Worldwide emissions of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning are dramatically altering ocean chemistry and threatening marine organisms, including corals, that secrete skeletal structures and support oceanic biodiversity. A landmark report released July 5 summarizes the known effects of increased atmospheric carbon dioxide on these organisms, known as marine calcifiers, and recommends future research for determining the extent of the impacts.
"It is clear that seawater chemistry will change in coming decades and centuries in ways that will dramatically alter marine life," says Joan Kleypas, the report's lead author and a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder. "But we are only beginning to understand the complex interactions between large-scale chemistry changes and marine ecology. It is vital to develop research strategies to better understand the long-term vulnerabilities of sensitive marine organisms to these changes."
The report, "Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs and Other Marine Calcifiers," warns that oceans worldwide absorbed approximately 118 billion metric tons of carbon between 1800 and 1994. Oceans are naturally alkaline, and they are expected to remain so, but the interaction with carbon dioxide is making them less alkaline and more acidic. The increased acidity lowers the concentration of carbonate ion, a building block of the calcium carbonate that many marine organisms use to grow their skeletons and create coral reef structures.
"This is leading to the most dramatic changes in marine chemistry in at least the past 650,000 years," says Richard Feely, one of the authors and an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) in Seattle.
The report follows a workshop funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and hosted by the U.S. Geological Service Integrated Science Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.
Slowing skeletal growth
Experimental studies, such as those conducted by one of the report's authors, Chris Langdon at the University of Miami, show that coral calcification consistently decreases as the oceans become more acidic. This means that these organisms will grow more slowly, or their skeletons will become less dense, a process similar to osteoporosis in humans. As a result, reef structures are threatened because corals may be unable to build reefs as fast as erosion wears away the reefs.
"This threat is hitting coral reefs at the same time that they are being hit by warming-induced mass bleaching events," Langdon says. Mass bleaching occurs when unusually warm temperatures cause the coral to expel the colorful microscopic algae that provide the coral polyps with food.
Many calcifying organisms—including marine plankton such as pteropods, a planktonic marine snail—are affected by the chemistry changes. Shelled pteropods are an important food source for salmon, mackerel, herring, and cod. If calcifying organisms such as pteropods are unable to sustain their populations, many other species may be affected.
"Decreased calcification in marine algae and animals is likely to impact marine food webs and has the potential to substantially alter the biodiversity and productivity of the ocean," says Victoria Fabry of California State University, San Marcos, who is another of the report's authors.
Threats to major ecosystems
Several other major ecosystems that are supported by marine calcifiers may be particularly threatened by ocean acidification. These include cold-water reefs, which are extensive structures that provide habitat for many important fish species, particularly in the coastal waters of Alaska.
The report outlines future research to understand this consequence of climate change. While scientists cannot yet fully predict how much marine calcification rates will change in the future, the report warns that the more critical question is: "What does this mean in terms of organism fitness and the future of marine ecosystems?"
Lisa Robbins of the U.S. Geological Service Center for Coastal and Watershed Studies and Chris Sabine of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory also co-authored the report.
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