Rapid environmental change over the past decade revealed by isotopic analysis of the California mussel in the Northeast Pacific

The anthropogenic input of fossil fuel carbon into the atmosphere results in increased carbon dioxide (CO2) into the oceans, a process that lowers seawater pH, decreases alkalinity and can inhibit the production of shell material. Corrosive water has recently been documented in the northeast Pacific, along with a rapid decline in seawater pH over the past decade. A lack of instrumentation prior to the 1990s means that we have no indication whether these carbon cycle changes have precedence or are a response to recent anthropogenic CO2 inputs. We analyzed stable carbon and oxygen isotopes (δ13C, δ18O) of decade-old California mussel shells (Mytilus californianus) in the context of an instrumental seawater record of the same length. We further compared modern shells to shells from 1000 to 1340 years BP and from the 1960s to the present and show declines in the δ13C of modern shells that have no historical precedent. Our finding of decline in another shelled mollusk (limpet) and our extensive environmental data show that these δ13C declines are unexplained by changes to the coastal food web, upwelling regime, or local circulation. Our observed decline in shell δ13C parallels other signs of rapid changes to the nearshore carbon cycle in the Pacific, including a decline in pH that is an order of magnitude greater than predicted by an equilibrium response to rising atmospheric CO2, the presence of low pH water throughout the region, and a record of a similarly steep decline in δ13C in algae in the Gulf of Alaska. These unprecedented changes and the lack of a clear causal variable underscores the need for better quantifying carbon dynamics in nearshore environments.

Pfister C. A., McCoy S. J., Wootton J. T., Martin P. A., Colman A. S., & Archer D., 2011.Rapid environmental change over the past decade revealed by isotopic analysis of the California mussel in the Northeast Pacific . PLoS ONE 6(10): e25766. Article

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