Acid test: giant experiments in the Arctic

A team of scientists from PML have travelled to the Arctic, to join researchers from the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), to carry out the first major experiments to determine the consequences of increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) on natural biological systems of the polar seas. CO2 emissions not only contribute to climate change but also cause another, less known but equally disconcerting environmental issue; ocean acidification.

The oceans currently absorb approximately half of the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuel, substantially reducing the rate of build up of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and helping alleviate climate change. However, there is a cost; when CO2 dissolves in seawater it forms carbonic acid and as more CO2 is taken up by the oceans surface, the pH decreases, moving towards a less alkaline, more acidic state.

The PML team are studying the effect ocean acidification has on the important, climate-regulating trace gases that are produced by Arctic plankton communities. They will also investigate the effects on microorganisms, such as bacteria, and smaller biological entities, such as viruses, which play a key role in the complex mosaic of ocean life.
Up to now most studies have been carried out in laboratories or have been small scale. To study the issue within the natural marine environment, the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences (IFM-GEOMAR) has deployed nine, 17m deep mesocosms, like giant “test tubes”, in the Kongsfjord, off the north-west coast of Spitsbergen (Svalbard). The enclosed plankton community is exposed to a range of CO2 levels that are expected to develop in the next 150 years. Scientists suspect that ocean acidification will have serious implications for the marine environment, especially in colder waters near the Poles, and so the overall goal is to fill numerous gaps the understanding of ocean acidification and its consequences for marine organisms, ecosystems and out climate.

The investigation will be complete in two weeks and its progress can be found at the Svalbard 2010 blog. Following the scientific studies, the team’s latest post describes their long-anticipated rest day, beginning with a scramble across the defrosting Arctic tundra and followed by a trip to Svalbard’s largest glacier:

“The boat ride to the glacier front was a bit of an iceberg-dodging exercise, as the fjord is scattered with beautiful, sculptural bergs at this time of year”, explains PML scientist Frances Hopkins. “When we were within about 1km of the glacier, a huge townhouse-size chunk of glacier spectacularly crashed into the fjord, sending a boom echoing around the mountains, followed moments later by some subtle but noticeable tsunami waves. A perfect way to spend a Sunday evening.”

PML News, 29 June 2010. Article.

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