Dr Carol Turley at GEO-X Ministerial Summit & Exhibition with Albert Fischer, Director, GOOS Project Office and Head, Ocean Observations and Services Section at IOC/UNESCO

Ocean acidification: yes, it’s serious

Image courtesy of GEO-X Ministerial Summit & Exhibition, US Mission Geneva. Dr Carol Turley at GEO-X Ministerial Summit & Exhibition with Albert Fischer, Director, GOOS Project Office and Head, Ocean Observations and Services Section at IOC/UNESCO. January 2014. 

A new international report “An updated synthesis of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine biodiversity” shows beyond doubt that ocean acidification is an issue of serious environmental and policy concern.

As carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes up (and there was a record-breaking increase in 2013), the pH of the ocean falls.  That chemical response is unavoidable; what has been less certain is whether marine life will be affected. Ten years ago, only a handful of researchers were investigating the biological impacts of ocean acidification: whilst their results gave cause for concern, it was clear that a lot more measurements and experiments were needed. Around a thousand published studies later, it has now been established that many marine species will suffer in a high CO2 world, with consequences for human society.

Evidence for such effects has been brought together by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the United Nations body committed to the conservation and sustainable use of all forms of life on Earth. An international team of thirty experts, led by UK scientists and including PML scientists, has concluded that ocean acidification is already underway ‒ and it is now near-inevitable that it will worsen, causing widespread impacts, mostly deleterious, on marine organisms and ecosystems, and on the goods and services they provide.

The exact magnitude of the ecological and financial costs is, however, still uncertain, due to complex interactions with other human-driven environmental changes. Risks to coral reefs are highlighted in the CBD report: in the tropics, these habitats help support the livelihoods of around 400 million people, and their loss could cause economic damage of a trillion dollars a year. In European seas, cold-water corals have high conservation value; they also provide nursery grounds for endangered species (e.g. deep-sea sharks) and some commercial fish. 

Microscopic marine fossils show that global-scale ocean acidification has occurred before, due to natural causes, around 56 million years ago. “The speed of current ocean acidification is unprecedented” said Dr Carol Turley, contributing author of the report. “An ocean acidification event that happened millions of years ago occurred about ten times more slowly than what is happening today due to human activity, and it still resulted in some species becoming extinct. It is sobering to know that recovery in ocean chemistry back then took around a 100,000 years.”

How ocean acidification may affect human society was also explored through the report, with PML's Dr Caroline Hattam contributing expertise in this area. Dr Hattam commented "Exploring the societal implications of ocean acidification remains a challenge as the wider ecosystem level effects are largely unknown. Nevertheless it is important to try to understand the impacts on society and human well-being if appropriate mitigation and/or adaptations strategies are to be developed and implemented."

Laboratory and field studies by the UK Ocean Acidification Research Programme (UKOA) together with modelling, have made a major scientific contribution to the report. “Our work at Heriot-Watt University and in the north-east Atlantic has given us a much better appreciation of the vulnerability of cold-water corals” said Dr Sebastian Hennige, lead editor of the report. “There is risk that their habitat will literally dissolve away, since living corals grow on structures made by their dead ancestors. These structures will be subject to chemical erosion over very large ocean areas if current trends continue”.

“At the end of the day, the only way to deal with ocean acidification is to reduce CO2 emissions” says Prof Murray Roberts co-editor of the report and Director of Heriot-Watt University’s Centre for Marine Biodiversity & Biotechnology. “But for this to happen people first need to be aware that ocean acidification is an important issue, and having it high on the CBD agenda is a huge step forward.”

The CBD report was subject to extensive peer review, with a near-final draft scrutinised by the 18th meeting of the CBD’s Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice at Montreal in June. That body recommended that the report should be brought to wider attention, including referral to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, on account of the very close linkage between the future severity of ocean acidification and the global success (or failure) in reducing CO2 emissions.

(Image above: Pteropod Limacina helicina, an important component of Arctic and sub-Arctic food webs, that may already be affected by ocean acidification credit: N Bednarsek)

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