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Acidification may push over-stressed oceans into the red

08 December 2010

Rising C02 concentrations could have increasing


The UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA), with support from Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), has sent a team of three to the 2010 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP16), held in CancĂșn (Mexico) over the next two weeks. The group led by Dr Carol Turley, is determined to increase awareness of the impact of climate change and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions on the world’s oceans. The oceans cover three quarters of the planet’s surface, occupy more than 90% of its living space and provide food for billions of people. The health of the world’s oceans are essential to the wellbeing of humans, yet ocean acidification is still not a major item on the agenda during climate change talks.

Ocean acidification is the name given to the ongoing decrease in the pH of the earth's oceans, caused by their uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. By the first decade of the 21st century the net change in ocean pH levels represented an increase of some 30% in acidity in the world's oceans since the Industrial Revolution; ocean acidification has become known as ‘climate change’s evil twin’ and is another consequence of our continuous use of fossil fuels, changes in land use and other industrial processes leading to greater carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. Normally, the vast oceans would help to absorb CO2, assisting in slowing the progress of global warming. However, it is clear that our oceans have absorbed as much CO2 as they safely can and are now becoming adversely affected. The chemistry behind ocean acidification is straightforward: add CO2 to water and a weak acid is formed. The ocean has not become an acid, but it has moved a step closer and scientists believe that this change is going to affect species and habitats across the world, ultimately impacting on much of the seafood we eat, and particularly affecting the nations who rely on seafood as their primary source of protein.

“We now know far more about ocean acidification and there is already enough evidence to warrant very serious concern”, says Dr Turley, senior scientist at PML. “Laboratory experiments are showing that creatures which make skeletons or shells from calcium carbonate are likely to have difficulty in growing these essential structures. So far, adult fish seem not to be affected too much, but their eggs and larvae and the plankton amongst which they live are potential casualties as the move towards acidity increases”, continued Dr Turley. “There are too many unknown elements for us to feel comfortable. We don’t know how marine animals may adapt to cope with these chemical changes; whether they can evolve new forms more suitable to the changed conditions, or whether they will simply perish, leaving large gaps in ecosystems. We need to understand these things and the first step will be to rally scientists, stakeholders and politicians to recognise that ocean acidification is real, it is happening now, and it is likely to have significant effects.”

“There is a growing interest from the scientific community; increasingly governments, including the UK through its Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA) are supporting the science that is necessary to fully understand the phenomenon and its effects,” said Dr Carol Turley. “At last year’s meeting in Copenhagen, we made significant progress in highlighting the ocean acidification issue: this year we are determined to build upon this success through working with colleagues from the USA. Ocean acidification has the potential to impact all of our lives, and whilst scientists across the world are working to understand what the impacts might be, it is essential that simultaneously those who make decisions on our behalf are aware of the possible consequences.