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Photo by Richard Leitner

Photo by Richard Leitner

Isabella O’Brien tested her theory that crushed sea shells might help neutralize ocean acidity caused by rising carbon dioxide levels. The Grade 7 St. Augustine student was among more than 400 students who entered experiments in the annual Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair held at Mohawk College on the weekend.

A measured solution to a global problem

St. Augustine student enlists shells to fight ocean acidity

By Richard Leitner, News Staff

Isabella O’Brien began pondering one of the most vexing problems facing the planet while on a scuba diving trip to Mexico.

“It was really nice but there was a lot of dead coral and it was kind of gross,” the Grade 7 St. Augustine student recalls.

She researched the issue and found that higher ocean acidification – caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide, the gas also blamed for climate change – is making it harder for marine animals to build their shells.

Isabella wondered if she might have a solution, at least on a smaller scale: adding crushed sea shells, which are mostly calcium carbonate, to neutralize acidity.

To test her idea, she got three containers: one was filled with water to represent normal conditions and two were filled with water and vinegar to create ocean-like acidity.

Shells were placed in each container, but crushed shells were added to one of the two with higher acidity to see if they had any effect.

She measured the shells’ weight loss and the containers’ pH levels each week, discovering she was right: the container with crushed shells had less acidity and its shells lost less weight than those in the other acidic one.

Shells in the normal water “weren’t affected that much.”

One of more than 400 area students who entered experiments in the annual Bay Area Science and Engineering Fair held at Mohawk College on the weekend, Isabella says she believes her idea might have practical applications.

“You obviously can’t buffer the whole ocean, but we’d be able to take protected areas and at least protect some species while we try to stop our carbon dioxide emissions,” she says.

While she’s passionate about the environment, Isabella says there are also economic reasons to act.

“Recently, inVancouver they lost billions of oysters and the main reason was ocean acidification,” she says. “Oysters take three years before you can harvest them, so it’s really a big deal if a farm loses a billion oysters.”

Zach Hampson and Antony Skerret had a problem closer to home, and their stomachs, in mind.

The Grade 7 Sir William Osler students wanted to see if breakfast really is one of the most important meals of the day. So they got 15 students to take a math test and write on the back what they’d eaten that morning.

As they predicted, breakfast appeared to play a key role: those who ate a healthy one generally scored highest, those who had none mostly did the worst and those eating at least something fell in between.

“Even if you have a somewhat unhealthy breakfast, it’s better than eating nothing,”Antonysays. “It’s important to have breakfast every day.”

The boys say they realized they didn’t account for one factor in their experiment, one they’d correct if they were to do it again: some students might have just been better at math.

“If we did the project next time, we would round up students that had more stable scores in the same area,” Zach says, suggesting choosing subjects that generally score 80 to 85 per cent on tests.

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