Research shows oceans are becoming more acidic

The world’s oceans are absorbing an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is increasing their acidity and possibly threatening the survival many marine species, especially calcifying organisms including corals, shellfish and phytoplankton. According to research presented recently at a symposium organized by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the International Council for Science’s Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), this in turn could disrupt marine food chains and alter ocean biogeochemistry in ways that are not yet understood or predictable.

Research shows oceans are becoming more acidic

Scientists at UNESCO meeting raise alert and call for more research

Paris, July 16 — The world’s oceans are absorbing an unprecedented amount of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is increasing their acidity and possibly threatening the survival many marine species, especially calcifying organisms including corals, shellfish and phytoplankton. According to research presented recently at a symposium organized by UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission and the International Council for Science’s Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), this in turn could disrupt marine food chains and alter ocean biogeochemistry in ways that are not yet understood or predictable.

The symposium brought together scientists from the world’s leading oceanographic institutions to discuss how the ocean might be affected by higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, and to develop research priorities to study these future effects. They were also called upon to discuss potential environmental consequences of proposals to use the ocean to sequester excess atmospheric CO2, which is one of the most important greenhouse gases.

A report on the meeting’s conclusions, now available online*, points out that the ocean is one of the Earth’s largest natural reservoirs of carbon and each year absorbs approximately one third of the carbon dioxide emitted by human activities. According to research** led by Christopher Sabine of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in the United States (NOAA, an IOC Member State Agency)* the ocean has taken up approximately 120 billion metric tons of carbon generated by human activities since 1800. The IOC reports that some 20-25 million tons of CO2 are being are being added to the oceans each day.

The absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans is considered a beneficial process that reduces the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and mitigates its impact on global temperatures. However there is growing concern over the price of this service. For the symposium participants, it is now well established that by the middle of this century, the accumulating burden of CO2 entering the ocean will lead to changes in pH or acidity of the upper layers that are three times greater in magnitude and 100 times faster than those experienced between ice ages. Such dramatic changes in the CO2 system in open-ocean surface waters have not been observed for more than 20 million years of earth’s history, concluded the meeting.

The initial findings of limited observation, research and modeling conducted to date and presented to the symposium indicate that in a high CO2 world:

# the ocean would be more acidic globally, and would also be more stratifed in the high latitudes. In addition nutrient concentrations in surface waters of high-latitude regions would be lower, subsurface waters would be less oxygenated, and phytoplankton would experience increased exposure to sunlight. These changes would affect many species and change the composition of biological communities in ways that are not yet understood or predictable.
# many calcifying organisms, including plankton and corals, and also non-calcifying organisms, would be unable to grow and reproduce effectively at higher CO2 and lower pH levels. Rising temperatures — combined with elevated CO2 and decreasing pH — pose a serious threat to coral reefs, possibly leading to the elimination of some reefs by the end of this century.

Participants at the symposium stressed that although the impact of climate change on the ocean has been much debated, the direct impact of CO2 itself has largely been neglected. However, they concluded, changes are clearly underway and their effects may be large and may seriously destabilize marine ecosystems. Their report signals the need for more research and identifies research priorities, in a bid to increase understanding of the changes taking place and their consequences, and to allow for more informed policy decisions in this area.

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1 thought on “Research shows oceans are becoming more acidic”

  1. Here is a bit of info on the dire straits in the oceans all because of dust in the wind.

    It seems clear to me that the focus on “global warming” is a perfectly controlled spin job by those who would have us believe that our energy burning ways have little or no impact on the planet. Global warming at worst will be barely palpable before the end of this century and even that point is hotly debated, even outright rejected by our president. What better way to convince the masses that this is a topic to which the experts can’t agree so why bother with it.

    All the while the real and present danger coming from rising CO2 is happening in that most favourite of all parts of this planet we most love to ignore, the oceans. As the recent article in Science shows the oceans are absorbing most of mans CO2 emissions, if you add the 48% noted in the Science paper which is pure chemistry to the portion that is sequestered via ocean plants one gets way over 50%.

    The really big problem is the ocean plants are dying rapidly and this is also due to rising atmospheric CO2, not just the ones who find it hard in the slightly more acidic ocean water and can’t form shells, ALL OF THEM…. The cause is the fact that the oceans rely on dust in the wind to provide critical micro or really nano-nutrients primarily iron.

    As CO2 has risen from 250ppm to 380ppm over the last century we are seeing a huge benefit to dry land plants, you know the ones that live on soils that become dry and dusty… that dust is the lifeline between earth and water on this blue planet. Since the blue part of the planet is 70+% which part might we think is most in danger. It is comfortable to think of our own terrestrial habitat as being the most important and delicate but that is simply not the case.

    Here is a bit on another major paper about the ill-health of the oceans. The authors got much right but left of some important ingredients.

    Plankton effect on cod recruitment in the North Sea
    GR?GORY BEAUGRAND, KEITH M. BRANDER, J. ALISTAIR LINDLEY, SAMI SOUISSI & PHILIP C. REID Nature 426, 661?664 (2003); doi:10.1038/nature02164


    The authors present outstanding data and interpretation pertaining to the decline in fish and plankton in the North Atlantic though I believe they missed the most powerful underlying cause of this decline. Long term data from China shows that extraordinary dust events occurred in the 1960’s and 70″s coinciding with what is known in ocean science as the Gadoid Outburst.

    The Gadoid Outburst in the North Atlantic was a period of time when super abundance of ocean plankton brought on similar abundance of Cod stocks. I propose that the evidence is clear that this was a result of the unusual amount of dust born iron that arrived in the North Atlantic spurring that unusual abundance of ocean plankton. The evidence is clear that the North Atlantic like the North Pacific depend on the dust from Asia as their primary source of iron and related nano-nutrients.

    That the Mongolia dust was extraordinarily abundant during the Gadoid Outburst is no unrelated coincidence rather it is the most likely explanation. It is clear that efforts in China to mitigate dust storms and topsoil loss are along with rising CO2 resulting in dramatic reductions of Asian dust reaching the northern oceans of the world and resulting in dire losses of primary productivity. The dust levels in the 90’s were only 25% of those in the 60’s!!! How does it work?… Current levels of atmospheric CO2 are effectively reducing evapo-transpiration losses of water in dry land plants resulting in a small but critically important addition to effective ground cover on the dry lands of the world including Mongolia.

    ———check this paper for details——–

    The Dust Storm: Historical evolution of Inner Mongolia and the impacts of the climate change.
    http://www.meteohistory.org/2004polling_preprints/ docs/abstracts/tao_abstract.pdf

    Gao Tao, Xu Yongfu, Li Haiying, Yu Xiao, and Xiao Shujun . These authors report:

    “Since 1949, after the establishment of the People?s Republic of China, many observatories and meteorological stations have been set up in China. Up to now, it has 2,700 sites for meteorological observation, and 118 of them are situated in I.M. Along with the improvement of instruments and observing conditions, the meteorological records have become more detail and more precise than any other historical times. The dust storms occurred in I.M. in the last four decades (1961-2000) was counted following the Criterion of Sandstorm[3] and the definition of dust storm intensity of I.M.[4]. The dust storm frequencies in tow intensity degrees are listed in Table 2, where strong dust storm means its influence radium is more than 60 km and a very strong dust storm (Black Storm) affects more than 100 km in radium.”

    (Ed note: The Table doesn’t reproduce in this blog comment but the detail is in the 1960’s there were 250 major dust storms blowing out of Mongolia in the 1990’s there were only 65…)

    “To confront the serious situation of desertification and frequently occurrence of dust storms, Chinese Government pay much attention to the issue. Huge sum of money has been invited in order to improve the surface environment, control or decrease the speed of desertification process, restore the ecosystem. Also, the Government has taken some sufficient measures and good policies for environmental recovery and protection. Following the nature law to adjust the distribution of water using over the whole region, to return the open up lands for forest and grass, emigration people to some suitable living places from the vulnerable ecological regions. Under the leading of the Chinese Central Government, some plans and policies for ecological system recovery have been taking into actions by Inner Mongolia Local government. There is a hope that the local surface environment might be recovered during the next 10-20 years or even in longer time.”


    As one may see from the above reprot there is a good fit between the very enhanced dust of the 1960’s and 70’s and the time of abundant productivity in the North Atlantic. Even more important however is the fact that dust mitigation efforts in China have yielded major reductions in dust events in both number and severity since then. Today we are seeing the result of this greatly diminished supply of dust and its micro-nutrients especially iron to the North Atlantic and North Pacific. This lowering of dust sourced micro-nutrients is very likely causing the shifting of phyto-plankton species observed in the North Atlantic to species capable of thriving in low iron oceans, the warmer water phyto-plankton species are well fitted to this role.

    This reduction of primary ocean productivity and the attendant loss to the ocean CO2 sink is providing a powerful feedback mechanism to global CO2 levels resulting in more rapidly rising global CO2.

    There are obvious solutions at hand that might economically mitigate this lost productivity in the North Atlantic and North Pacific and that is to restore the iron and other micronutrients that topsoil conservation on land is stealing from our critical ocean ecosystems. This is environmentally safe and will restore lost ocean productivity to recent levels, will help mitigate global climate change, and is easily economical. Further information on this can be found on the web site of The Planktos Foundation. http://www.planktos.com.

    Russ George – Chief Scientist
    The Planktos Foundation
    http://www.planktos .com

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