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Land-use change, runoff pollution and a vibrant shellfish industry render North Carolina among the most socioeconomically vulnerable states to future acidification impacts. An understanding of these factors can lead to the development of the tools necessary for coastal industries and ecosystems to mitigate and adapt to these changes.



There are no continuous monitoring stations in North Carolina for acidification but water sampling has provided insight into the chemistry of North Carolina's coastal waters. Need a primer on acidification chemistry first?

  • IS CARBON DIOXIDE INCREASING?  High variability in the coastal region limits our ability to detect trends over short time monitoring timeframes. Over the 8 years of monitoring at the Pivers Island Coastal Observatory (PICO), scientists have not yet detected a significant trend in decreasing pH, but have seen more extremes in recent years.

  • HIGH VARIABILITY: In coastal ecosystems, the variability within one year, and even sometimes within days, can exceed that expected from seawater absorbing CO2, but ocean and coastal acidification can cause more extremes- higher highs of CO2 and lower lows of pH. Learn more about the PICO site and variability

  • STORMS: North Carolina is no stranger to storms and these passing events can really mix things up in our coastal waters. Huge amounts of freshwater from rain can make it harder for seawater to buffer against changes in pH, meaning that we can see big drops in pH during and after big storms. Furthermore, storms can bring organic debris, like marsh grass, into the water where it's broken down by bacteria that release CO(just like we breathe out CO2). Much of this COwill actually go back into the atmosphere! Scientists are working to understand storms' role in this exchange

Monitoring Locations:​

  • PICO The Pivers Island Coastal Observatory, or PICO, is operated by the Dr. Zackary Johnson laboratory at Duke University. This monitoring site began in 2010 and includes both a coastal station at Pivers Island as well as offshore sampling. Learn more

  • MODMON: The Neuse River Estuary Modeling and Monitoring Project (MODMON)  is a collaborative effort between the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources (NC-DENR). The effort extensively monitors and assesses coastal water, including pH. 

  • ECOA: The East Coast Ocean Acidification (ECOA) research cruise passes by once every 3 years with multiple transects off the North Carolina coast. The research cruise is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric's Ocean Acidification Program. Learn more about their monitoring efforts here.  



Research to understand the impacts of acidification on North Carolina's biological resources has largely focused on the eastern oyster, Crassostrea virginica. North Carolina's shellfish industry is one of the fastest growing in Southeast and continued efforts to build the industry. How might acidification affect shellfish in North Carolina?

  • SHELL GROWTH: While the effects of acidification on the eastern oyster have been relatively well studied, there are few examples of research on these stocks from the U.S. Southeast. Studies in other regions have found significant vulnerabilities in larval and juvenile shell mineralogy as well as some effects on metabolic rates

  • REPRODUCTION: Though oyster reproduction appeared to be resilient to open ocean projections of pH change, “severe” treatments (pH 7.1) showed significant effects to reproduction with female reproduction particularly vulnerable. These conditions may sound extreme, but they are not uncommon in coastal marsh habitats in the summer (think about the extremes we discussed above). If the results of these experiments are reflected in oysters' natural habitats, there could be seasonal bottlenecks in oyster populations- males can reproduce but if female's can't, we'll have fewer oysters.

What about the other organisms?

  • PLANKTON: Plankton are the small organisms that drift in seawater and include a rich diversity of bacteria, fungi, phytoplankton (small plants) and zooplankton. When it comes to acidification, there are winners and losers in the plankton community. Many studies show that acidification can shift community structure of plankton; plankton are at the base of the food web, so this could have implications for many other organisms. 

  • FISH: There have not been any studies investigating the effects of acidification on fish in North Carolina.  Many studies suggest fish, such as red drum, appear to be resilient but there may be effects of acidification on early life stages of some species (e.g. summer flounder). It is almost important to consider the indirect consequences of acidification on fish habitat and the organisms, such as plankton, that fish eat. 

  • CORAL: Believe it or not, North Carolina does have coral off it's coast- it's just much deeper than you can dive! Deep-sea corals serve as important habitat and nursery grounds for a diversity of fishes. Like their shallow water counterparts, deep-sea coral are likely to experience impacts from acidification. These impacts can include reduced calcification and changes to their ability to form reef-framework. Learn more about North Carolina's deep reefs here



All images above used with permission from Baxter Miller

North Carolina's shellfish industry is expanding (check out this map of growers​but research shows the state is not currently well-equipped to adapt to changing conditions. 

  • THE INDUSTRY: The oyster industry currently generated $7.5 million in economic activity but has the potential to expand to over $100 million by 2030. North Carolina's Strategic Plan for Shellfish Mariculture cites maintaining and improving water quality as a key recommendation, noting that in 2017, 19% of growing areas were closed due to poor water quality and 14% closed because of lack of funding to monitor water quality. 

  • SENSITIVITY: Research has shown North Carolina is within the top 20% of most economically sensitive states for acidification impacts on shellfisheries. This high sensitivity was driven by the landed value of shellfish, the proportion of shellfish to all fish harvested and the number of jobs in the industry. Explore the map here

  • ADAPTATION CAPACITY: North Carolina, and most of U.S. Southeast, is considered to have low adaptive capacity to the effects of acidification on shellfisheries. This conclusion was based off metrics that included the amount of funding to Sea Grants, status of climate adaptation plans, and existence of state policy on acidification. Explore the map here


Rua Mordecai

South Atlantic Landscape Conservation Collaborative

Rua coordinates the development of the Southeast Conservation Blueprint, a living, spatial plan that identifies important areas for conservation and restoration across the Southeast and Caribbean ( His acidification-related work focuses on developing mechanistic models that connect the impacts of conservation actions on land and in the water with acidification and impacts on estuarine and marine ecosystems. Learn more. 


Astrid Schnetzer

North Carolina State University

Dr. Schnetzer's group studies responses in plankton community structure and function to multiple anthropogenic stressors. Most of the work has focused on the impact that changes in temperature, carbon dioxide and/or nutrients have on plankton diversity, growth and energy transfer through the food web. The Schnetzer lab works along the North Carolina coast, in the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Arctic. The approaches include a combination of microcosm experiments and field observations for both phyto- and zooplankton. Learn more.


Ruoying He
North Carolina State University

Dr. He's research expertise spans from coastal circulation dynamics and air-sea interaction to biophysical interactions. As the director of the Ocean Observing and Modeling Group, he conducts coastal ocean observations, remote sensing data analyses, and  leads the development of prediction models of ocean circulation, air-sea-wave interactions, physical-biogeochemical couplings, as well as data assimilation. Learn more.


Zackary Johnson

Duke University

The Johnson Lab at Duke University broadly studies the abundance, diversity and activity of marine microbes in the context of changing marine environments. The lab's research includes observational and experimental approaches towards understanding how changing carbonate chemistry (including ocean acidification) impacts phytoplankton and other key organisms in the coastal waters of North Carolina. Learn more.


Dana Hunt

Duke University

The Hunt lab investigates ocean acidification largely in the context of our long term time series site, the Pivers Island Coastal Observatory (PICO; Beaufort, NC), to examine changes in the carbonate system in the dynamic coastal site.  The lab has also compared the impact of future climate conditions (with warmed and more acidic seawater mesocosms) on microbial populations in both the coastal and open ocean, to determine whether coastal microbes, which are exposed to more variability in pH and temperature, are more resilient to environmental change. Learn more.


Hans Paerl

University of North Carolina

The Paerl lab investigates nutrient-productivity relationships, including eutrophication and harmful algal blooms. The work is relevant to coastal acidification because the lab assesses carbon uptake and mineralization, as well as external carbon (inorganic and organic) inputs to estuarine and coastal ecosystems. The group researches how the carbon dynamics are impacted by land use as well as climatic change, including more extreme precipitation associated with an upsurge in tropical cyclones and extra-tropical storm events.  Learn more. 


Much of the information above came from the SOCAN North Carolina Stakeholder Workshop Report. The workshop attendees proposed the following list of next steps and opportunities in North Carolina:
  • Utilize existing and small funding sources to begin monitoring efforts in collaboration with oyster farms and university students.

  • Investigate opportunities to incorporate carbonate chemistry measurements at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington Shellfish Research Hatchery.

  • Collaborate with NC Sea Grant to develop enhanced reporting of shellfish mortality events in conjunction with water quality measurements.

  • Identify NC Department of Environmental Quality (NCDEQ) divisions and roles as they relate to acidification, including those involved in regulations of impervious surface and agriculture point source runoff. Strategize opportunities for a unified approach to link acidification monitoring and mitigation with existing NCDEQ efforts.

  • Examine how existing water quality monitoring efforts (e.g. NERRs, Duke University) can translate to stakeholder needs.

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