Acid Test for Ocean and Marine Life


Sarah Perez

Land and Water Use

This past June, environmental leaders gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to discuss the threat of ocean acidification and what can be done to combat it. Although ocean acidification is often overlooked in the vast array of environmental issues, it can have severe repercussions on ecosystems of both land and sea. Ocean acidification is largely the result of seawater absorbing the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. In turn, the excess carbon dioxide alters the chemistry of the ocean and threatens all forms of ocean life. Ocean acidification has already taken a toll on previously flourishing coral reefs. In fact, more scientists are referring to ocean acidification as the “osteoporosis of the sea.” Many smaller sea creatures rely on the calcium carbonate found in seawater to build their protective shells. Should the ocean become more acidic, the seawater itself will corrode these shells, leaving these creatures unprotected. Oysters, clams, and corals are only a few forms of marine life that would suffer the consequences of ocean acidification. Although scientists believe that a few select species will actually benefit from a more acidic habitat, the majority of sea creatures will suffer. For example, scientists have already witnessed the disintegration of coral reefs due to seawater’s increased acidity. Significantly, 25% of fish species make their homes in coral reefs. This in turn would harm small island nations that depend on fish as a source of food. Furthermore, damage to coral reefs is detrimental to the economies of these small island nations. Without coral reefs to explore, tourists will no longer frequent these islands. Scientists have speculated that cold-water reefs are more vulnerable than reefs located in warmer waters. Cold water can hold a greater amount of carbon dioxide, lowering the pH of the seawater. Investigations have begun in Alaska and New England to determine how these lower water temperatures will affect the populations of king crab, clams, and sea scallops. British and American researchers have begun studying the impact of ocean acidification in the Arctic. Although the plight of ocean acidification is far from resolved, researchers have made some progress. Significantly, water quality monitoring systems allowed oyster hatcheries in the U.S. Pacific Northwest to protect their industry. In 2005, oyster hatcheries suffered as acidic seawater from greater depths flowed into shallower coastal shelves where young oysters mature. The water quality monitoring systems allowed farmers to gauge when to shut off seawater to protect the young oysters. Although these water monitoring systems were fairly simple to incorporate into oyster farms, scientists believe it will be much more difficult to accomplish this task in wild fisheries. Action is also being taken on land to combat ocean acidification. Significantly, Britain and the United States are in the process of joining other nations in an Ocean Acidification International Coordination Center. The center will open this summer in Monaco.




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