When our oceans turn sour

Climate change is a core issue on the Rudd Government’s agenda. But there’s another carbon problem that has been avoided and is largely independent of global warming.

In a speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute last week on Australia’s focus on the Pacific, parliamentary secretary for Pacific Island affairs Duncan Kerr pointed to the effect of marine acidity on coral reefs, the backbone of economic activity for many islander communities. Kerr noted that if land drowns and coral reefs die, the Pacific faces mass movements of people, presenting strategic and humanitarian challenges for Australia.
Confronting the profound problem of acid oceans that could devastate ocean life would demonstrate the Government’s commitment to communities dependent on coastal resources in Australia, the Indian Ocean and South Pacific, as well as dealing with long-term global change.

Rising levels of carbon dioxide in the Southern Ocean are alarming scientists concerned about the productivity of oceans. As human activity introduces increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the ocean becomes more acidic.

The Southern Ocean is particularly important, because it is efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere: it is here that the first effects are being felt.

Under conditions of increasing acidification, parts of the oceans will progressively become uninhabitable for certain types of plankton, the earth’s most important life forms, and coral structures.

Some shell-forming species will struggle to reproduce vital shell structures and skeletons, which will have a direct effect on the ocean food web. Some species will decline, some will be displaced or will disappear and patterns of fisheries will change. Coral reefs, such as the Great Barrier Reef, will also suffer. Coral skeletons will become weaker and growth rates will reduce, leading to a significant decline by the middle of this century. This will deprive parts of our coastline of a natural protective barrier against the ocean, leading to greater threats from storm activity.

Similarly, environmental threats to states in our region with extensive coastal exposure will increase, resulting in more demands on Australia to assist Pacific Island countries with environmental disasters.

The size and global circulation of the oceans restrict the option of a preventive solution to acidification — such as adding ground limestone. So we need to learn how to adapt.

The Government has an opportunity to strengthen its environmental credentials by addressing the problem of ocean acidification.

There are four initial steps we should take.

First, we need a more collaborative national research effort. The current arrangement of loosely associated research institutions lacks the funding and co-ordination to develop an accurate national assessment of the problem.

Second, we need to address our marine research capability. Australia has only two major research platforms and both vessels are approaching the end of their useful lives. We have less capacity than many of our neighbours and are barely on par with New Zealand. As a stopgap measure we could use merchant vessels to begin a national monitoring program by collecting water samples.

Third, Australia should take the lead in monitoring acidification levels in regional waters, especially in the Southern Ocean, and raise the issue of how to sustain our oceans at every opportunity in international bodies.

Many of our regional neighbours depend on coral reefs for tourism, and fish stocks in South-East Asia support some 20 million people. Acidification is therefore likely to generate increased calls for our development assistance.

And finally our security decision-makers need to factor ocean acidification into longer-term national risk assessments. Talking directly to Australia’s marine science experts would be a sound place to start.

We have a larger stake in this issue than most countries. We are an oceanic superpower, with the third largest area of offshore marine estate in the world. Australian fisheries generate $2 billion in revenue and the Barrier Reef supports a $6.9 billion industry. And we are close to the Southern Ocean: the chilly waters to our south are the principal means for pumping carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. That’s where the warning bells are ringing.

As the planet warms, there will be winners and losers, but with acidification there are only losers. The need to understand the processes and manage this potential peril is getting more urgent.

Ross Allen and Anthony Bergin, The Age, 21 April 2008. Article.


				
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OA-ICC HIGHLIGHTS

Ocean acidification in the IPCC AR5 WG II

OUP book


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