Empirically Yours

Common Sense from an Uncommon Clam


Clam: Ouch! Watch where you’re walking.

Homo sapiens (H sap): What are you doing on top of the sand? You’re usually buried a foot or so into the sand.

Clam: I’m trying to build my shell away from the sea water that tastes sour, and it’s getting worse every day. You must know what I’m talking about.

H sap: No, sorry, I don’t.

Clam: Ocean acidification resulting from constantly increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

H sap: What was that? Ocean acid something and the atmosphere? What’s the connection? You’re a clam so where did you even learn language like that?

Clam: My, my. You really are ignorant, aren’t you? I rely on carbon, in the form of carbonate (CO3), dissolved in sea water, for life. I can only add carbonate to my shell and grow if the acidity of the sea water is correct, at a level I evolved with. Over the past several years the acidity of Puget Sound water has been rising. The state has studied this and the results have been published. Atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide and oxygen are in contact with the oceans and they dissolve in sea water. Carbon dioxide is not neutral; after it dissolves, it makes the water more acidic by forming bicarbonate — HCO3 — simple as that. So, the water I live in is becoming more acidic and the carbonate I depend on is harder for me to remove from the water to make my shell. Other studies show that when some of my sisters and brothers were placed in water with the acid level Puget Sound could reach in 20 years, if today’s trend continues, everyone got sick and their shells had defects, including holes. Actual holes! The carbonate I grew up with is being replaced with bicarbonate. I repeat: There is too much carbon dioxide in the air and when it dissolves in the sea, it makes HCO3.

H sap: I had no idea.

Clam: You’re ignorant about this as well? I can hardly believe this guy! How do you even balance on two feet, one of which is still on my shell?

H sap: Ignorant doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Clam: The shellfish companies learned that the oyster larvae they need to grow each year were dying because the acid levels in the sea water they used were too high, either water from the Sound or from offshore Washington beaches. They were forced to move their cultivation of oyster embryos to Hawaii, where, if they went deep, the water was OK.

H sap: I had no idea.

Clam: My, my. This has been in the news for years.

H sap: Well, I missed that, but I like oysters.

Clam: Good for you! What I’d like to know is where all of this extra carbon dioxide comes from. It’s not always been this bad.

H sap: It’s not our fault. Many of us believe that the carbon dioxide we put in the air from burning fossil fuels is utterly harmless, with no effects on animals and plants or the climate, and it’s not our fault.

Clam: “Not our fault.” Did you ever read “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin?Do you know what an “externality” to a process like mining and burning coal is? The relentless, dreadful change in the ocean is an existential threat to me. I can’t change fast enough to keep up. Do you ever wonder what would happen to salmon if my species and species like me low on the food chain were to disappear? The problem here is bigger than me, bigger even than geoducks or horse clams — it affects the entire food chain in Puget Sound.

H sap: I like salmon.

Clam: Good! Then tell me why Homo sapiens, a species literally named “wise man,” would permit a simple waste product like carbon dioxide to accumulate in the atmosphere and the ocean to poisonous levels. Now kindly get your foot off my shell so I can dig back into my hole.

Richard Gelinas, PhD, whose early work earned a Nobel prize, is a Senior Research Sci- entist at the Institute for Systems Biology. He lives in Lakebay.