Oct
15
2006

Carbon dioxide changes ocean chemistry

Coral in trouble: photo from NOAA via Wikimedia
Coral in trouble: photo from NOAA via Wikimedia

Oceans appear unhealthy

What if Earth's oceans get so sick they start a chain reaction of death? Zones of death are showing up in the Gulf and off the coast of Oregon. The coral reefs off Madagascar, Australia, and Belize are dying.

More than 90 percent of the earth’s living biomass (weight of living matter) is found in the oceans, and 90 percent of that is made up of single cell and microbial species. ...
There are signs that marine life is failing right at the bottom of the food web as the result of global warming, which could start a series of aggravating feedback effects on climate change. Institute of Science in Society

"Increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has had effects in the ocean, where it's causing increased acidity," says director of NSF's biological oceanography program, Phil Taylor, "This increasing acidity has the potential to disrupt the calcifying processes that lead to coral reef development, for example, as well as disrupt those same processes in the microscopic plankton that form the center of the ocean's food web." National Science Foundation

Cacium carbonate depends upon non-acidic ocean

Since the industrial revolution began, ocean pH has dropped by approximately 0.1 units, and it is estimated that it will drop by a further 0.3 - 0.4 units by 2100 as the ocean absorbs more anthropogenic CO2 (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003; Orr et al., 2005) (via Wikipedia). Ocean life which use calcium carbonate find themselves dissolving when their environment is too acidic.

More research needed

In a recent study, scientists discovered several small reefs near Madagascar with corals that appeared to be resilient to rising sea temperatures. These resilient areas could be used to reseed damaged reefs ensuring the continued existence of coral reefs around the world and the marine species that rely upon them for survival.

Coral bleaching should serve as a red flag warning us that we need to understand the complex interactions between changing ocean chemistry and marine ecology. We need to develop research strategies to better understand the long-term vulnerabilities of sensitive marine organisms to these changes.

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