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What is ocean acidification? Find out how research at Plymouth is tackling this global carbon dioxide problem (text & video)

Explore the science behind falling ocean pH and the impact this has on marine ecosystem balance

Ocean acidification occurs when carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed rapidly into the ocean.

It reacts with water molecules (H2O) to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). This compound then breaks down into a hydrogen ion (H+) and bicarbonate (HCO3). These hydrogen ions decrease seawater pH.

In chemical terms, ocean acidfication is described like this:

CO2 + H2O → (H+) + (HCO3)

The rising CO2 problem

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s, the rise of fossil fuel-powered machinery has been the catalyst for the emission of billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide levels have now risen by 30 per cent since the Industrial Revolution.

Scientists now know that about a quarter of carbon dioxide emissions have been absorbed by the oceans.

Monitoring shows that burning fossil fuels has caused unprecedented changes to ocean chemistry due to ocean uptake of millions of tonnes of CO2 each year.

Falling pH

Surface ocean waters are alkaline; on average pH 8.1. But because a quarter of human CO2 emissions are taken up by surface seawater this could drop to pH 7.8 by the end of the century, lower than at any time in human history.

The change in ocean acidity will not make it more dangerous for us to swim or surf in.

Seas are not actually going to be acidic – they will still be more alkaline than tap water.

Ocean acidification is happening rapidly worldwide. We have shown that this has knock-on effects that degrade marine ecosystems and impact fishing industries and food supplies. Plans are in place to ensure that University of Plymouth research is strategically aligned to inform the United Nations Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development (2021-2030) and embed solutions that slow ocean degradation and build recovery of our coastal resources.

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Tie ocean acidification into your chemistry topics

Link UN sustainable development goal 14 to your teaching of dissolved ions, acids and the pH scale

A digital illustration of a swimming turtle with a 14 on its shell
Help your students see the impact that excess carbon dioxide has on the world’s oceans. Source: © hitandrun/Debut Art

Students at 14–16 will be familiar with the composition of the atmosphere and that carbon dioxide is one of the most significant greenhouse gases. The chemistry of the atmosphere and the impact of human activity on climate change is a key area of the 14–16 curriculum.

This article is part of the Sustainability in chemistry series, developed to help you integrate the UN’s sustainable development goals into your teaching of chemistry. It supports Goal 14: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

The oceans play a vital role in atmospheric chemistry by ‘mopping up’ some of the excess carbon dioxide we produce. They cover 70% of the Earth’s surface and have absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide emitted since the industrial revolution. This links with Goal 14: conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources.

Put it in context

Goal 14 is a good chance to introduce an important context when teaching about the atmosphere and climate change, because people tend to focus on the air around us. They’ll consider emissions from cars and factories and understand the importance of trees in the rainforest, but often ignore interactions between the atmosphere and oceans.

Student worksheet, for age range 14–16

Use this worksheet to explore and develop understanding of the pH scale and apply it in the context of ocean acidification. Extension questions provide more challenge and delve into other aspects of chemistry linked to ocean acidification, leading to a research task on the consequences for marine organisms.

Download the student worksheet as MS Word or pdf and the teacher notes (including answers) as MS Word or pdf.

Continue reading ‘Tie ocean acidification into your chemistry topics’

Ocean acidification: Smithsonian Institution

Ocean acidification is sometimes called climate change’s equally evil twin, and for good reason: it’s a significant and harmful consequence of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we don’t see or feel because its effects are happening underwater. At least one-quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning coal, oil and gas doesn’t stay in the air, but instead dissolves into the ocean. Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, presently around 22 million tons per day.

Smithsonian Institution, 01 April 2018. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Visualizing ocean acidification: new online resource (UNESCO)

New online features were launched to bring together the latest ocean acidification infographics, publications, background information, presentations and news for researchers, policymakers and the public.

This website was created to raise awareness, present the phenomenon introduce the challenged related to Ocean Acidification by several pioneering institutions that are working together to increase the knowledge-base and facilitate international cooperation in this field. The website was developed by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC-UNESCO), the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR) and the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Center (OA-ICC) operated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s Environmental Laboratories in Monaco.

UNESCO, 23 July 2021. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

What you need to know about ocean acidification

Carbon pollution isn’t just warming the climate it’s also making our oceans more acidic. NRDC scientist Lisa Suatoni explains why we must pay attention.

Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 13 August 2015. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA)

The £12M, 5 year UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA) is the UK’s response and is jointly funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). The programme will take advantage of international collaboration opportunities, primarily with the German ocean acidification programme (BIOACID), the European research programme (EPOCA), the Mediterranean programme (MedSeA) and potentially with the emerging US ocean acidification research programme.

UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA), 31 December 2016. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Oceanography: peer-reviewed articles

Oceanography is the official magazine of the Oceanography Society. It contains peer-reviewed articles that chronicle all aspects of ocean science and its applications .

Oceanography. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

What is ocean acidification?

Ocean acidification is a result of chemical reactions that take place when the global ocean absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) from the Earth’s atmosphere.

University of Otago. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Acid attack

About a third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) generated by human activities has already been absorbed by the ocean since the beginning of the industrial revolution. This contributes to attenuate the effects of global warming. Without this process, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere would have been much greater than that observed today. The effects on the climate would be multiplied.

Part of atmospheric CO2 dissolves at the surface of the ocean. Once in the water, it can subsequently be found in different forms, including carbonic acid. This chemical reaction is the cause of the changes in chemical equilibrium of sea water. The result is, firstly, an increase in hydrogen ions, causing acidification and, secondly, a decrease in carbonate ions. The latter are essential elements for the construction of skeletons and other calcareous structures in marine plants and animals.

“Ocean acidification” is defined by a decrease in pH, which is the unit of measurement of the acidity of a liquid. Acidification has increased by 26% since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (1800). However, certain prediction models expect a 150% increase in acidity by 2100. The current rate of ocean acidification is ten times faster than it ever was at any other period during the preceding 55 million years.

Ocean & Climate Platform (OCP). Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Ocean acidification

The ocean absorbs a significant portion of our carbon dioxide emissions, which is changing the chemistry of the ocean at an unprecedented rate. About one third of all emissions in the past 200 years have been absorbed by the ocean, causing an average pH decrease of ocean surface waters by about 0.1 unit – from 8.2 to 8.1. This change has already caused short-term, local impacts on ocean flora and fauna. The ultimate, long-term consequences of an increasingly acidic ocean may be unknown, but the potential risks are high. Ocean acidification is a growing problem as anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions continue to change the atmosphere and climate. It is estimated that by the end of the century, there will be an additional drop of 0.2–0.3 units.

On our Ocean Acidification Initiative page you can learn about the work we are doing to research and understand OA in order to mitigate its effects. Here we have compiled some of the best resources on this topic.

The Ocean Foundation. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

New ocean acidification animation launched

What can we do to save Timmy the Turtle and his friends? A closer look on the causes and future challenges of ocean acidification.

The animation was produced by students at the University of the West of England, supported by Falmouth University and the Shark and Coral Conservation Trust with PML providing scientific guidance.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML), 17 June 2014. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: video

Ocean acidification FAQ

A page on FAQ on ocean acidification from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego; which is one of the most important centers for global earth science research and education in the world. Scripps scientists work to understand and protect the planet by investigating our oceans, Earth, and atmosphere to find solutions to our greatest environmental challenges. Scripps leads research in climate change impacts and adaptation, resilience to hazards, conservation and biodiversity, oceans and human health, national security, and innovative technology to observe the planet.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography – UC San Diego. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Factsheet: ecological effects of ocean acidification

By absorbing CO2, the ocean is becoming more acidic, and this happens at a rate faster than during any other period in the past 300 million years.

Air Pollution and Climate Secretariat (AirClim), 1 March 2018. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: document/pdf

Ocean acidification: connecting science, industry, policy and public

A powerful short film on ocean acidification: connecting science, industry, policy and public.

The film brings together a wide range of stakeholders including, HSH Prince Albert II of Monaco, school children, a Plymouth fishmonger, a UK government Chief Scientific Adviser, representatives from industry and policy making departments, as well as a group of internationally recognised expert scientists.

Produced by the Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

MarineBio Conservation Society, 12 July 2011. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: video

MEDDLE: a guide to running best practice experiments in ocean research

MEDDLE provides learning material and experimental design tools to help you create accurate and statistically meaningful single and multi driver experiments. The aim is to provide guidance in supporting best practices for oceanic research.

A handbook is the central link between the three strands of MEDDLE: a web-based decision support tool to get started with experimental design; next the Multiple Environmental Driver Design Lab for Experiments (MEDDLE) simulation software, and a library of video tutorials. We recommend that you download this Handbook before exploring these strands.

Scientific Committee on Ocean Research. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Fact sheet for school students and proactive citizens

Minimize and address the impacts of ocean acidification, including through enhanced scientific cooperation at all levels. Target 3 of the UN Sustainable Development Goal Life below Water.

Air Pollution & Climate Secretariat (AirClim). Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: document/pdf

Facts on ocean acidification

Never before have so many scientists conducted research on what impacts the declining pH value of seawater has on animals and plants in the ocean. Please find a summary of their major research results from the past years here.

Alfred-Wegener-Institut (AWI). Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

Northwest ocean acidification

Oceans—and their salt-water extensions, like Puget Sound—play an enormous role in our region’s culture and prosperity. Marine life, from oysters to king crab, have supported Northwest communities for generations. But years of addiction to fossil fuels have put them at risk. This series explores the local costs of ocean acidification, the process by which water absorbs too much carbon pollution, becoming more corrosive. These changes in our water’s basic chemistry place our complex web of marine life in jeopardy.

Sightline Institute, 2011-2012. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

How much CO2 will we have in the air this year?

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is a gas that contributes to global warming. When we burn fuel (for example to drive cars or to generate power) we put more CO2 into the air, which contributes to climate change. Nature is very good at removing CO2 from the air. Trees need it to grow and the oceans can dissolve it. But not all the new CO2 is removed, so the amount in the air increases each year. Every year, we try to predict how much more CO2 we will have. For an accurate CO2 forecast, we must understand how human activity and natural ecosystems affect each other. In this article, we explain how we can make this forecast. For 2020, we predict that CO2 levels will increase faster than average…

Frontiers for Young Minds, 16 March 2021. Resource.

Resource type: article

Resource format: document/pdf

EurOcean database

EurOcean database facilities in Europe which are dedicated to marine sciences broad range of activities.

Objective To offer a comprehensive list of all existing facilities in Europe which are dedicated to marine sciences broad range of activities. It provides the first level of knowledge and characteristics for each facility, as well as the links and contact to access the further details provided by the operator.

For who this database is intended for all stakeholders – scientists, engineers, policy makers, private companies, universities – for their respective needs, either as user or as operator, or as designer, or as funder. How to use it search criteria plus an iterative map allow any targeted search of information for every type of request. For more information on how to use it please consult the Search Tips Area.

How to understand it the landscape of marine research infrastructure is complex, a choice of descriptors was done to provide as much as possible a clear and consistent vision, to provide all relevant information for this “discovery” level of the facilities. All explanations necessary to understand each descriptor are given in the Technical Notes.

How to update it this database took in consideration the most recent overviews available. However, the landscape is constantly evolving, new infrastructures appear, others have significant up-gradings, some became out of service, characteristics change,… The approach of a database continuously updated is a necessity and a procedure is proposed to allow all to contribute, see the functions Insert, update or Contact EurOcean.

EuOcean. Resource.

Resource type: website

Resource format: webpage

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