Environment

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Hassan Ammar/AP

Oceans Becoming Too Acidic for Marine Life, Scientists Warn

February 05, 2009 07:29 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are turning oceans acidic. The problem could wreak havoc on fish, coral reefs, and other marine life.

Scientists Issue Warning

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A group of 150 marine scientists from 26 countries recently issued a warning to political leaders that carbon dioxide emissions must be reduced before ecosystems are severely damaged by ocean acidification.

In the Monaco Declaration, made on Jan. 30 in anticipation of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, they say that the effects of acidification are already apparent.

“The chemistry is so fundamental and changes so rapid and severe that impacts on organisms appear unavoidable.” said James Orr of the Marine Environment Laboratories (MEL-IAEA), according to the European Project on Ocean Acidification. “The questions are now how bad will it be and how soon will it happen.

Among other effects, acidic seawater can dissolve the shells of snails, cause the disintegration of coral reefs, and even disorient fish. According to marine biologists Philip Munday and Kjell Doving, who recently published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, clownfish who were raised in acidic waters similar to that of today’s oceans displayed an impaired sense of smell and as a result had trouble finding their way home.

Ocean acidification occurs when the world’s bodies of water absorb carbon dioxide gases created by the burning of fossil fuels. Global ocean pH levels have fallen about 0.1 points since preindustrial times and are expected to drop 0.3–0.4 points by 2100. Wired points out that while the numbers may seen inconsequential, they “represent an unprecedented change in both degree and pace in the last 650,000 years.”

“If acidification continues unabated, the impairment of sensory ability will reduce population sustainability of many marine species, with potentially profound consequences for marine diversity,” wrote Munday and Doving.

Background: A growing problem

Marine experts have been warning for years that ocean acidification is a pressing problem. “Ocean chemistry is changing to a state that has not occurred for hundreds of thousands of years,” said Richard Feely of Seattle’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, according to National Geographic in 2007. “Shell-building by marine organisms will slow down or stop. Reef-building will decrease or reverse.” Feely says that ocean acidity has risen 30 percent since industrialization. Some predict that by 2100 it could increase another 150 percent.

In November 2008, University of Chicago scientists warned in a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that oceans were acidifying faster than was previously thought. While scientific evidence of the phenomenon was previously limited, their study, which made 24,519 measurements of ocean pH over eight years, found that increasing acidity correlates with levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. “The acidity increased more than 10 times faster than had been predicted by climate change models and other studies,” said J. Timothy Wootton, the lead author of the study, according to Science Daily. “This increase will have a severe impact on marine food webs and suggests that ocean acidification may be a more urgent issue than previously thought, at least in some areas of the ocean.”

Related Topic: “A Sea Change”

The upcoming documentary A Sea Change, set to premiere in theaters on March 14, aims to educate the public about the crisis and is “both a personal journey and a scientifically rigorous, sometimes humorous, and unflinchingly honest look at a reality that we all must act on before the oceans of our youth are lost for future generations.”

Reference: Study

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