More Funding Going to Research Ocean Acidification

As the greenhouse gases responsible for climate change build up in the atmosphere, a steadily warming planet isn’t the only result. Much of the carbon dioxide produced since the Industrial Revolution by burning coal, oil, and other fossil fuels has been absorbed by the world’s oceans, changing the very chemistry of seawater. The oceans have grown steadily more acidic since economies first started burning fossil fuels on a large scale, with potential dire results for marine organisms. Allocation of new funds to study the effects of ocean acidification will hopefully help scientists understand the full implications.

Last month the University of Alaska Fairbanks announced it would be expanding its research into the effects of ocean acidification and is seeking new funding from the federal government. This makes sense: just as Alaska and other arctic regions are particularly vulnerable to climate change, the cold waters of the north are expected to be hit especially hard by acidification. The university’s Ocean Acidification Research Center is investigating acidification in the Bering Sea and Resurrection Bay, with an eye to how changes in marine pH levels might impact Alaska’s economically important fisheries.

Reflecting growing awareness within the federal government that ocean acidification is a threat as real as climate change, the National Science Foundation is giving more than $24 million to help fund acidification research. The funds will be distributed between twenty-two projects at research institutions now studying the problem. Yet while much remains to be learned about the full impacts of ocean acidification, what we know already is that the process will have a profound affect on the world’s oceans if it is allowed to continue much longer.

The organisms most directly impacted by acidification are marine invertebrates the build shells or other structures made from calcium. These include clams, oysters, and other bivalve mollusks important to the fishing industry. They also include the corals that form the backbone of one of the ocean’s most biologically diverse ecosystems, coral reefs. As the acidity of ocean water increases, calcium structures start to dissolve. It also becomes more difficult for invertebrate larvae to build calcium shells or skeletons as they mature.

At least one study has compared the survival rate of bivalve (clam and oyster) larvae in water with the pH of today’s oceans to the survival rate in water with the pH of two centuries ago. Larvae in the water that mimicked today’s ocean were approximately half as likely to survive as those in less acidic waters mimicking the oceans before the age of climate change.

Further study into the effects of acidification will be important and will allow researchers to more accurately prepare for its impact on ocean ecosystems. However enough information about the subject exists already to make it clear acidification, like climate change, is causing irreversible changes in the marine habitats. Now it’s to be hoped the commitment to studying acidification displayed by the federal government this fall will be matched by an equally firm commitment to eliminate the causes of the problem—carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Photo credit: dMap Travel Guide