Establishing the scientific truth about ocean acidification and raising public awareness

The acidity of the oceans is increasing from absorption of the increasing amounts of CO2 being released into the atmosphere. We are now certain about this, but can we assess the impact on marine ecosystems? Peter Brewer, the scientist who initiated the FOCE* project at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California, explains why it is urgent to obtain solid scientific data in this regard.

How did the FOCE project come into being?

I was trained as a chemist. Knowing that the CO2 in the atmosphere is partially absorbed by the oceans, I hypothesized several years ago that the increase in CO2 emissions could modify the chemistry of sea water to a degree that was outside the range of human experience.

Research in marine physics, chemistry and biology associated with increasing CO2 remained rudimentary for most of the 20th century, probably due to the fact that this environment has been stable for thousands of years. Moreover, we have very little data on the different ocean variables associated with a CO2 increase, which is why we need to do more research. When we did the first carbon dioxide enrichment experiments on the deep ocean bottom, modelled on the experiments carried out on land, it seemed technically unfeasible and just a tad insane! But in the end these preliminary results did indeed illustrate to the scientific community and the public that marine life could be impacted.

We needed irrefutable scientific data, however, to determine the long-term impact of these changes on marine life closer to our shores. From there, we designed the FOCE project, using the ocean as a natural laboratory by precisely simulating the CO2 increase in an ecosystem and exploring its consequences.

Can we already project what will happen in coming years?

The major changes in the ocean are going to concern temperature, along with the oxygen and CO2 content of the water. These changes have already begun to affect marine chemistry and physics. We know that living creatures develop under well-defined conditions. The range of conditions conducive to life is quite narrow: a combination of pressure, temperature, oxygen and available food. Displacement of populations is already being observed. It is reasonable to assume that certain areas will be more affected than others. For example, warming will probably have more impact on the cold waters of the Arctic than in warm seas. With these rapid developments, the rules we are familiar with no long apply and while national boundaries remain fixed the marine life off our shores is on the move, changing fisheries and challenging human’s reliance on seafood. That is why it is urgent to study all the parameters.

What are you hoping for from the initial measurement results?

To raise awareness! People only believe what they see. We realised that we needed to use our results to inform society. Apparently, it is not enough to say that the oceans absorb one quarter of the CO2 released by human activities, or 1 million tons of CO2 per hour! That’s an enormous amount, but in the longer term, it is estimated that 85% of the CO2 emitted by human activities is dissolved in the oceans. This threatens total disruption of all ecosystems.

Through the practice of an experimental discipline, which provides factual results, we are forcing policy-makers to grasp the truth, and anticipate what the consequences will be. This is highly useful!

* FOCE: Free Ocean Carbon Dioxide Enrichment (FOCE)

BNP Paribas Foundation Climate Initiative, 19 April 2013. Article.

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