The role of ocean acidification in Emiliania huxleyi coccolith thinning in the Mediterranean Sea

Ocean acidification is a result of the uptake of anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere into the ocean and has been identified as a major environmental and economic threat. The release of several thousands of petagrams of carbon over a few hundred years will overwhelm the capacity of the surface ocean reservoirs to absorb carbon. The recorded and anticipated changes in seawater carbonate chemistry will presumably affect the global oceanic carbonate production. Coccolithophores as the primary calcifying phytoplankton group, and especially Emiliania huxleyi as the most abundant species have shown a reduction of calcification at increased CO2 concentrations for the majority of strains tested in culture experiments. A reduction of calcification is associated with a decrease in coccolith weight. However, the effect in monoclonal cultures is relatively small compared to the strong variability displayed in natural E. huxleyi communities, as these are a mix of genetically and sometimes morphologically distinct types. Average coccolith weight is likely influenced by the variability in seawater carbonate chemistry in different parts of the worlds’ oceans and on glacial/interglacial time scales due to both physiological effects and morphotype selectivity. An effect of the ongoing ocean acidification on E. huxleyi calcification has so far not been documented in situ. Here, we analyze E. huxleyi coccolith weight from the NW Mediterranean Sea in a 12 yr sediment trap series, and surface sediment and sediment core samples using an automated recognition and analyzing software. Our findings clearly show (1) a continuous decrease in the average coccolith weight of E. huxleyi from 1993 to 2005, reaching levels below pre-industrial Holocene and industrial 20th century values recorded in the sedimentary record, and (2) seasonal variability in coccolith weight that is linked to the coccolithophore production. The observed long-term decrease in coccolith weight is most likely a result of the changes in the surface ocean carbonate system. Our results provide first indications of an in situ impact of ocean acidification on coccolithophore weight in a natural E. huxleyi population even in the highly alkaline Mediterranean Sea.

Meier K. J. S., Beaufort L., Heussner S. & Ziveri P., 2013. The role of ocean acidification in Emiliania huxleyi coccolith thinning in the Mediterranean Sea. Biogeosciences Discussions 10:19701-19730. Article

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