Talking Point: Putting the acid on global effort

HUNDREDS of marine scientists from around the world are gathered in Hobart this week for the 4th International Oceans in High-CO2 World Symposium to discuss one of our planet’s most serious yet still vastly understudied threats to the ocean’s health, biodiversity and food security.

Held every four years and now for the first time in the Southern Hemisphere, the focus is on ocean acidification, where the ocean absorbs increasing amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Ocean acidification is occurring faster than at any time in the past 50 million years. This rise in ocean acidity is fuelled by human-created greenhouse gas emissions. The effect is to reduce the ability of shellfish, corals and other marine organisms to grow, reproduce and build their shells and skeletons. Other species that depend on shellfish and coral for food and habitat are also affected, and experimental studies have revealed less obvious effects on marine species, including changes in the ability of reef fish to distinguish predator from prey.

Already there are disturbing signs of ocean acidification’s effects. Large decreases in coral cover on the Great Barrier Reef may be partly the result of ocean acidification with conditions set to worsen.

In Alaska and New England in the US, where colder waters hold more carbon dioxide, research is examining anticipated impacts on crabs, clams, sea scallops and other economically important fisheries.

Off the coast of the United Kingdom, scientists are testing the vulnerability of cold-water coral reefs that provide important protective habitat for young fish and other marine life. Scientists are also exploring impacts in the Arctic and Antarctic.

Recognising the need for co-ordinated, worldwide information, scientists and policymakers established the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON) to monitor the status of ocean acidification and its ecological impacts. Since 2013 this information has been helping nations prepare for the effects of ocean acidification and develop strategies that have been shown to reduce harmful effects.

There is a need for new observing stations, surveys and measurements to fill important gaps in global information, particularly in countries with fewer resources to build observing stations.

The importance of obtaining such observations is endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly, and by government and non-government bodies that have assisted developing GOA-ON.

The goal of this network is to engage countries to:

  • MEASURE the status and progress of ocean acidification in open-ocean, coastal and estuarine environments;
  • UNDERSTAND how ocean acidification affects marine ecosystems; and
  • PROVIDE data necessary to create forecast tools for ocean acidification and its effects.

The global network obtains ocean data through repeat hydrographic surveys on research vessels, monitoring stations, observations from floats and gliders, and observations gathered by ships that volunteer to collect data.

Australia has been especially active through projects on the Great Barrier Reef and in the Southern Ocean, where some of the most immediate impacts are expected to occur.

At present, the network consists of 87 participating scientists from 26 nations, but this number needs to grow, as there is a need for new observing stations, surveys and measurements to fill important gaps in global information, particularly in countries with fewer resources to build observing stations.

Ocean acidification information around developing nations and small-island states is critical because it is these economies that rely heavily on coastal activities and proteins from the sea. Small-island states also depend on coral reefs for other basic needs, including tourism revenue and the protection reefs provide from wave and storm damage.

To this end, the scientific community remains heavily engaged in collaboration to improve the GOA-ON.

The third, and largest yet, international meeting of network scientists will take place from May 8 to 10 after the Hobart High-CO2 conference. With representatives from South-East Asia, Pacific Islands, West, South and East Africa and Latin America, the meeting will launch a new GOA-ON mentorship program Pier2Peer. It will link scientists new to the study of ocean acidification, and from countries with limited resources, with experts who have been studying ocean carbon for decades.

This pioneering new capacity-building effort will expand access to ocean acidification information, leading to better decisions about how to respond, especially for nations that rely heavily on the sea for food security.

Dr Richard Feely is a Senior Scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle in the US. He wrote this article with Dr Libby Jewett, director of the US NOAA Ocean Acidification Program and co-chair of the Global OA Observing Network, and Dr Bronte Tilbrook, Senior Scientist at the CSIRO and co-chair of the Global OA Observing Network.

Richard Feely, Mercury, 2 May 2016. Article.

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