Marine Life Will Be Screwed If Oceans Get Any More Acidic

fish and coralThe Great Barrier Reef is home to 411 types of hard coral, a third of the world’s soft corral, 1,500 species of fish, 134 species of sharks and rays, and more than 30 species of marine mammals.

Photo: Flickr/richard ling

A new study states that the oceans are acidifying faster than any point in the last 300 million years due to human carbon emissions, as reported by Bloomberg.“Although similarities exist, no past event perfectly parallels future projections in terms of disrupting the balance of ocean carbonate chemistry — a consequence of the unprecedented rapidity of CO2 release currently taking place,” the researchers wrote.

The research, led by Columbia University and published in the journal Science, is the first ever to survey the geologic record for evidence of ocean acidification over a vast time period. It found that atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen 30 per cent in the last century, which is 10 times faster than the closest historical comparison from 56 million years ago.

Oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, forming carbonic acid and lowering the pH levels. The lower the pH level, the more acidic the oceans are. The pH level has dropped by 0.1 unit in the last century and may fall another .3 units by 2100 to a level of 7.8.

If that happens, marine life will be in a world of hurt. Usually carbonic acid is neutralized by fossil carbonate shells on the seafloor. But when CO2 enters the oceans too quickly, it can deplete the carbonate ions that corals, mollusks and some plankton need for reef and shell-building.

A 2011 study of coral reefs off Papua New Guinea discovered that when pH dropped to 7.8, reef diversity declined as much as 40 per cent. Other studies discovered that clownfish larvae raised in the lab lose their ability to sniff out predators and find their way home when pH drops below 7.8.  

“It’s not a problem that can be quickly reversed,” said Christopher Langdon, a biological oceanographer at the University of Miami who co-authored the study on Papua New Guinea reefs. “Once a species goes extinct it’s gone forever. We’re playing a very dangerous game.” 

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