The changing sea: squid will be vulnerable to ocean acidification

I was in sixth grade, and I needed to do a science-fair project. I was worried about the environment even then — unseasonably warm winter days used to send me into paroxysms of anxiety — and given that the year was 1990, the environmental issue to be worried about was acid rain. You remember acid rain? Sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide pollution, chiefly from coal plants, caused rainfall to become more acidic, damaging the forests upon which it fell.

Acid rain was a well-established concept by 1990 — so much so that the landmark Clean Air Act of 1990 was put into place largely to combat the pollution that led to acid rain — but if science is nothing else, it’s about proving things that we already know. So I decided to set up an acid-rain experiment, taking two sets of identical plants and watering one with standard tap water, and the other with a water solution made more acidic with vinegar. Unsurprisingly, the acid-rain plants fared poorly — though to be honest, the control group didn’t do so well either, though that was probably because I had no idea how to take care of plants. Poor protocol.

So that experiment wasn’t any better than the honorable mention I think it earned at the science fair, but it got the point across: more acidic water can be hazardous to organisms that aren’t adapted to it. And that’s what is likely to happen to many sea creatures as the ocean itself becomes more acidic, thanks to growing greenhouse-gas emissions. The oceans have absorbed about a third of the billions upon billions of tons of carbon that humans have emitted into the atmosphere — and the more carbon the oceans absorb, the more acidic they will become. Right now those changes in ocean chemistry are still slight, and even carbon emissions continue growing unchecked for decades, it’s not as if clams and oysters will start dissolving in an acid sea. But even relatively small alterations to ocean chemistry might have big impacts — especially on the most vulnerable creatures.

That’s the takeaway from a new paper published in the open-access journal PLOS ONE. Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution trawled for a number of young Atlantic longfin squid off the coast of Massachusetts. After capturing study samples, they took them back to the lab. Some were kept in tanks with a pH of 8, roughly the pH level of the ocean today. (As I’m sure you remember from junior-high chemistry class, 7 is neutral on the pH scale, with anything below 7 increasingly acidic and anything above 7 increasingly basic — which means the ocean now is slightly basic.) The rest of the squid were kept in tanks with a pH level of 7.3 — the level of acidity that climate models suggest the open ocean might eventually reach over the next 100 to 200 years.

Bryan Walsh, TIME Science, 3 June 2013. Full article.

1 Response to “The changing sea: squid will be vulnerable to ocean acidification”

  1. 1 Lina Hansson 4 June 2013 at 21:36

    Note that the terminology used in this article is misleading. The definition of “acidic” in the Oxford English dictionary is “having the properties of an acid; having a pH of less than 7″. Despite the process of ocean acidification (the acidity of seawater has increased 26% since preindustrial time), the oceans are alkaline (pH higher than 7) and will not become acidic in the foreseeable future. Hence, the words “acid” or “acidic” should not be used when referring to seawater. Note that there are few exceptions, seawater can be acidic in the immediate vicinity of CO2 vents or in purposeful perturbation experiments.

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