The Beacon

Blog Tags: Ocean Acidification

A More Acidic Ocean May Wipe Out Antarctic Krill

Krill: A tiny creature with a giant impact on our oceans' ecosystems. Photo: Uwe Kils

A new study published Sunday in Nature Climate Change finds that ocean acidification could cause the Southern Ocean Antarctic krill population to crash by 2300, meaning dire consequences for whales, seals, penguins, and the entire ecosystem it supports.  In addition to devastating ecosystem effects, a collapse in krill populations could have serious economic implications, as the species represents the region’s largest fishery resource.


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What Do Historic CO2 Levels Mean for the Oceans?

“Keeling Curve” shows CO2 levels increase from 1958-2013. (Source: Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UCSD)


For the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels passed 400 parts per million
(ppm) of carbon dioxide at the historic Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This is the same location where Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Charles David Keeling first established the “Keeling Curve,” a famous graph showing that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing rapidly in the atmosphere. CO2 was around 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution, when humans first began releasing large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. On May 9, the reading was a startling 400.08 ppm for a 24-hour period. But without the help of the oceans, this number would already be much higher.


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World Bank Details Threats from Ocean Acidification

Corals at risk in a warmer world ©Wikimedia Commons

This month, in the midst of the 18th UN Climate Change Conference (COP-18) in Qatar, the World Bank released a report titled “Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4°C Warmer World Must Be Avoided.” The report, already causing a buzz in the global community, paints a grim picture of what the world might look like if global temperatures reach 4°C above preindustrial levels.

The report states that without intensive mitigation and global efforts to reduce carbon emissions, we will reach the 4° threshold by the end of the century, leading to the inundation of low-lying and island communities, extreme weather including drought and flooding, severe losses to biodiversity, and global instability due to displacement and famine.

But the report also details the dangers of ocean acidification, often referred to as climate change’s (equally evil) twin. Carbon dioxide emissions, the root cause of both climate change and ocean acidification, fundamentally change the chemistry of the ocean. Increased carbon dioxide uptake by the ocean increases the acidity of seawater, which threatens corals, plankton, oysters, cuttlefish, and other marine organisms that build shells.  Ocean acidification is dangerous for many marine species and it is happening right now.

In the projected “4°C world,” the oceans will be 150 percent more acidic than preindustrial levels. This type of rapid, anthropogenic change in ocean chemistry is likely unparalleled in Earth’s history and could eliminate entire ecosystems, including coral reefs. If CO2 levels reach 450 ppm (corresponding to a global warming of about 1.4°C), coral growth could stop altogether.

The loss of coral reefs would be catastrophic for the ocean and the millions of people who depend on reefs for food, income, and protection against coastal floods and rising sea levels.  The bottom line: marine life and those that depend on the ocean for their livelihoods will suffer as global temperatures rise.

In the foreword, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim writes, “A 4°C world can, and must, be avoided.” Oceana is working hard to make sure solutions like shifting from dirty energy to clean, offshore wind power and regulating carbon dioxide emissions are part of the international movement to prevent ocean acidification from further impacting our oceans.

Want to be a part of the movement? Click here to learn what you can do!

Caroline Wood is the Clean Ocean Energy Intern on Oceana's Climate and Energy Campaign


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In Panama, A Sad Retreat from the Rising Sea

Rising seas make San Blas Islands uninhabitable ©Wikimedia Commons

While the retreat from rising seas may seem like a distant, if abysmal, end-of-the-century scenario, it is in fact already taking place in some low-lying island communities. For the Guna (pronounced “Kuna”) people of Panama the abandonment of their ancestral homeland, the San Blas Islands, has become the only option after frequent floods have made their way of life impossible.

While the flooding of the San Blas Islands is partly a consequence of rising sea levels, the Guna are not entirely blameless. Coral reefs that once surrounded and buffered the islands from storm surges and flooding have been destroyed after decades of exploitation (ironically, the Guna mined the reefs to build up the islands). It has been enough, according to Reuters “to submerge the Caribbean islands for days on end”.


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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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CO2 Emissions Threaten Ocean-Based Food Security

Oceana’s new report, Ocean-Based Food Security Threatened in a High CO2 World ranks nations to show which are most vulnerable to reductions in seafood production as a result of climate change and ocean acidification. While seafood is currently a primary source of protein for more than a billion of the poorest people in the world, carbon dioxide emissions are causing the oceans to warm and become more acidic, threatening fisheries and the people who depend on them.

Rising ocean temperatures are pushing many fish species into deeper and colder waters towards the poles and away from the tropics, while increased acidity is threatening important habitats such as coral reefs and the future of shellfish like oysters, clams and mussels.

Many coastal and island developing nations, such as Togo, the Cook Islands, Kiribati, Madagascar and Thailand depend more heavily on seafood for protein and could suffer the greatest hardships because they have fewer resources to replace what is lost from the sea. For many developing countries, seafood is often the cheapest and most readily available source of protein, losing this resource could have serious impacts on livelihoods and food security.

The only way to address global ocean acidification and the primary path to ending climate change is by dramatically reducing carbon dioxide emissions. One of the first steps in this process should be to phase out all fossil fuel subsidies.

Some local measures may help make marine resources more resilient to the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification such as stopping overfishing, bycatch and destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling, as well as establishing no take marine protected areas and limiting local pollution. But reducing carbon dioxide emissions is essential to make sure the oceans stay vibrant and productive for future generations.

To find the full ranking of nations’ vulnerability to climate change and ocean acidification check out our report:  http://oceana.org/en/HighCO2World


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Ocean Health Gets a Failing Grade

The oceans scored a disheartening 60 out of 100 on the Ocean Health Index. 

It’s no secret that the health of our oceans is under extreme threat.

With dangers like overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification, keeping our oceans healthy is a complex problem that has proved difficult to address.

Scientists and policymakers now have a little help, however, with the recent creation of the Ocean Health Index. Developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, the index provides an overall score for global ocean health, using 10 different social, economic and ecological criteria such as water quality, habitat, livelihoods, and coastal protection.

The research findings, published in the journal Nature last week, gave our oceans a collective score of 60 out of a possible 100 points. Scores were calculated for 133 different regions located around the world, with marine waters from some countries ranking as low as 36 while others as high as 86. The United States scored only a little higher than the global average, with 63 points. Disturbingly, only 5 percent of these regions scored above 70 points.


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Uncovering Surprising Blooms in the Arctic

polarbear

A changing Arctic spells bad news for polar bears and other animals ©Michael Stephens

Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.’s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.

While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large “blooms” of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.

Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.

The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.

Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.  

Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.


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New Climate Report: Hot, Sour & Breathless

Matt Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.

Oceana has teamed up with several top scientific institutions in creating a report called "Hot, Sour & Breathless – Ocean Under Stress" which has been released this week at the United Nations climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.

The collaborative report explains how the oceans are becoming more acidic, warmer, and have less oxygen due to our current fossil fuel emissions. Although it’s hard to visualize the connection between a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest United States and a coral reef in Australia, everyone around the world is bound by widespread changes in the oceans triggered by carbon emissions.

The ocean’s chemistry and its physical properties are changing dramatically fast from the burning of fossil fuels, and when one of the world’s top marine scientists leaves her hard work in the lab to communicate this issue to the international community, pay attention -- it’s probably important. I’m talking about Dr. Carol Turley, senior scientist and executive board member of the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), who will be at the climate conference in Durban. 

She will be speaking at a side event entitled “Ocean Acidification: The Other Half of the CO2 Problem” which discusses how carbon dioxide emissions are making the oceans more acidic and posing threats to marine life, fisheries and livelihoods around the world. 

Recently Dr. Turley received a prestigious award called the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to science granted by the Queen of England. Oceana, Dr. Turley and other leading marine scientists have been working to raise international awareness about ocean acidification and climate change threats to marine life and ocean resources during the last two climate negotiations, COP-15 and COP-16, and again this year. 

The continued burning of fossil fuels poses serious threats to many creatures we know and love from plankton, corals, crabs and oysters all the way up to whales. Our report explains how there are big unknowns and massive risks with multiple stressors caused by emissions which could combine to completely alter many marine habitats and food webs.


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New Study: Climate Change Threatens Global Fisheries

As world leaders prepare for international climate change negotiations next week in Durban, South Africa, a new study out this week depicts the widespread threats that climate change presents for marine fisheries.

The bottom line? Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are presenting very long-term if not irreversible threats for the oceans.

Economists and top fisheries scientists at the University of British Columbia published a paper on Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change that outlines the many challenges fisheries face from climate change, and how this can impact the global economy and hundreds of millions of lives. 

Global marine fisheries are underperforming, mainly from rampant overfishing, but climate change also creates several serious threats to the future productivity of fisheries. These chemical and physical changes linked to climate change such as decreased oxygen levels, changes in plankton communities and plant growth, altered ocean circulation and increased acidity can disrupt the basic functioning of marine ecosystems and thwart any potential recovery of global fish stocks. 

The study outlines how impacts can scale up from changing ocean conditions to the global economy, but the authors note that the true scope of impacts to employment are hard to predict.


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