SEATTLE -- When U.S. Rep. Brian Baird tried a few years ago to get his colleagues to put more money toward ocean-acidification research, few even understood the issue.
One congressman, Baird said, confused souring seas with acid rain, and asked, "Didn't we deal with that 20 years ago?"
The corrosion of the oceans by carbon dioxide emissions has barely made a ripple among Washington, D.C.'s power brokers. Little money gets earmarked for research. Ocean change has inspired few stabs at curbing CO2.
In fact, aside from West Coast lawmakers and scattered others from coastal regions, few in Congress seem to grasp the scale of the challenge, said current and retired lawmakers from both parties.
So West Coast states, led by Washington, are now forging ahead largely on their own.
"This is a profound and unprecedented threat," said Baird, a Washington Democrat, who stepped down in 2011 and is now president of Antioch University in Seattle. "The existence of marine life as we know it could be profoundly changed by this. And we are scarcely attending to it."
As the oceans absorb ever more CO2 from cars and power plants, that is transforming the chemistry of the seas faster than at any time in tens of millions of years. That CO2 makes life hard for creatures with shells and skeletons and threatens to fundamentally transform the entire marine world.
Already, acidification has wiped out billions of oyster larvae in the Pacific Northwest and is causing trouble for tiny see-through creatures called pteropods, which are critical food for birds and fish. It poses risks for important sea life, including red king crab and many fish.
But since the source of acidification is also the chief culprit driving climate change -- rising CO2 -- efforts to respond at the national level get mired in global warming politics.
So Washington state leaders are suggesting avenues for new research and are encouraging cleanup of polluted marine environments. They hope those steps will at least build resistance to acidification.
And Gov. Jay Inslee is seeking to curtail the state's fossil-fuel emissions, hoping to show the federal government that tamping down on CO2 can work.
"States can set a precedent," said Brad Warren, a sustainable-fisheries proponent who served on a state panel of acidification experts in 2012. "They can provide a way to show what works and what doesn't."
But it's not yet clear if even local curbs are politically possible -- or if they will make a difference.
During a recent meeting of a group set up by the Legislature to respond to souring waters, committee chair Martha Kongsgaard urged members to press on even if they felt overwhelmed.
"Yes, there is a lot of uncertainty -- let's all admit we are all flying half blind into an unknowable future," Kongsgaard said.
But, she added, "One can't get work done in fetal position."
The list of ways acidification can impact the marine world keeps getting longer. There's budding acceptance even by many commercial fishermen that it poses risks to jobs and their way of life.
It's not that the solution is unclear.
If the goal is to substantially reduce acidification, CO2 emissions need to come down. If you want a more precise picture of what's happening in the water, more money has to go toward research. Even if both happen soon, people who rely on the sea should prepare for a different world.
Some changes to marine life are coming whether we're ready for them or not.
"The data show that we're seeing the symptoms of acidification arrive and progress at a much faster rate than we would have expected even just a few years ago," said Kathryn Sullivan, acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a recent interview. "The longer-term consequence it presents is very, very daunting."
Yet Congress thus far has taken only baby steps.
In 2009, it passed the Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act, pushed initially by the late Rep. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and then by Baird, then-Congressman Jay Inslee and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
It required an assessment of acidification's impacts, put money toward marine monitoring to help the Northwest's troubled oyster industry, and called on the National Science Foundation to pay for more research.
A team of ocean scientists detailed the need: "Once the program is fully engaged, $50 million to $100 million per year is considered the minimum if scientists are to provide useful information regarding how the oceans are responding," they wrote in March 2009.
The act only authorized $14 million to $35 million a year.
Back then, the nation was mired in recession.
"We were aware at the time that what we were asking for was inadequate," Baird said. "We expected that would change."
It has not.
"We're probably crashing toward a mass-extinction event unless something changes," said Kristy Kroeker, a research fellow with the Bodega Marine Laboratory at the University of California, Davis, who has twice in recent years analyzed and reviewed all the research examining the biological impacts of acidification. "And right now there aren't enough resources to figure it all out."
The few politicians who understand the problem believe D.C. leaders are not doing enough.
"A billion people around the world depend on the ocean for food and we're talking about opening a hole at the bottom of the ocean-food chain," said former Rep. Bob Inglis, R-S.C., who served 12 years in Congress before losing his primary race in 2010.
"There's a reason the Pentagon is worried about CO2," he added. "If you have unstable governments and people around the world not able to supply their protein needs, and you put those together, you get people migrating quickly and friction from that. It's a real toxic stew."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska -- whose state drives the country's most bountiful fishing harvest, providing half the nation's catch -- spoke of the need for stable research funding and worried aloud about food-web changes.
"If the little pteropods that are out there that the salmon gobble on leave us because of what's going on with acidification ... think about what that means for our fisheries industry," Murkowski said during an oceans forum in D.C. last spring. "It is huge for the state of Alaska."
For many, the chief barrier is ignorance.
In part that's because acidification is fairly new and surfaced first in Washington and Oregon -- far from the corridors of power.
"I think (acidification) is a real problem," said Democratic Congressman Sam Farr, a 20-year House veteran from California who co-chairs an ocean caucus. "But the first thing you have to do is educate people about what's broken and needs fixing."
As recently as 2010, only 7 percent of Americans knew ocean acidification was caused by seas absorbing CO2, according to the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. The vast majority -- 77 percent -- had never even heard the term.
But even among those who understand, attempts to address acidification's underlying cause quickly devolve into battles over approach.
Murkowski -- who does not dispute human contributions to climate change -- has fought the Obama administration's efforts to tamp down on CO2 from coal-fired power plants. She prefers congressional action, which has not happened.
Much of the easy work is already under way. Globally, the amount of CO2 from land-clearing or timber harvest -- never a huge factor -- has plummeted 25 percent as deforestation declined.
The European Union is moving to cut its CO2 emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. But emissions in China and India seem destined to rise. And while U.S. emissions fell in recent years as a result of the recession and a natural-gas boom, they rose again in 2013.
"Other than transforming our energy system, I'm not sure what we can do," said Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist with Carnegie Institution for Science at Stanford University, who helped popularize the term "ocean acidification."
"I think politicians are rational. Not until they feel that they're going to lose votes for not acting will they start dealing with these issues. The real story is winning the hearts and minds of the average person and convincing them we have to stop using the sky as a sewer."
In the meantime, more modest efforts are under way.
An international consortium is deploying ocean buoys to establish a global sea-monitoring network. Area shellfish hatcheries that supply the region's $110 million industry now use their own specialized water-chemistry-tracking equipment.
A new University of Washington center is helping shellfish growers keep tabs on water quality and develop more sophisticated systems to warn them before marine currents flood them with seawater deadly to baby oysters. The center is also investigating the potential for water-treatment systems that could be used in shellfish hatcheries.
Private foundations have held competitions seeking both small and large solutions.
Shellfish biologist Joth Davis, of Bainbridge Island, was a finalist for a grant with the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation. His team wants to grow kelp in small plots and develop markets for it. They hope seaweed could be a business that also sucks CO2 from areas near shore, changing water chemistry while providing habitat for sea life.
"It wouldn't be a huge solution, but you could close off or encircle bays and really target places that are important nurseries for invertebrates and fish," he said.
A team of experts is studying whether raising clams in sea-grass beds rather than mud flats will help them avoid impacts from souring water. Some shellfish scientists hope to breed hybrid oysters and geoducks or use natural selection to create acidification-resistant strains. Some have proposed creating seed banks from corals able to withstand souring seas.
Some experts recommend protecting certain marine areas where sea creatures have developed a natural resistance to corrosive water through evolution, though fishermen are often reluctant to support making more of the sea off-limits.
Ryan Kelly, assistant professor at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, urged the state to focus on secondary causes -- such as reducing nutrients from livestock or septic tanks that flow into streams. That pollution can compound the impact of CO2, and reducing it might buy the region more time before acidification causes more harm.
For example, researchers estimate that 24 to 49 percent of the acidification of Hood Canal's deepest waters comes from human CO2 emissions. The rest is caused by organic matter -- some natural, some not.
"Local causes can have local solutions that will have an immediate effect locally," Kelly said. "And coastal waters are where people and the ocean intersect. If you are in, say, Skagit Valley, and it seems like nitrogen from dairy farms is causing problems, reducing that nitrogen load could potentially have an impact."
And Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has committed to scaling back state CO2 emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, in part by putting a price on carbon.
Little of that is easy.
Inslee remains at odds with Republican lawmakers who largely control the state Senate. They disagree on how fast and by what means to curb emissions.
And scientists and activists have unsuccessfully urged the state for years to get a better handle on the type of pollution that threatens to exacerbate acidification.
"Legitimate questions in this whole effort are 'can we move faster' and 'can we get it done?' " Warren said. "We have to say, 'We don't know but we're going to do the best we can.' "
And, of course, none of these local changes does anything at all to help the ocean at large.
Until the growth of CO2 is halted, said Greg Rau, a marine chemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, ocean acidification will just keep getting worse.
"That's not a threat or a prediction," Rau said. "It's a promise."
This report was produced, in part, with funding from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.
By Craig Welch
The Seattle Times