Friday, March 2, 2012

Current rate of ocean acidification may be unprecidented

The current issue of Science includes The Geological Record of Ocean Acidification, the first summary of the geologic record for evidence of ocean acidification over the past 300 million years. The article suggests the world's oceans may be turning acidic faster today from human carbon emissions than they did during four major extinctions in the last 300 million years, when natural pulses of carbon sent global temperatures soaring. The complex set of processes examined in the article are summarized in the diagram below.

The press release has a nice summary:
The oceans act like a sponge to draw down excess carbon dioxide from the air; the gas reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid, which over time is neutralized by fossil carbonate shells on the seafloor. But if CO2 goes into the oceans too quickly, it can deplete the carbonate ions that corals, mollusks and some plankton need for reef and shell-building.

That is what is happening now. In a review of hundreds of paleoceanographic studies, a team of researchers from five countries found evidence for only one period in the last 300 million years when the oceans changed even remotely as fast as today: the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, some 56 million years ago. In the early 1990s, scientists extracting sediments from the seafloor off Antarctica found a layer of mud from this period wedged between thick deposits of white plankton fossils. In a span of about 5,000 years, they estimated, a mysterious surge of carbon doubled atmospheric concentrations, pushed average global temperatures up by about 6 degrees C, and dramatically changed the ecological landscape.

The result: carbonate plankton shells littering the seafloor dissolved, leaving the brown layer of mud. As many as half of all species of benthic foraminifers, a group of single-celled organisms that live at the ocean bottom, went extinct, suggesting that organisms higher in the food chain may have also disappeared, said study co-author Ellen Thomas, a paleoceanographer at Yale University who was on that pivotal Antarctic cruise. "It's really unusual that you lose more than 5 to 10 percent of species over less than 20,000 years," she said. "It's usually on the order of a few percent over a million years." During this time, scientists estimate, ocean pH—a measure of acidity--may have fallen as much as 0.45 units. (As pH falls, acidity rises.)

In the last hundred years, atmospheric CO2 has risen about 30 percent, to 393 parts per million, and ocean pH has fallen by 0.1 unit, to 8.1--an acidification rate at least 10 times faster than 56 million years ago, says Hönisch. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that pH may fall another 0.3 units by the end of the century, to 7.8, raising the possibility that we may soon see ocean changes similar to those observed during the PETM.

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