Ocean Acidification is in the Spotlight. How Can We Address Its Impacts?

What’s the problem?

Each year the oceans absorb nearly a quarter of the ten gigatons of carbon dioxide humans emit. Earth’s surface waters have a remarkable ability to assimilate anthropogenic carbon dioxide and mitigate changes in pH (acidity). However, since the Industrial Revolution, the global ocean has become 30% more acidic. The decrease in ocean pH, or ocean acidification (OA), is an important component of the climate change story.

In our last post, we highlighted the rapid expansion of research, monitoring, and understanding of the effects of decreasing ocean pH during the past couple of decades. Much of the recent advancement in the field has been related to the interdisciplinary (coordinated interaction within disciplines) and multidisciplinary (different disciplines but with common boundaries) nature of the ocean science research community. Despite our enhanced understanding, there has been limited progress in predicting long-term impacts of OA at the ecosystem level and understanding its societal implications. Thus, the OA community has struggled to answer the primary questions asked by resource managers and policymakers: just how serious is the threat of OA and what should we be doing about it? To answer these questions, the science community must work hand-in-hand with industry, policymakers, other science disciplines (e.g., social science and economics), and coastal communities to find solution-oriented results for addressing environmental impacts of OA. This integrated approach is known as transdisciplinary science. Yates et al. (2015) present a framework to facilitate a transdisciplinary approach and improve our understanding of how OA impacts ecosystems and society.

What is transdisciplinary science?

The core of transdisciplinary science is to produce solutions to societally relevant problems. OA transcends habitats, ecosystems, regions, and science disciplines. The research community has begun to recognize that its biggest challenge in understanding societal impacts of OA is related to integrating experimental, observational, and computer simulation approaches across many disciplines. Transdisciplinary science facilitates the development of research, adaption, and mitigation strategies and fully integrates the strategic scientific effort toward the interactions among OA, ecosystems, and society.

When OA emerged as a topic of concern, many multidisciplinary national and international programs and projects were initiated to address its scientific importance and implications. The science community has demonstrated success in working across national boundaries; however, there remain significant deficiencies in the OA community’s ability to establish solution-oriented knowledge. A transdisciplinary approach to the OA issue would fill these data gaps and bridge the present valley between science and policy.

Lang et al. (2012) propose an adaptable three-phase transdisciplinary approach, which includes (1) collaboratively framing the problem and organizing an innovative research team oriented toward problem-solving; (2) collaborating in such a way that solution-oriented and transferable knowledge is produced; and (3) re-integrating and applying the produced knowledge in scientific and societal practice. It is perhaps easier to think about this as a living, breathing effort in which knowledge is synthesized and incorporated throughout the process to increase efficiency and rapidly produce applied results (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Figure from Yates et al. (2015) summarizing the transdisciplinary ocean acidification research process and flow of knowledge between scientific and societal components through each program phase. The authors adapted this figure from Lang et al. (2012).


What are the challenges?

The OA research community is ready to move toward using a more transdisciplinary approach to OA; unifying goals, questions, and hypotheses have been formulated. Identifying common goals that span many disciplines is a critical element of transdisciplinary science. An important challenge in achieving these goals is developing a mindset that values transdisciplinary integration and accepts adaptive planning and managing to achieve consensus among collaborators. The ocean science community has long been multidisciplinary, but another important challenge relates to integrating the social science and economics communities. Despite these challenges, the success and current direction of national and international research programs are good indicators that the science community is ready to rise to meet the challenges of a transdisciplinary OA program. In fact, an applied planning approach has already demonstrated success in providing solutions to and mitigation strategies for a severe decline in the commercial Pacific Northwest shellfishery.

Implementing this type of scientific approach and meeting national goals requires flexibility from federal (as well as state and local) and other funding agencies. Typically, funding for OA scientific research is merit-based (on the basis of ability) as opposed to goal-based (on the basis of need). Transdisciplinary science is goal-oriented. Further, societally relevant goals (e.g., developing adaptation and mitigation plans) are not necessarily prioritized in federal agency plans. Achieving long-term goals and addressing these issues include facilitating interagency coordination, evaluating success based on collaborative progress toward goals, and retaining flexibility to revise strategic plans as new research areas are identified.

How do we move forward with a transdisciplinary science approach?

The primary objectives of a transdisciplinary OA program should be societal priorities that can be addressed through scientific research. The goal of the program should be broad enough to engage all participants, but specific-enough to provide usable information and products for stakeholders. The need to improve long-term forecasting tools to project future OA impacts is a key driver of transdisciplinary OA research. Future projections are further complicated when societal and economic impacts are considered. Therefore, organizing, sharing, and integrating data sets is critical in reaching OA goals. The science has, and will continue to, evolve quickly; therefore, the OA community must maintain flexibility and adaptability in research direction based on new and emerging knowledge. Effective communication is critical in connecting people across disciplines within the program. Further, there is a crucial need to effectively communicate policy guidance between the program’s advisory board and the scientists, and to transfer technical knowledge from scientists to the advisors. While transdisciplinary science programs may be more complex and take longer to produce results, their outcomes should be more relevant to solving societal issues than traditional research programs. The results of a transdisciplinary OA program will hopefully not only advance science but also affect policy decisions and outcomes.

Primary citation: Yates, K.K, C. Turley, B.M. Hopkinson, A.E. Todgham, J.N. Cross, H. Greening, P. Williamson, R. Van Hooidonk, D.D. Deheyn and Z. Johnson. 2015. Transdisciplinary science: A pathway to understanding the interaction among ocean acidification, ecosystems, and society. Oceanography 28(2):212-225, http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2015.43.

Additional Citation: Lang, D.L., M. Bergmann, M. Stauffacher, P. Martens, P. Moll, M. Swilling, C.J. Thomas. 2012. Transdisciplinary research in sustainability science: practice principles, and challenges. Sustainability Science 7:25-43, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-011-0149-x.

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Matt Baumann

I earned a PhD from the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography in 2013. My research focused on investigating upper ocean particle transport and phytoplankton controls on carbon export in the Bering Sea west of the Alaska mainland. After graduate school I worked as an environmental science consultant in Cambridge, MA, on a variety of projects including the Deepwater Horizon oil spill natural resource damage assessment. I recently moved south and took a job as a water quality modeler for the State of South Carolina.

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