Like most newspapers around the country, The Seattle Times has cut staff and shaved resources in recent years to balance the ever diminishing budget of the modern newspaper. But unlike many of its counterparts, the Times has managed to continue publishing strong science coverage, maintaining both a science and an environmental reporter and producing impressive enterprise work, like last year’s investigation into methadone, a highly addictive painkiller offered disproportionately to Medicaid patients.
So it’s surprising, but not out of character, that when the paper unveiled a new splashy multimedia piece this past weekend—in the style of Snowfall and Riptide—the story it displayed was a mammoth work of environmental reporting. And unlike Snowfall (or Riptide or whatever that horse racing thing was about) the intensive resources drain is not in service of a swishy narrative, but crucial, hard-nosed journalism of global consequences.
Reported by Craig Welch along with photographer Steve Ringman, Sea Change looks at ocean acidification, a process caused by the rising levels of stored carbon dioxide in the Earth seas that Welch calls “the lesser-known twin of climate change.” Some of the basic effects of ocean acidification, most notably the decline of the oyster population, have been widely reported on, but the Times team chose to use the project to explore the phenomenon at scale. Using a Pulitzer Center grant, the team criss-crossed the Pacific, reporting on Alaska’s depleted crab industry, the migration of an oyster farmer to Hawaii, and a researcher in Papua New Guinea’s Solomon Sea using pockets of carbon bubbles to peer into the ocean’s future.
The travel budget alone makes this project a kind of journalistic unicorn—its existence in an age of depletion is newsworthy. But by getting at ocean acidification from so many angles, Welch paints a sobering portrait of an event that is “helping push the seas toward a great unraveling that threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom, and far faster than first expected.”
Here’s why: When CO2 mixes with water it takes on a corrosive power that erodes some animals’ shells or skeletons. It lowers the pH, making oceans more acidic and sour, and robs the water of ingredients animals use to grow shells in the first place.Most of the bells and whistles come from the quality of the reporting and images rather than fancy web packaging: The multimedia components of the project are simply and effectively presented both in stand-alone pages and interspersed throughout the writing. And it’s clear the Timesis thinking of the piece as a kind of living document: Welch has three related articles in the works, including an investigation into the politics of acidification and a number of additional multimedia pieces. The project debuted along with an editorial calling for political response: “The longer the fossil-fuel-burning world waits to act, the longer it will take to undo the damage,” wrote the paper. “Environmental impacts compound over time.”
“What does well in disturbed environments are invasive generalists,” said Ken Caldeira, a climate expert at Stanford’s Carnegie Institution for Science, who helped popularize the term ocean acidification. “The ones that do poorly are the more highly evolved specialists. Yes, there will be winners and losers, but the winners will mostly be the weeds.”
CJR spoke with Welch about how the piece made it from conception to digital life.
How did you first decide this topic was worthy of such an ambitious piece?
In 2009, Steve Ringman and I went to Willapa Bay to do a story on the collapsing of oysters, and back then scientists—theoretically, without a preponderance of evidence—were linking it [to ocean acidification]. Last year they were able to do experiments and publish research that showed that [acidification] was the problem. Six months later, they published the research about pteropods dissolving.
When Steve and I talked to our editors about why we wanted to do the story, what we said is that people don’t grasp the scale of this problem. There’s been an awful lot written about ocean acidification: It’s not like if you google it you don’t find stories. But they’re always about one study. But I don’t think you get the global scope of it. If you put all this information together in one place, you start to get a sense of the scale of the problem. Then we approached the Pulitzer Center with a proposal, and they bit almost immediately.
With such an expansive story, how did you keep it relevant to the Pacific Northwest?