Monitoring the Oceans in Peril

coral In 2000, Timothy Wootten of the University of Chicago set up monitoring equipment in the Pacific Northwest off the island of Tatoosh, near the northwest tip of Washington State. Using a submersible data logger to record water conditions at 1/2 hour intervals, Wootten discovered that rising ocean acidity levels as a result of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels were seriously impacting the growth of corals and such calcifying species as mussels and barnacles. The warning was sounded.

Four years later, scientists from the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of sciences, also began to note rising levels of acidity in the world's oceans. Recognizing that such drastic changes in acidity levels had not occurred since the early Miocene, 20 million years ago, they readily admitted that the potential impacts were largely unknown. Nonetheless, the warning was amplified. Something was seriously awry in oceans everywhere.  

By 2006, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had begun its own studies. In workshops jointly sponsored by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey, a panel of 50 international experts met at the Center for Coastal Water Studies in St. Petersburg, Florida and agreed that carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions were the primary cause of the problem, with land use and cement manufacture taking a distant second and third.

The research has continued on many fronts across the globe, and scientists now largely agree that CO2 emissions are destroying marine ecosystems at an alarming rate, beginning with corals and moving right up the food chain to large mammals like dolphins and whales.

The bad news doesn't stop there, however. As recently as November, the NOAA - working along the coastline of the Pacific Northwest - deduced that acidity is rising more than ten times faster than previous climate models predicted.

The NOAA isn't the only agency coming up with this spectacularly bad news. Scientists from the University of New South Wales, analyzing seasonal changes in acidity, or pH, in the Southern Ocean, came to another startling conclusion. These seasonal fluctuations will speed up ocean acidification by 30 years, as compared to previous estimates.

Australian researchers are coming to similar conclusions, and predicting that rapidly rising acidity - which destroys the protective coral reefs around island nations like Kiribati and the Maldives - will soon begin to displace more island populations than the world is prepared to relocate.

According to Professor Malcolm McCulloch, the head of the Research School of Earth Sciences at Australian National University, this acidification is now taking place over decades rather than centuries as originally predicted, and it is happening faster in the colder waters of the Southern Ocean than in the tropics.

"It is starting to look like a very serious issue."

Commenting on Wooten's early studies, Peter Brewer of the Monterey Bay (California) Aquarium Research Institute added: ""If I look at how the wider scale of impacts may occur, it is clear that we are in for big changes that are not yet well understood."

Neither of these observations sounds like a cause for celebration.

Related Reading:
Expanding Marine Protected Areas to Restore Fisheries
Ocean Cooling: A Science Lesson for Denialists/Delayers

Image Credit:
Wibble Roisen

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  • Posted on Dec. 7, 2008. Listed in:

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