In addition to rising temperatures, wildly fluctuating weather, and higher sea levels, global climate change is triggering a spike in the acidity of the oceans, as the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reacts with seawater. In an attempt to see whether anything like the projected climb in acidity has happened before and what we can expect the results to be, scientists have been looking into the geological record and recently published their findings in Science. Poring over the carbon isotopes in ancient rock, the fossilized bodies of long-extinct creatures, and the chemical compositions of those bodies, they looked as far back—300 million years—as we have fairly reliable geological records. They found that for the track we’re on, there really is no good analog in the past: even the extreme extinction events of the Permian-Triassic Mass Extinction, which killed 96% of marine species, and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, which likewise caused huge extinctions in the oceans, happened after slower rises in acidity than we will see. It’s hard to say how much of those massive extinctions was due to acidification and how much was due to related factors, like warming. But we already know that we’re looking at some pretty serious effects in the future, and this confirms that we’re heading into uncharted territory .
Image courtesy of Repoort / flickr
Some of the consequences of ocean acidification appear obvious: The shells of mollusks, for instance, could dissolve as the pH of ocean water drops thanks to the ocean pulling out some of the excess carbon dioxide humans put into the atmosphere. But what about more subtle effects of seawater growing more acidic?
In the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, researchers set up an experiment to see whether the growing acidity of the ocean could disrupt the marine cycle of nitrogen, which provides key nutrients for plant life. Indeed it can, J. Michael Beman’s team found, and that’s another potentially dangerous side effect of the ocean as a carbon sink.
The authors of the study examined a specific step in the marine nitrogen cycle, called nitrification, in which microorganisms convert one form of nitrogen, ammonium, into nitrate, a form plants and other marine microorganisms require to survive. Previous research studies on experimentally acidified freshwater … in the laboratory have suggested that reduced pH slows nitrification, and one study in coastal ocean waters showed that large pH decreases did the same. [Scientific American]
So Beman sought to test the ocean by gathering samples of seawater from locations around the world and adding CO2 to simulate what will be happening to the oceans in the coming decades. Just decreasing the pH from 8.1 to 8.0 resulted in about 20 percent less nitrate creation, the team wrote. In their experiments that lowered pH between .05 and .14, the nitrate production dropped between 8 and 38 percent.
Sure, the planet’s increasing carbon dioxide levels are making the oceans more acidic, but what does that really mean for sea life? We’ve already heard that the ocean’s changing chemistry is damaging corals and interfering with mussels, but that’s just the beginning. It turns out things could get seriously weird.
In a paper published this week in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by Philip L. Munday of James Cook University have given us a concrete example: the increased CO2-levels make some fish purposely swim towards predators.
As part of his experiment, Munday used a Y-shaped maze to force baby clownfish to choose between two paths. One path reeked of rock cod, a natural predator; the other had no danger scents. Munday’s team compared the choices of fish raised in water of varying carbon dioxide concentrations, from today’s levels of 390 parts per million up to future expected levels of 850 ppm.
Chalk up another unexpected consequence of pumping too much carbon dioxide into the air: According to a new study, the excess CO2 that ends up in seawater is gradually making the oceans noisier.
The changing chemistry of the ocean is one of the major impacts of CO2 emissions. The dissolved gas is changing the pH of the water by making it more acidic, which makes life harder for corals and marine critters with calcium carbonate shells that are corroded by the acidic water. But the new study, published in Nature Geoscience, found that changing the pH of the oceans also reduces the levels of chemicals that absorb sound, like magnesium sulphate and boric acid.
Low-frequency sound in the ocean is produced by natural phenomena such as rain, waves and marine life, and by human activities such as sonar systems, shipping and construction. The sound is absorbed mainly through the viscosity of the water and the presence of certain dissolved chemicals…. But the concentration of chemicals that absorb sound in the oceans has declined as a result of ocean acidification [AFP]. The study found that sound absorption could fall by some 60 percent in high latitudes and deep waters by 2100.
In a bit of unexpected climate related good news—not for us, of course—some shell-building ocean dwellers like blue crabs, shrimp, and lobsters may actually benefit from increased ocean acidification. This surprising finding seems to be good news for lobster lovers, but researchers note that the ongoing acidification still appears to spell trouble for many marine creatures.
Scientists now think that acidifying oceans may allow these select crustaceans to build stronger shells and exoskeletons, instead of making them more brittle. Carbon dioxide (CO2)—the notorious byproduct of fossil fuel burning—dissolves in the ocean. That makes the ocean more acidic. It also reduces the number of so-called carbonate ions in seawater, and these ions are among the primary materials that sea creatures use to build their calcium carbonate shells and skeletons [LiveScience]. Justin Ries, a coauthor on the new study, speculates that these bottom dwellers are somehow better able to manipulate CO2 ions to build their shells, even though fewer CO2 ions are available to them in an acidic environment. However, exactly how they accomplish this is unknown.
Global warming is expected to cause such alarming climate disruptions that talk of hurricanes and heat waves can overshadow another drastic process at work: Burning fossil fuels and otherwise producing excess carbon dioxide makes oceans and other bodies of water more acidic, as the water absorbs the gas. This acidification can change a fish’s physiology in ways that were previously unpredicted and could affect the fish’s survival, according to a study in Science.
Scientists raised groups of white sea bass in water of varying concentrations of carbon dioxide. They found that the fish in the most highly acidified water had the largest rock-shaped ear bones, known in biology parlance at otoliths. That contradicts what the researchers had hypothesized: The ear structure in fish, known as an otolith, is made up of minerals. Scientists knew that increasing carbon dioxide in the oceans — absorbed from the atmosphere — is making the sea more acidic, which can dissolve and weaken shells. They wondered if it also would reduce the size of the otoliths [Los Angeles Times]. Instead, the ear bones of fish growing in the tank with six times as much carbon dioxide than normal were 15 to 17 percent larger than normal. An water with a CO2 concentration about 3.5 times higher than current levels yielded fish with otoliths that were 7 to 9 percent larger than those raised in water with today’s carbon dioxide levels. That’s the CO2 level predicted by the year 2100.
While 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].
Ocean acidification, the second part of the one-two punch packed by global warming, has been shown to disorient young clown fish and prevent them from finding their way to their natural habitats. A new study found that dropping the pH of seawater interfered with the fish‘s ability to sniff out environmental cues. Most research on the environmental impacts of acidification has focused on the vulnerability of shellfish, corals and crustaceans, whose shells are weakened and dissolved by acidic waters. But the latest findings show that fish may also be directly and profoundly affected [Wired News].
A little like the animated movie-star clown fish, Nemo’s real-life counterparts go out to sea upon hatching and some 12 days later must find their way back to a reef to settle down in an anemone home [Science News]. Researchers believe that the fish find their way by following odors in the water. In the new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [subscription required], researchers raised clown fish in tanks filled with water of varying pH, and then tested their ability to follow scents.
Chalk up another potential victim of global warming. A new study warns that the jumbo squid (also known as the Humboldt squid) may not fare well in the coming decades, as the oceans get warmer and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which makes the water more acidic. Jumbo squid blood carries very little oxygen – with each cycle through its body, the oxygen can be used up entirely. This means they must “recharge” constantly, and makes the animals very dependent on what oxygen is available in the water around them. Yet, the warmer water is, the smaller the amount of oxygen it can hold [New Scientist].
What’s more, the squid’s blood cells can carry less oxygen in acidic water. Their blood-oxygen delivery system is highly sensitive to pH, so “the organisms are thought to live chronically ‘on the edge of oxygen limitation,’” the authors wrote. During the day, the squid descend to lower depths in the ocean to rest, slowing down their metabolism to deal with the lower oxygen levels there. At night, they return to well-oxygenated waters nearer the surface to feed [LiveScience]. However, if surface waters are both warmer and more acidic, the squid trying to feed at the surface will get much less oxygen, which will slow down their metabolisms. And lethargic squid are easy targets for predators like sperm whales, researchers say.
Ocean acidification is happening at 10 to 20 times the rate predicted by existing climate models, according to an eight-year study. The rapid acidification of the oceans is linked to global warming and may be a sign that the oceans, the largest absorber of atmospheric carbon dioxide, may not be as hardy as presumed. The changes threaten disaster for marine life with shells that are easily corroded by acid. Marine biologist Nancy Knowlton said, “This is typical of so many climate studies—almost without exception things are turning out to be worse than we originally thought.” [National Geographic News].
The study was done around Takoosh Island off the coast of Washington state and represents the first detailed dataset on variations of coastal pH at a temperate latitude, where the world’s most productive fisheries are found [Times of India]. The researchers took over 24,000 measurements of ocean pH over an 8-year period. During that time, the pH of the seawater was predicted to decrease by only 0.015 points. Instead, the data showed that seawater pH dropped by 0.36 to about 8.1. “The increase in acidity we saw during our study was about the same magnitude as we expect over the course of the next century,” said study co-author Timothy Wootton [National Geographic News].