Beyond ocean acidification

Research into the biological threat of reduced ocean pH has yielded many insights over the past decade. Further progress requires a better understanding of how the interplay between ocean acidification and other anthropogenic stresses impacts marine biota.

The terminology used to describe the environmental impact of rising greenhouse gas levels has evolved over the past 20 yr. The shift from ‘global warming’ to ‘climate change’, and lately to ‘planetary boundaries’, reflects a growing awareness of the multifaceted effects of anthropogenic stressors on the Earth system.

The oceans have absorbed around half of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel combustion and cement production over the past 200 yr. As a result, carbonic acid levels have risen and sea water has become increasingly acidic; pH has dropped by approximately 0.1 units since pre-industrial times, which amounts to a considerable increase in acidity. However, it wasn’t until the year 2000, and the publication of a seminal study that revealed the detrimental impact of reduced ocean pH on a group of planktonic calcifiers known as coccolithophores, that research into ocean acidification really took off. Since that time, the topic of ocean acidification has matured into a multidisciplinary field — incorporating carbonate chemistry, biology, mathematical modelling and oceanography— and has received extensive general interest, ranging from national science academies to schools.

Here, I argue that the sustained focus of the research into this growing hazard to ocean health, buoyed by its successful and widespread communication, may have obscured some of the complexity inherent in global environmental change. To redress the balance, research into the interplay between ocean acidification and numerous anthropogenic stressors, and their cumulative impact on ocean biota, is needed.

Boyd P. W., 2011. Beyond ocean acidification. Nature Geoscience 4:273-274. Article.

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