isolated and a hub to distant lands.

For instance, the University of Alaska Fairbanks, hundreds of miles from any ocean, is perfectly situated to catalog the oceans’ disastrous future.

I’ll need to back up for a moment, here. This problem looks more like a worst-case-scenario out of chemistry laboratories than a world-wide issue. The oceans’ chemistry is changing, and science finds sea snails stress out as their shells destabilize under increasingly changing waters. Any energy they use to protect themselves is energy they can’t spend on survival and the next generation. Scientists struggle to predict what will happen to the oceans and their food webs, before laboratory experiments become a part of daily marine life.

Here’s a more in-depth explanation from the experts:

The ocean pulled me into science journalism, so last year I dedicated a class assignment to finding more about research on this issue, known as ocean acidification, at UAF. Months of research and interviews brought me to a man-made problem slightly less tangible than a giant garbage patch, but no less grave an issue.

This became The Sun Star’s three-part profile on UAF’s Ocean Acidification Research Center. (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Back to the university.

The same balance of seasonality and geography that makes parts of Alaska productive could transform the area’s waters more quickly than the rest of the world. Interior Alaska’s university is, resource-wise, perfectly poised to crank out information from the Arctic Ocean to Prince William Sound.

Although Alaska can quickly become a canary in the coal mine, the interest doesn’t stop here. Individuals and institutions travel far and wide in pursuit of understanding ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification is no new idea to science, but over the last decade, this problem has pulsed in and out of public consciousness.

Recent public awareness can lend its thanks to persistent science writers. For research, I read Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on ocean acidification, The Darkening Sea (link unfortunately not full text). As I wrote Cold Ocean Chemistry, Kolbert wrote another piece in April 2011 for National Geographic called The Acid Sea.

UAF’s ocean research reaches far beyond ocean acidification. There are also amazing divers and photographers, fisheries experts, and sea ice researchers.

I was surprised to arrive in my first land-locked city, this boreal forest, and find out that the university here was also a loudspeaker for every imaginable habitat in Alaska. Fairbanks is an amazing place on its own for science, but it is also a gateway to those wild parts of Alaska, including its oceans.


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