Polar waters: the challenges of accelerated acidification

Dr Donna Roberts, an Australian scientist from the University of Tasmania, is head of the FOCE Antarctic project. In partnership with the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California, she wants to evaluate the effects of the acidification of polar waters on marine organisms. A real challenge since the drop in pH, which is twice as rapid as elsewhere, could prefigure the future of the other oceans. She talks about her procedure.

Why measure the effects of ocean acidification in Antarctica?

Temperature is an important parameter in the oceans’ chemistry. CO2 is more soluble in cold waters. Exactly like champagne, which keeps its bubbles better in the refrigerator! Cold polar waters thus absorb the largest quantity of CO2 emitted by human activities. This means that the process of acidification of the marine environment is more significant at the poles: the pH changes twice as quickly here as in tropical and temperate waters. It is therefore crucial to evaluate the impact of this accelerated acidification on polar ecosystems. That is what we plan to do in Antarctica. Our observations will also enable us to predict what could happen in the rest of the world’s oceans if CO2 emissions continue to rise.

How are you going to proceed?

In collaboration with the researchers of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) in California, we are currently developing the first polar FOCE (Free Ocean CO2 Enrichment) experiment: the aim is to submit an area at the bottom of the ocean to the drop in pH expected by 2100. We will study the response of the ecosystem to this artificial local acidification. Using this technique, we will no longer observe a single animal in an aquarium, but rather the consequences on an entire community of organisms in their natural environment. It’s the only way to find out the long-term effects of the increase in CO2 on the oceans; we hope to provide solid scientific arguments on which to base necessary decisions for the future.

How far has your Antarctic FOCE project progressed?

Jonathan Reeve, of the Australian Antarctic Division, with whom I collaborate, is providing me with scientific and technical assistance. He, I, and Bill Kirkwood, MBARI, have entered into a partnership to develop the FOCE technology for our polar setting. We are now gathering the funds and the logistical support. We have obtained a subsidy from the Australian Government to finance the equipment and the authorisation to conduct our experiment in the Australian Antarctic Territory. We are on track to deploy the first polar FOCE experiment in 2014.

Catherine Brun, Fondation BNP Paribas, 17 May 2013. Article.

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