Quantcast
Climate

Increase in Ocean Acidification Threatens Longevity of Shellfish and Coral

Our power plants and cars have pumped so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that the oceans are becoming more acidic. Something like a quarter of our carbon dioxide pollution dissolves into the seas, where it reacts with water:

CO2 (aq) + H2 H2CO3  HCO3 + H+  CO32− + 2 H+

Illustration by Perry Shirley

Those leftover hydrogen ions at the right of the equation add up. The hydrogen ion concentration at the surface of the world’s oceans has increased by 26 percent since pre-industrial times, leading to a pH decline of 0.1. That might not sound like much, but it has been enough to kill off billions of farmed shellfish and punch holes in the shells of wild sea snails.

Shellfish and corals are especially vulnerable to ocean acidification because they rely on calcium carbonate to make their shells and skeletons. Ocean acidification increases concentrations of bicarbonate ions while decreasing concentrations of carbonate ions—and these animals need calcium carbonate to produce their protective body parts.

Fish, meanwhile, are thought to be suffering neurological effects of acidifying oceans, while vast mats of algae are expected to flourish.

The good news is that populations of animals naturally adapt to changes in their environments—and evolutionary changes to help some species cope with ocean acidification are already underway. The bad news is that changes in oceanic pH levels might be happening too quickly for animals to adapt, threatening scores of marine species with extinction.

I asked Ryan Kelly, an assistant professor at the University of Washington’s School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, and a coauthor of a recent BioScience paper about acidification that I wrote about for Pacific Standard, whether we could do anything to help species accelerate the rate with which they evolve needed adaptations.

Read page 1

“‘Accelerating’ species’ evolutionary adaptations to acidification would mean either tweaking the heritability of traits—and it’s unclear whether this is desirable, or how to do it; or increasing the strength of selection—which would mean making the selective impacts of acidification worse than they already are,” Kelly said. “So I’m thinking that, in an evolutionary sense, you don’t want to accelerate adaptation.”

Is there anything that we can do?

“What you do want to do, in order to protect marine ecosystems as we know them, is to preserve the adaptive capacity of the species that make up those ecosystems. That means preserving the genetic diversity that exists within those species, so that when the selective pressures of acidification happen, there will be some variability in those species’ responses. When there’s no genetic diversity, you get no variability in response to selective pressure, and natural selection and evolution doesn’t really work.”

Which means that we need to expand and improve the globe’s network of marine reserves, banning fishing in some places, and giving species the best possible shot of surviving the storm of acidity that’s building around them.

“From a conservation perspective, measures that preserve existing genetic diversity safeguard the adaptive capacity of species and ecosystems. This means working to maintain large population sizes and not fragmenting habitats, which are common conservation measures.”

As U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry led workshops in June dealing with ocean acidification and other ocean health issues, President Barack Obama’s administration proposed sweeping expansions of marine reserves surrounding remote Pacific Ocean atolls. The move would limit fishing for tuna and other species, helping to protect top predators that are critical for ecosystem health, while also protecting smaller species that are killed as bycatch.

“This is an important step in trying to maintain the health of this region and, as a result, the surrounding areas in the Pacific,” said Lance Morgan, president of Marine Conservation Institute. “It will give us more resilience into the future. We’ll have to replicate this and do more work in other areas as well, but it is an important step.”

Meanwhile, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning to expand the boundaries of Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, both of which lie off the West Coast, where strong upwelling leads to especially severe rates of ocean acidification. Meanwhile, Kiribati recently announced that it would close an area the size of California to fishing to help wildlife recover.

Ocean acidification is not a major consideration in the creation of marine reserves, but it’s a growing threat against which the reserves can help populations of wildlife evolve natural defenses.

You Might Also Like

Scientists to Build Underwater Bio-Dome Simulating Future Ocean Acidification Levels

Sea Shepherd Founder to Bill Maher: ‘If Oceans Die, We Die’

How Acidification, Overfishing and Plastics Threaten the World’s Oceans

Show Comments ()
Sponsored
Rice University marine biologist Adrienne Correa takes samples at a reef in Flower Garden Banks. Jesse Cancelmo / Rice University

Hurricane Harvey Runoff Threatens Coral Reefs

Hurricane Harvey's record rains didn't just unleash a torrent of floodwaters into the Gulf of Mexico—this freshwater could be harming coral reefs which require saltwater to live, according to new research.

After Harvey dumped more than 13 trillion gallons of rain over southeast Texas, researchers detected a 10 percent drop in salinity at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary, located 100 miles off the coast of Galveston, Texas.

Keep reading... Show less

Pruitt Wants to Make the EPA Less Accountable to the Public

When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) breaks the law by missing deadlines, allowing polluters to violate regulations that protect our health and environment, one way the public holds it accountable is by taking the agency to court. Scott Pruitt and his corporate polluter allies see this as a problem, so Monday, the administrator moved to curtail the agency's practice of settling lawsuits with outside groups, making it easier to skirt the law.

"Pruitt's doing nothing more than posturing about a nonexistent problem and political fiction," John Walke, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Climate and Clean Air program said in reaction. "His targeting of legal settlements, especially where EPA has no defense to breaking the law, will just allow violations to persist, along with harms to Americans."

Keep reading... Show less
Oil on the surface of the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Julie Dermansky

Nearly 400,000 Gallons of Oil Spews Into Gulf of Mexico, Could Be Largest Spill Since Deepwater Horizon

Last week, a pipe owned by offshore oil and gas operator LLOG Exploration Company, LLC spilled up to 393,000 gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, reminding many observers of the Deepwater Horizon explosion seven years ago that spewed approximately 210 million gallons of crude into familiar territory.

Now, a report from Bloomberg suggests that the LLOG spill could be the largest in the U.S. since the 2010 BP blowout, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE).

Keep reading... Show less
Shutterstock

Big Food Is Worried About Millennials Avoiding Animal Products

By Nathan Runkle

Hundreds of leaders from fast-food chains, marketing agencies and poultry production companies recently gathered in North Carolina for the 2017 Chicken Marketing Summit to play golf and figure out how to make you eat more animals.

One session focused on marketing chicken to millennials. Richard Kottmeyer, a senior managing partner at Fork to Farm Advisory Services, explained to the crowd that millennials are "lost" and need to be "inspired and coached." His reasoning? Because there are now "58 ways to gender identify on Facebook." Also, because most millennial women take nude selfies, the chicken industry needs to be just as "naked" and transparent.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

Strange Days: Ex-Hurricane Ophelia Batters Ireland Under Orange Skies

By Dr. Jeff Masters and Bob Henson

Ex-Hurricane Ophelia hit Ireland hard with full hurricane-like fury on Monday, bringing powerful winds that caused widespread damage and power outages. At least two deaths have been reported from trees falling on cars, and The Irish Times said at least 360,000 ESB Networks customers lost power in Ireland because of the storm.

Keep reading... Show less
GMO
PBouman / Shutterstock

EPA Limits Use of Problematic Herbicide Dicamba—But Is That Enough?

By Dan Nosowitz

Dicamba has been in use as a local pesticide for decades, but it's only recently that Monsanto has taken to using it in big, new ways. The past two years have seen the rollout of dicamba-resistant seed for soybean and cotton, as well as a new way to apply it: broad spraying.

But dicamba, it turns out, has a tendency to vaporize and drift with the wind, and it if lands on a farm that hasn't planted Monsanto's dicamba-resistant seed, the pesticide will stunt and kill crops in a very distinctive way, with a telltale cupping and curling of leaves, as seen above. Drift from dicamba has affected millions of acres of crops, prompting multiple states to issue temporary bans on the pesticide. Farmers have been taking sides, either pro-dicamba or anti, and at least one farmer has been killed in a dispute over its use.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored
Runoff from a farm field in Iowa during a rain storm. Lynn Betts / U.S. Department of Agriculture, Natural Resources Conservation Service

Drinking Water for Millions in Rural America Contaminated With Suspected Carcinogen

Drinking water supplies for millions of Americans in farm country are contaminated with a suspected cancer-causing chemical from fertilizer, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group.

The contaminant is nitrate, which gets into drinking water sources when chemical fertilizer or manure runs off poorly protected farm fields. Nitrate contaminates drinking water for more than 15 million people in 49 states, but the highest levels are found in small towns surrounded by row-crop agriculture. Major farm states where the most people are at risk include California, Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.

Keep reading... Show less
www.youtube.com

Trump's Approval Rating on Hurricane Response Sinks 20 Points After Puerto Rico

President Trump's approval rating for overseeing the federal government's response to hurricanes fell by 20 points after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, a CNN poll conducted by SSRS revealed.

Trump's approval rating for responding to hurricanes Harvey and Irma stood at 64 percent in mid-September. Just a month later, the rating dropped to 44 percent.

Keep reading... Show less
Sponsored

mail-copy

Get EcoWatch in your inbox