No More Speculation: Scientists Prove Ocean Acidification is Already Underway

By Rachel Cernansky | March 10, 2009 4:23 pm

coral.jpgWhile concerns over ocean acidification are not new, a recent study provides more concrete evidence than ever before that the process has already begun. Australian scientists found that shells of the microscopic, amoeba-like organisms called foraminifera, which exist by the billions in oceans around the world, have become significantly thinner since the Industrial Revolution.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, is the first to look specifically at acidification and pin it to greenhouse-gas pollution, which is driven especially by the invisible product of burning oil, gas and coal. “It is the invasion of anthropogenic (man-made) CO2 that is causing this particular source of acidification,” said co-author William Howard [AFP].

The research team compared newer shells of Globigerina bulloides, a species of foraminifera, with shells of the same species that had sunk hundreds of years earlier; the modern shells were found to be 30 to 35 percent lighter than older specimens of about the same size. The older shells predate the industrial age, when CO2 levels started rising and the acidity of the ocean, caused by the absorption of the gas, began to increase…. As ocean acidity increases, the saturation levels of carbonate minerals in the water decreases, making it more difficult for organisms to precipitate out the carbonate for their shells [The New York Times].

Foraminifera are an important part of the ecological chain and also provide a bulwark against global warming. They transform carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air into calcium-based shells. When they die, their carbon-rich shells sink to the ocean floor, effectively storing the atmospheric CO2 forever…. If the loss of shell mass threatens the survival of the amoeba-like creatures, it could also disrupt a food chain reaching from the plankton they eat, all the way up to large sea mammal such as whales [AFP]. Though scientists have only recently begun to study ocean acidification, they worry about its potential to disrupt the earth’s carbon cycle, and are also concerned that because it occurs on such a large scale efforts to reverse the trend are not likely to be effective in the short-term.

Already, ocean acidity has increased about 32% since pre-industrial times. By 2100, it is projected to have increased by perhaps 130%, which scientists fear could have a potentially catastrophic impact on marine life [BBC]“If forams and other shell makers are not making shells, that might change the transfer of carbon from the surface ocean into the deep ocean,” said Howard. “It changes the efficiency of the biological pump, and would tend to lessen the degree to which the ocean takes up carbon [AFP].

Related Content:
80beats: Ocean Acidification: Worse Than the Big Problem We Thought It Was
80beats: Ocean Acidification Could Leave Clown Fish (Like Nemo) Lost at Sea
80beats: A Glimpse Into a Future With Acidic Oceans
80beats: In a More Acidic Ocean, Coral Reef “Skeletons” May Crumble
DISCOVER: Ocean Acidification: A Global Case of Osteoporosis

Image: William Howard

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, Living World
  • FILTHpig

    Just as suspected: We Are SCREWED!

  • Patrick

    The oceans are the cradle of life on our planet and we’re trying our dangdest to kill ‘em. Whales can’t even communicate with eachother anymore due to the human infestation. We pump mercury into the water like we’re trying to turn the oceans into a big ole thermometer. We over fish them, drain our fertilizer into them, and fill them with a continent’s worth of plastic. Why is all of this? How much is necessary?
    If we refused mass consumerism, eventually they’d curb production. Why does everything have to be individually wrapped in plastic? Why not make ketchup packets bigger, since we use more than one anyway. Why not use a renewable resource to make plastics? Why not use natural gas to fuel our cars instead of refining oil and corn alcohol to do what natural gas will do readily? And we’re just burning it off the top in many areas of the world. Why does white rice cost more than brown rice? Why do we pay more for all refined foods than foods in their natural state?
    We’ve been duped into buying everything they sell us because we’re scared to think for ourselves. We can’t communicate or cooperate with each other without the constant intervention of people and groups we’ll never know personally.
    We need to teach conservation,, personal finance, and common courtesy at a young age. Our educational system harps on standardized test results, when they should teach specialization. Why not identify young people’s talents and exploit them? We have millions of workers here who could probably benefit mankind if they only knew how.
    Why am I mentioning us? Because, as Americans, it’s our demands on the world market, our inefficiencies in manufacturing, our wastefulness and greed which are dictating the future of our world. We all know it’s true we’re just too timid and careless to do anything about it.

  • George

    * Global Screaming: Climate Hysteria Reaches New Level – The fact that warming has been detected on other planets like Mars and Jupiter where there are no humans at all?:
    http://www.dakotavoice.com/2009/03/global-screaming-climate-hysteria-reaches-new-level/
    * LiveScience – Sun Blamed for Warming of Earth and Other Worlds – Earth is heating up lately, but so are Mars, Pluto and other worlds in our solar system, leading some scientists to speculate that a change in the sun’s activity is the common thread linking all these baking events:
    http://cristiannegureanu.blogspot.com/2009/03/carbon-emissions-creating-acidic-oceans.html

  • http://friendfeed.com/innomen Brandon M Sergent

    To those freaking out:

    Relax. Just more motivation to extricate ourselves from the food chain completely. Besides, the down side to this even worst case, isn’t all that bad relatively speaking. There are a billion worse things to worry about at this point. Most all of them having to do with us being chained to a single ball of dirt looping a single star.

    And besides, the most any of you are willing to do about it is complain on the internet, I don’t see anyone selling the SUV riding a bike to work over this article.

    So please, shhh.

  • Patrick

    It will take me about 5 hours to ride a bike to work, but I’m gonna do it.

    How can we survive without nourishment? If we can ever figure that one out, then anything’s possible.

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    George….re: warming on Mars and Jupiter. Is it warming on Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Uranus, or Neptune? Are any of the 100 plus bodies swarming around also warming? What part of Jupiter is warming? Did they measure the whole planet or did they just measure one small gaseous band, which is like measuring the temperature of something like a hurricane here on earth and claiming it represents the whole planet?

    Also why are Mars and Pluto warming…perhaps it is due to orbital angle, or moving into their summer season? Planets and planetoids do have warm and cold seasons, like earth. It makes sense that some will be getting warmer and some will be getting colder.

    How much has Pluto warmed up? Check Pluto’s distance from the sun compared to Earth’s—then workout the amount of heat needed to warm Pluto by x degrees and figure out what that would do to Earth if the sun’s heat had actually increased enough to warm Pluto by the amount they say it is warming (hint: . :)

    Do not get rely on Joe and Jane blogger or newspapers for your information. Instead, go to the source and see what the scientists themselves are saying. A scientist’s reputation depends upon his objectivity and honesty and you are far more likely to get reliable information from them as compared to a usually anonymous blogger who is more interested in defending an ideology rather than discovering the truth. Not saying scientists are perfect, but their work needs to stand up to intense scrutiny by thousands of other experts and if the work isn’t good, it will be discarded. Best wishes as you do some real research.

  • eukaryote

    George – umm… this article is not even about global warming, it’s about acidification of the oceans due to increased carbon dioxide levels, get your alternate realities straight. Are the oceans on Mars getting more acidic? Oh wait, there aren’t any oceans on Mars because Mars is an inhospitable hell, like the rest of the solar system other than Earth. What causes people like you to want to plug their ears and cover their eyes and exist in a state of denial that carbon dioxide is a pollutant?

  • Earl_E

    Oh come now. The shells are mearly thinning themselves to become more energy efficient and reduce their carbon shellprint.

    Not only do I ride my bike today, but I have planted an orchard, grow many of my own vegatables, just stocked my new pond for the first time with feeder fish, and will begin planting a 3 tree deep wind break to try and save the crops from hurricane force winds that now make it inland 1000 miles.

    The idiots who talk about the temps on Mars feel sure about scientific measurements on those planets, yet doubt the validity of measurements on our own.

    Cause? Brain damage from mercury poisoning.

    Like mankind, ignorance is a force of nature too. It has helped end the existance of many cultures throughout human history, and looks like it will be complicit in this collapse as well.

    Economics as if people don’t matter. If someone can line their pockets with cash destroying the world, they will.

  • Mina Tweak

    I have to make light of a serious situation and say: An acid ocean is a great place to dissolve the worlds trash!

  • nicolew

    I think Brandon hit on something – we’re doomed as a race unless we get ourselves off this planet eventually, even if the most dire of the predictions don’t come true.

    We should be equally concerned with sustainability/conservation and space exploration/ developing the technology that will take us to new worlds and enable us to terraform them to suit our needs.

  • yonason

    Part I.

    No, it has not been “proven.” The ocean pH varies considerably from place to place, from summer to winter, and the deeper you go, the lower it goes. So what?

    Ocean pH isn’t changing, as this record clearly shows.
    http://sanctuarymonitoring.org/regional_docs/monitoring_projects/100240_167.pdf

    The “average” pH of oceans is a LOT more variable than they want you to believe, as seen in this graphic from Cambridge University reveals.
    http://www.cambridge.org/resources/0521538432/1488_218437.pdf

    And it is physically impossible to “acidify” the oceans with the CO2 that is potentially available, even if we burn all fossil fuels.
    http://jennifermarohasy.com/blog/2008/10/not-enough-co2-to-make-oceans-acidic-a-note-from-professor-plimer/

  • yonason

    Part II.

    It is physically impossible to “acidify” the oceans with the CO2 that is potentially available, even if we burn all fossil fuels.
    http://jennifermarohasy.com/blog/2008/10/not-enough-co2-to-make-oceans-acidic-a-note-from-professor-plimer/

    Finally, a couple of rhetorical questions: What was the pH like when the [CO2] was 10 times what it is today? How did ocean life survive then? It did, you know, and with no help from the Greenies.

    …and not so rhetorically… Why don’t you worry about how to feed humanity? You can start by not turning food into inefficient fuel. That would increase food availability and affordability to starving people around the world. Burning food is bad even when there’s enough to go around, but when it isn’t, that’s just evil.
    http://jennifermarohasy.com/blog/2006/12/the-great-grain-drain-a-note-from-aaron-edmonds/
    http://heliogenic.blogspot.com/2009/02/corn-ethanol-galactically-stupid.html
    And when it takes more energy to generate that “fuel” than it ends up containing, it’s just plain foolish. Talk about turning a silk purse into a sow’s ear. What genius came up with that?

  • Rwethereyet

    Re: yonason
    Part I. 1) Yes, ocean acidification has been ‘proven.’ Unlike global warming, ocean chemistry is really straightforward. All models match predictions, seawater carbonate chemistry is easy to predict and measure with a given CO2 loading, etc etc.

    2) Everybody knows ocean pH varies temporally and spatially, but what is the overall trend? Just like CO2 isn’t the same everywhere but is clearly overall increasing based on measurements taken throughout the world. By your reasoning, if body temperature varies on different parts of the body and depending on if you are exercising- who cares about that 105ºF (and rising) fever?

    3) Oooh, nice pH record. Try looking up Hawaii Ocean Time Series (HOTS) or Bermuda Atlantic Time Series (BATS). These are the best long term records of precise oceanographic measurements. They clearly show decreasing pH. HOTS: http://hahana.soest.hawaii.edu/hot/trends/trends.html

    4) Your next point about variable ocean pH has a link to a partial Bjerrum diagram. This is great because Bjerrum diagrams actually show the effect of CO2 on pH and ocean chemistry (and support my earlier point that ocean chemistry is well-defined): As CO2 increases, the equilibrium point moves towards lower pH and decreased carbonate (which is important for shell-builders). One reason the ocean has variable pH is because different parts of the ocean absorb or emit CO2 differently, hence you will have different pHs. This doesn’t change the fact that the ocean is absorbing CO2 and that is changing the ocean chemistry.

    Part II: 5) It is impossible to acidify the oceans even after burning all possible fossil fuels. Finally, you got something right! (You just interpreted it wrong.) OA means the ocean is getting more acidic, not that it is or will ever be acidic. Right now it’s basic, and in the future it will be less basic- would it please you if we started calling it ocean-less-basicidification? If you dropped an ice cube in a cup of boiling water, the water would have undergone some cooling, but no one would ever say it’s cold. (And again, it’s not necessarily pH that matters but the reduced buffering capacity of the oceans).

    6) You ask what was the pH like back when CO2 was much higher? Like when? During the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which was marked by mass-extinctions? The better question to ask is when has the rate of temperature and CO2 increase or pH decrease been so rapid and what was the effect on life on this planet? It’s the rate of change that matters.

    7) You ask why don’t we worry about feeding humanity? Who says we aren’t? Don’t put up strawman arguments next to your poor understanding of ocean chemistry. Climate change is supposed to introduce more instability in climate patterns, which actually threatens food supply, political institutions, and so on. Therefore, addressing climate change is in the best interest of humanity. Bringing your tangent back to the current article, what do you suppose will happen to the ecosystems and the people that depend on them for food if OA reduces the shell-forming organisms’ (i.e. base of the food chain) capacity to build shells?

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

80beats

80beats is DISCOVER's news aggregator, weaving together the choicest tidbits from the best articles covering the day's most compelling topics.
ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »