Ocean Voices: Will we let corals go the way of the dinosaurs?

“Coral reefs could be just the first major ecosystem type to be lost, with many others ready to fall like dominos behind them.” —Ken Caldeira

My passion for researching corals, then ocean acidification and now alternative energy approaches began with a look at the age of dinosaurs, 65 million years ago. My Ph.D. dissertation was largely about the stabilization of ocean chemistry after a meteorite killed off the dinosaurs along with most marine species. Organisms that made shells or skeletons out of calcium carbonate such as plankton and corals were particularly hard hit. It seems as if it took about 20,000 years for the ocean’s chemical balance to be restored, but carbonate-shelled plankton took about 500,000 years to rebound and it took about two million years for coral reefs to become widespread once again.

About a decade after I graduated, I was working at a Department of Energy laboratory investigating the possibility of storing industrial waste in the form of carbon dioxide in the deep sea. As part of this program, scientists compared the effects of high carbon dioxide concentrations that would result from concentrating carbon dioxide from power plants with lower concentrations of carbon dioxide absorbed from the atmosphere and with the even lower concentrations that would have been produced naturally. One of the surprises of this research was how sensitive many marine organisms were to additions of carbon dioxide. Not only were they harmed by the high concentrations that would occur from the power plant scheme, they were also harmed by the lower atmospheric concentrations that the ocean would absorb in the coming decades with a continuation of recent trends in carbon dioxide emissions.

Ken Caldeira, SeaWeb, 15 May 2010. Full article.

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