What Scientists Are Learning About The Impact Of An Acidifying Ocean

2017-10-03T16:43:44+00:00 October 3, 2017|
Male and female spider crabs in the ocean off France. Ocean acidification weakens the ability of crabs and other marine animals to form protective shells. (Credit: Bruno Guenard/ Biosphoto)

(Click to enlarge) Male and female spider crabs in the ocean off France. Ocean acidification weakens the ability of crabs and other marine animals to form protective shells. (Credit: Bruno Guenard/ Biosphoto)

The effects of ocean acidification on marine life have only become widely recognized in the past decade. Now researchers are rapidly expanding the scope of investigations into what falling pH means for ocean ecosystems.

(From News Deeply/by Matthew Berger) — The ocean is becoming increasingly acidic as climate change accelerates and scientists are ramping up investigations into the impact on marine life and ecosystems. In just a few years, the young field of ocean acidification research has expanded rapidly – progressing from short-term experiments on single species to complex, long-term studies that encompass interactions across interdependent species.

“Like any discipline, it takes it time to mature, and now we’re seeing that maturing process,” said Shallin Busch, who studies ocean acidification at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle.

As the ocean absorbs carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, the pH of seawater falls. The resulting increase in acidity hinders the ability of coral, crabs, oysters, clams and other marine animals to form shells and skeletons made of calcium carbonate. While the greenhouse gas effect from pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has been known for decades, it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that the impacts of ocean acidification became widely recognized. In fact, there is no mention of acidification in the first three reports from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, issued in 1990, 1995 and 2001. Ocean acidification did receive a brief mention in the 2007 report summarizing the then-current state of climate science, and finally was discussed at length in the latest edition released in 2014.

But about halfway through that brief dozen years of acidification research, a shift started taking place.

“The early studies were just a first step and often quite simple,” said Busch of ocean acidification research. “But you can’t jump into the deep end before you learn how to swim.”

That started to change about five or six years ago, according to Philip Munday, who researches acidification effects on coral reefs at Australia’s James Cook University. “The first studies were often single species tested against ocean acidification conditions, often quite extreme conditions over short periods of time,” he said. “Now people are working on co-occurring stresses in longer-term experiments.”

That includes studying how acidification could change how organisms across a community or ecosystem interact – in other words, how the impacts on one species affect those it eats, competes with or that eat it. It also means looking at how impacts could change over time, due to species migrating or adapting, either in the short term or across a number of generations and how such effects may vary within the same species or even with the same population.

Nine examples of this new generation of acidification research are included in the latest issue of the journal Biology Letters. One study, for example, found that the ability to adapt to pH changes…

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