Ocean acidification: A climate change issue

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    Seibel looks out at the icy landscape that surround him and his team, engulfing them in a world hidden away from the worries and dangers of civilizations.

    The air has come to a standstill. Few individuals ever experience utter silence but this morning in the frozen tundra that is Antarctica, there is an absence of sound, movement and life.

    The sky is clear and sunrays beat down upon the frozen landscape, doing nothing to help the intolerable cold that has the nasty habit of freezing the scientific team to their very core despite the incredible amount of layers and clothes they don.

    But they don’t mind; they want to be here. They’ve chosen this mission because they know that oceans and the aquatic life within them are not immune to the drastic change in pH.

    The excessive carbon dioxide levels caused by human actions are altering water chemistry and in turn, negatively affecting the life cycles of many marine organisms, especially those at the lower end of the food chain.

    Coral reefs and other aquatic life cannot simply adjust their bodies to this new acidity in their habitats. The incredible biological and evolutionary diversity that exists within any aquatic environment is unlike anything found on land.

    About 50 to 80 percent of life on Earth can be found under the ocean so protecting them becomes priority if one is concerned about the protection and future survival of many unique and valuable species. The continued pollution of the air and water will result in less diverse reef ecosystems, coral degradation and over-exploitation even extinction, of rare and precious species.

    Squids and blue mussels have already shown decreased metabolic rates in high temperatures or high carbon dioxide levels because their blood is very sensitive to pH and it can’t carry as much as is being introduced. These decreased metabolic rates also affect the animals’ immune responses.

    A special emphasis must be placed on coral reefs for many reasons. Corals are interesting because they are both a living organism themselves and a habitat for other organisms. Corals are known as the nurseries of the ocean because they are incredible hot spots of biodiversity and can contain up to 1,000 species per m².

    Corals are especially sensitive to changes in acidity.

    Corals after they’ve been dried and bleached are put on display at the Rosentiel School. VOXXI/Laura Sanchez-Ubanell

    “Coral is a habitat for everything that lives in a coral reef like fishes, crabs and lobsters. Everything that hides inside the framework that coral builds is at risk if the coral isn’t able to build its limestone skeletons. So that’s where ocean acidification comes in. It is affecting the health of the coral animals and it’s reducing the amount of habitats these animals have. Double whammy!” says Langdon.

    Langdon believes corals are the most cause for concern and seem to be the best study at this point because they’re among the most sensitive and because they support such a diverse group of organisms.

    They won’t be able to support a reef and a community at the same time if acidification comes to an extreme. Even if they survive, the ocean will be a different place. Acidification, pollution and higher temperatures have all contributed to reefs’ less than pristine present-day conditions and this will only intensify in the next 50 to 100 years.

    Coral reefs may lose their vibrant and dynamic colors if current rates of acidification continue.

    Corals are especially prone to danger from ocean acidification. VOXXI/Laura Sanchez-Ubanell

    There will be a transition from the beautiful, colorful hard corals of today to something more like greenish, brown slime. The Florida Keys have already lost 80 percent of the coral that was present in the 70s.

    Ocean acidification would leave many areas of the ocean inhospitable to coral reefs, which in turn would have a detrimental effect on tourism, food security, shoreline protection and biodiversity. However, not all marine animals are heavily negatively affected by ocean acidification.

    “Things that don’t build shells or skeletons are largely unaffected like jellyfish, bacteria and lot of species of algae. Some actually will benefit from it,” says Langdon. “We’re talking about changing the balance of life and who the dominant species is.”

    Scientists from The Ocean Carbon and Biogeochemistry Group have shown that the shells of some lobsters and other crustacean actually become thicker when placed in more acidic water environments. However, this seemingly positive attribute of ocean acidification is trumped by the fact that because this extra shell growing requires energy, other crucial functions such as reproduction or growing become limited.

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