Essential science: ocean acidification poses new challenges

New concerns have been expressed about the extent of ocean acidification. A new paper finds ocean acidification is becoming a greater challenge for science, governments, and communities to tackle.

New research from University of Tasmania outlines the challenges facing scientists and policy makers as the result of increasing levels of carbon dioxide, which are being absorbed by the world’s oceans. The scientists have produced data that shows in recent centuries, surface ocean pH has dropped ten times faster compared with any time during the past 300 million years. The effects of this are affecting ecosystems, economies and communities worldwide.

What is ocean acidification?

Ocean acidification refers to the changes that are taking place in the chemistry of the world’s seas. These changes are primarily asthe result of burning fossil fuels. Of concern to marine scientists are the changes taking place with the oceans’ pH levels, which will have severe consequences for marine wildlife and ecosystems. pH is a figure expressing the acidity or alkalinity of a solution; a reduction in pH below neutral is an indicator of a solution becoming more acidic.

Acidification of the oceans occurs through the dissolving of carbon dioxide in seawater. This increases the hydrogen ion concentration in the ocean, which decreases the pH. Ocean acidification impacts on ocean species to varying degrees. It encourages the growth of toxic algae, and damages the shells of many crustaceans. Furthermore, certain fish lose the ability to detect predators in more acidic waters. When these fish are at risk, this means the entire food web may also be at risk.

Economic impact

The economic cost from a loss of coral reefs, the impact on wild fisheries and a loss of productivity to aquaculture are some of the economic concerns linked to ocean acidification. According to the researchers, the economic burden is projected to reach more than US $300 billion per annum.

New research

According to lead researcher Professor Catriona Hurd, the new study of ocean acidification is showing how the oceans will change as they absorb more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. He provides data to show how the socio-economic consequences are becoming increasingly apparent and quantifiable. This type of study is a fairly new field of science.

The researcher describes how the change is complex and uneven: “The process is not happening at uniform rates around the world, and scientists have found large regional and local variability, driven by physical, chemical and biological differences across the oceans.”

Professor Hurd states that the best way to address ocean acidification is through collaborations between scientists, governments, industry and local communities. He cites two examples in Chile and the U.S. West Coast as models where fisheries can successfully adapt. This way of working, Professor Hurd opines, needs to be rolled out on a bigger scale.

The new research has been published in the journal Nature Climate Change. The research paper is titled “Current understanding and challenges for oceans in a higher-CO2 world.”

Essential Science

This article is part of Digital Journal’s regular Essential Science columns. Each week Tim Sandle explores a topical and important scientific issue. Last week we discovered that geologists have found the world’s oldest colors, by examining some of the oldest rocks on Earth. The rocks were isolated from North Africa, and pigments were then extracted.

The week before we considered a new study that suggests that living in greener neighborhoods with access to open spaces, is associated with slower cognitive decline in relation to the elderly.

Tim Sandle, Science (via: Digital Journal), 30 July 2018. Article.

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Ocean acidification in the IPCC AR5 WG II

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