Waldbusser and Hales Join Up to Study Ocean Acidification

Editor’s Note: This issue of The Climate CIRCulator spotlights not one, but two researchers in the

Top: Burke Hales (Photo: Don Frank). Bottom: George Waldbusser (Photo: Oregon Sea Grant)

same profile. To see why, read on.
You could think of Oregon State University scientists George Waldbusser and Burke Hales as the Lennon and McCartney of climate science. Like the two Beatles icons, their collaboration works precisely because of their differences. They bring a synergy of talents to their research that allows for unique insights.

Hales is a chemist, Waldbusser a biologist. For the past five years their divergent interests have united around studying ocean acidification and its effects on marine organisms. Together, the two have coauthored three papers, with another four currently in the works. (Their most recent paper is reviewed in this issue of the CIRCulator; see “The Role of Saturation in Seashell Formation.”)

Ocean acidification is the common name for what happens when carbon dioxide from fossil fuels dissolves in seawater, lowering the water’s pH, with deleterious results for shell-forming creatures. To date, most acidification research has revolved around the broader ocean. But scientists have discovered that many estuaries — including those along the Pacific Northwest coast — act as “hotspots” where the effects of acidification are intensified. (See the June/July 2014 CIRCulator.) Waldbusser and Hales’ work has focused largely on these estuaries. Because of the ecological and economic importance of estuaries, Hales says it’s high time we start paying attention to them.

“We really can’t think of ocean acidification in terms of a quiescent blue ocean with a slow-moving baseline response,” says Hales, who has studied the carbonate chemistry of estuaries for over two decades. “Most of the places where sensitive organisms live are in estuaries, not in the open ocean.”

Waldbusser concurs.

“The way I think about it is, you have these big global changes,” he says. “And then you have all these other factors happening in the estuaries. The one doesn’t preclude the other.”

One estuary that caught the researchers’ eyes is Oregon’s Netarts Bay. There in 2007, workers at the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery noticed that their Pacific oyster larvae were dying en masse. Hales and Waldbusser later would pin the deaths on ocean acidification.

At Whiskey Creek, Hales and Waldbusser worked closely with each other and the hatchery to develop a monitoring and treatment program for the bay water used for raising larvae. The system was lovingly named the “Burkelator” after Hales. From the hatchery, further collaborations would develop.

Hales and Waldbusser’s current work includes:

  • Developing stress models to characterize how larvae respond to acidification
  • Examining the carbonate chemistry inside and outside seagrass beds and how that might help or hurt oysters and clams
  • Additional water quality examinations at multiple oyster hatcheries in the region
  • Developing a mechanistic understanding of larval bivalve responses to acidification.

Hales says his collaboration with Waldbusser has worked in large part because Waldbusser has an extensive background in biochemistry. For his part, Waldbusser says Hales has learned to think like a biologist. This has allowed the two to seamlessly converge both biological and chemical aspects of their work.

“For an experimental biologist, George has a chemist’s rigor,” says Hales. “He’s been able to carry out biological measurements that look like chemical measurements.”

Waldbusser puts it this way: “Our expertise and backgrounds are very complementary. We get along pretty well, too.”

Nathan Gilles is the managing editor of The Climate Circulator, and oversees CIRC’s social media accounts and website. When he’s not writing for CIRC, Nathan works as a freelance science writer. 



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