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Blog Tags: Great Barrier Reef

Google Earth Tour of a More Acidic World

Above is a good primer on ocean acidification narrated by Dan Laffoley of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The video spans the vulnerable corals of Australia's Great Barrier Reef to the equally vulnerable shellfish industry of the Pacific Northwest, detailing the potential effects of a more acidic ocean.

To those unfamiliar with global warming's "evil twin", the video does a good job of explaining the basics of ocean acidification: simply put, carbon dioxide reacts with ocean water to make carbonic acid. The ocean absorbs about a quarter of civilization's carbon dioxide emissions, and as a result they are now 30 percent more acidic than before the industrial revolution. What does this mean for animals like clams, corals, or oysters that rely on a more stable pH range to build their calcium carbonate skeletons and shells?

Mother nature has provided some of her own experiments, as documented in the video. Near Vesuvius in the Mediterranean carbon dioxide bubbles up from below, rendering a glimpse in to a future, more acidic, and bleaker ocean. Closer to the vents, where the water is more saturated with carbon dioxide, the communities of life become less diverse and invasive algaes thrive.

Off of Australia, the Great Barrier Reef is already struggling in the new man-made environment. As more and more acidic water continues to erode the corals in the coming decades, these ecosystems of otherworldly beauty and diversity could simply go extinct.

Perhaps most worrisome of all is the effect of acidification on pteropods, a shell forming plankton at the very bottom of the ocean's food web, nicknamed the "potato chips of the sea". These animals are especially vulnerable to acidification, and as the narrator ominously intones: "If their shells dissolve a critical part of the food web dissolves with them".

Learn more about ocean acidification and what you can do to help.


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Skin Cancer Appears in Australian Fish

The black spots on this coral trout are melanomas. © Michael Sweet/Newcastle University 

Strange lesions are showing up in coral trout in the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

In a new paper in the journal PloS One researchers found that 15% of reef fish tested showed signs of melanomas. This is a high occurrence, given that many of the fish with this condition may have already been eaten by predators or perished due to the illness.

This is the first time skin cancer has been documented in a wild marine fish species, but in the laboratory another species exposed to high UV radiation showed similar lesions, and they lived greatly reduced life spans.

The authors note that the occurrence of the melanomas was likely due to increased UV radiation and the proximity of the fish to the hole in the ozone layer which occurs over portions of Australia and Antarctica. The people of Australia already suffer huge health risks from skin cancer, topping the world in the occurrence of this illness.

These results are concerning because coral trout are an important commercial fish species, and they may suffer population level impacts if these rates continue. One third of all coral reef fish are already threatened with extinction due to the impacts of climate change on coral reefs, their home. Added stresses such as skin cancer could be the nail in the coffin for some species.

It’s important to figure out if skin cancer is occurring in more fish in a larger area, and what the risks are globally for marine life from UV radiation. We obviously can’t put sun-block on every fish in the ocean, but we can limit emissions of ozone-depleting gases like chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a refrigerant, as well as greenhouse gases that drive climate change which was also recently shown to threaten the ozone layer.

We are all in this together, so for the sake of fish and people we need to protect our thin layer of atmosphere.


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Ocean Acidification Threatens Global Food Security

oysters

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

It makes sense that ocean acidification is bad for marine life. But who knew it could have far-reaching effects on human health as well?

A new report by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) shows that ocean acidification is threatening global food security by hindering the growth of clam, oyster, and other mollusk populations – staples in many nations’ diets.

Without healthy and reliable mollusk populations, countries may be forced to switch to aquaculture. Countries like Haiti, Senegal, and Madagascar, however, lack the ability to make this switch and are thus especially vulnerable to the impacts of mollusk shortages. And of course, problems like this never exist in a vacuum; even developed countries such as the U.S. will feel the effects via a potential drop in GDP.

Unfortunately, this isn’t just a theoretical problem – the deleterious effects can already be seen in both ecosystems and economic realms alike. In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists have observed that coral growth has slowed, and Pacific Northwest oyster farms have already experienced declining economic yields. Further effects, which will no doubt be broader in scope, will probably be seen in 10 to 50 years if we do not make a concerted effort to halt ocean acidification.


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Oil Leak Threatens Great Barrier Reef

This weekend, a Chinese coal tanker ran aground on one of our planet’s most diverse and delicate ecosystems: Australia’s Great Barrier Reef

The tanker, badly damaged and in danger of breaking apart, has already spilled 2 metric tons of heavy oil into the shoals off Queensland's coast in the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.  In 2007, the same shipping company, COSCO, was linked to the major spill in the San Francisco Bay.   

This is Australia’s third recent major disaster, following the massive oil spill off Queensland and the Timor Sea oil platform blowout. Oil is extremely toxic to marine life and the damage to habitat can persist for years, even decades after a spill. 

In the wake of the Obama administration’s recent decision to open up a huge swath of U.S. waters to offshore drilling, this should serve as a warning against adding more oil to our oceans.    

Anna Gowan is a policy fellow at Oceana.


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