Rising ocean acidity ‘a major threat’, Dal scientist says

An ocean made of acid that corrodes the shells of sea life seems like an image out of science fiction. Sadly, it’s becoming just science.

The acidity of the world’s oceans is increasing at an unprecedented pace and is projected to continue, parliamentarians and guests were told at an event in Ottawa Thursday.

Projecting acidification itself is actually a simple chemical equation, said Dalhousie professor emeritus of oceanography John Cullen. As the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rise, the pH balance of the ocean drops to keep a C02 equilibrium. That increases acidity.

It’s what will happen to all of the things in the ocean that is the big mystery. “We don’t know exactly what the effects will be, but these chemical changes are very, very big,” said Cullen in an interview.

About 75 people, including several members of Parliament, came out to hear Cullen speak at a breakfast presentation, part of the Bacon and Eggshead breakfast series organized by the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering.

Already scientists are seeing a notable shift in ocean ecosystems. Cullen cited one worrisome example of snails known as sea butterflies observed with their shells corroded from the outside.

After about 20 million years of the ocean retaining a roughly steady pH balance, the acidity of seawater has jumped 26 per cent since the start of the industrial revolution, according to data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

At current levels of carbon dioxide emissions, acidity is projected to jump to 150 per cent of pre-industrialized levels by the year 2100.

Cullen called for two major things in his presentation. The first was a lowering of greenhouse gas emissions to halt this rapid acidification. The second was for the government to support more research into our oceans.

“We’re talking about major, major changes that could have really significant effects. We have to make our decisions based on real information. It’s not alarmist to say it’s a major threat.”

There has been an explosion of interest in this new field of study. Cullen said that two new research papers are published every day on average, but developing a deeper understanding will take time.

“Canada is primed and ready to do this but a few things have to fall in place, and of course one of them is funding,” said Cullen.

Paul Macleod, Herald News Canada, 26 September 2014. Article.

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