The chemistry of the oceans is changing. And it isn’t just the corals and the baby oysters that are unhappy. It makes juvenile rockfish really anxious, and it upsets the digestion of sea urchins.
The pH (a measure of acidity – the lower the pH, the more acid the water) of the planet’s oceans is dropping rapidly, largely because the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are increasing. Since carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid, the seas are responding to global change.
The first and clearest victims are likely to be the corals, which are adapted to a specific value of pH in the oceans, but there have also been problems reported by oyster farmers.
Now Martin Tresguerres of the University of California, San Diego reports in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B that at least one species of juvenile fish responds badly to the changes in ocean chemistry.
There is a natural aspect to ocean acidification – submarine volcanoes discharge carbon dioxide and turn the deep seas around them to a kind of fizzing champagne, and upwelling ocean currents can occasionally deliver a stressful level of lower pH sea water to blight fishing waters.
But Tresguerres reports that he and colleagues subjected young Californian rockfish to the kind of water chemistry predicted as atmospheric carbon levels rise, and then measured their behaviour in response to changes of light in the aquarium, and to an unfamiliar object in the tank.
Ocean acidification – where the ocean becomes less alkaline as it absorbs excess CO2from the atmosphere – has been described as the evil twin of global warming. Yet, remarkably, it is only over the past decade that scientists have started to recognise the very real threat it poses to coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.
As late as 2004, a survey conducted among coral reef scientists revealed ocean acidification was ranked 36th out of 39 identified threats to coral reefs, well below other threats such as tourism, scientific research and the aquarium trade.
Fast-forward to 2013 and it is widely recognised that ocean acidification is becoming one of the top threats to coral reefs. The surface ocean has already taken up approximately one-quarter of the anthropogenic CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, leading to increasing acidity.
Atmospheric CO2 will only increase from here, so the impacts of these chemical changes to coral reef organisms and ecosystems in the future are likely to be significant.
Worryingly, new research suggests that we may still be underestimating the size of the impact and how soon irreversible damage could occur.
For more than a century, Bill Taylor's family has used the calm, protected waters of Puget Sound to raise oysters, planting billions of larvae in underwater beds and then harvesting them to ship to some of the finest restaurants in the world.
Lisa Trundley-Banks's insight:
A very further article that also investigates the wider implications of the problem.
The Pacific Oceanscape’s 30,000 islands and islets face rising sea levels, ocean acidification and depleted fish stocks. Conservation International is working to protect the region's livelihoods, biodiversity and cultural value.
Ocean acidification due to anthropogenic CO2 emissions is a dominant driver of long-term changes in pH in the open ocean, raising concern for the future of calcifying organisms, many of which are present in coastal habitats.
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