From laboratory manipulations to Earth system models: scaling calcification impacts of ocean acidification (update)

The observed variation in the calcification responses of coccolithophores to changes in carbonate chemistry paints a highly incoherent picture, particularly for the most commonly cultured “species”, Emiliania huxleyi. The disparity between magnitude and potentially even sign of the calcification change under simulated end-of-century ocean surface chemical changes (higher pCO2, lower pH and carbonate saturation), raises challenges to quantifying future carbon cycle impacts and feedbacks because it introduces significant uncertainty in parameterizations used for global models. Here we compile the results of coccolithophore carbonate chemistry manipulation experiments and review how ocean carbon cycle models have attempted to bridge the gap from experiments to global impacts. Although we can rule out methodological differences in how carbonate chemistry is altered as introducing an experimental bias, the absence of a consistent calcification response implies that model parameterizations based on small and differing subsets of experimental observations will lead to varying estimates for the global carbon cycle impacts of ocean acidification. We highlight two pertinent observations that might help: (1) the degree of coccolith calcification varies substantially, both between species and within species across different genotypes, and (2) the calcification response across mesocosm and shipboard incubations has so-far been found to be relatively consistent. By analogy to descriptions of plankton growth rate vs. temperature, such as the “Eppley curve”, which seek to encapsulate the net community response via progressive assemblage change rather than the response of any single species, we posit that progressive future ocean acidification may drive a transition in dominance from more to less heavily calcified coccolithophores. Assemblage shift may be more important to integrated community calcification response than species-specific response, highlighting the importance of whole community manipulation experiments to models in the absence of a complete physiological understanding of the underlying calcification process. However, on a century time-scale, regardless of the parameterization adopted, the atmospheric pCO2 impact of ocean acidification is minor compared to other global carbon cycle feedbacks.

Ridgwell, A., Schmidt, D. N., Turley, C., Brownlee, C., Maldonado, M. T., Tortell, P., & Young, J. R., 2009. From laboratory manipulations to Earth system models: scaling calcification impacts of ocean acidification. Biogeosciences 6(11): 2611-2623. Article.

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