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01.04.2015
Ocean acidification, the lesser-known twin of climate change, threatens to scramble marine life on a scale almost too big to fathom. She kicked through blue water until she spotted a ceramic tile attached to the bottom of a reef.
A year earlier, the ecologist from the Australian Institute of Marine Science had placed this small square near a fissure in the sea floor where gas bubbles up from the earth. Instead of a brilliant new coral reef, what sprouted here resembled a slimy lake bottom.
Healthy reef: The colorful beginnings of a new reef sprout on a ceramic tile that was placed near healthy coral in Papua New Guinea.
In fact, the water chemistry here is exactly what scientists predict most of the seas will be like in 60 to 80 years. Imagine every person on Earth tossing a hunk of CO2 as heavy as a bowling ball into the sea. Burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil and natural gas, belches carbon dioxide into the air.
Healthy reef: Fish swim around branching corals amid a pristine reef near Dobu Island, Papua New Guinea. But all that CO2 is changing the chemistry of the ocean faster than at any time in human history.
Join the conversationOcean acidification could disrupt marine life on an almost unfathomable scale. Instead, changing sea chemistry already has killed billions of oysters along the Washington coast and at a hatchery that draws water from Hood Canal.
Ocean acidification also can bedevil fish and the animals that eat them, including sharks, whales, seabirds and, of course, bigger fish.
Island reefs of Papua New Guinea offer a window on our future, while fishing ports in Alaska and along the Washington coast show how the deterioration of food webs could strike close to home. Children help biologist Joy Smith cart plastic tubs of coral and sediment through the jungle on Normanby Island, Papua New Guinea. Instead of tiered jungles of branching, leafy reefs or a watery Eden of delicate corals arrayed in fans, she saw mud, stubby spires and squat boulder corals. Featured comments“What can I, as an individual with no money nor power, do to help stop this? Already, the oceans have grown 30 percent more acidic since the dawn of the industrial revolution — 15 percent just since the 1990s. The oceans are corroding faster than they did during past periods of marine extinctions that were linked to souring seas. The Arctic and Antarctic have shifted more rapidly than other waters around the world because deep, cold seas absorb more CO2. Sea chemistry in the Northwest already is so bad during some windy periods that it kills young oysters in Washington’s Willapa Bay. In six trips to Papua New Guinea, she found sea cucumbers and urchins living near the vents, but the shrimp and crab she expected to see instead were almost nonexistent.
Corals protect shorelines from erosion and severe weather and provide a dormitory where staggering varieties of life seek shelter. One-sixth of animal protein consumed by humans comes from marine fish — in some cultures nearly all of it. In 2007, American biologist Danielle Dixson arrived in Papua New Guinea hoping to find out how Nemo got home. Dixson, then a graduate student at Australia’s James Cook University, wanted to find the olfactory cue that drew clownfish back to the reef. Since Papua New Guinea’s island rain forests drape over the sea, Dixson took five island plants and spread the scent of their leaves in water.
Munday, a James Cook University professor, had been trying to see if carbon dioxide hurts fish. By then, another American living in Australia, marine scientist Jodie Rummer, was learning that high CO2 boosted aerobic capacity for some tropical fish, transforming them into super athletes.
Walleye pollock show some behavioral problems similar to those found in clownfish when exposed to high levels of CO2.
Across the Pacific Ocean from Papua New Guinea, Tom Enlow climbed a set of stairs in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, a thousand miles out in the Aleutian Islands chain. Behind Enlow, giant vacuum hoses spit thousands of oily walleye pollock onto a conveyor. Pollock gets carved into frozen fish sticks, sold overseas as roe and imitation crab, or packed in blocks. But after tracking clownfish research, government scientists in Oregon tried new tests. Deckhands aboard the crab boat Arctic Hunter in the Bering Sea off Alaska separate male and female snow crab. All over the ocean, usually too small to see, flutter beautiful, nearly see-through creatures called pteropods, also known as sea butterflies. So scientists were alarmed late in 2012 when researchers announced that pteropods in Antarctica were dissolving right now in waters less corrosive than those often found off Washington and Oregon.


The United States does so little monitoring of marine systems that we know almost nothing about the health of creatures that form the bottom of the ocean food chain — things like pteropods, krill or other important zooplankton called copepods.
Computer modelers such as Isaac Kaplan, at NOAA in Seattle, are scrambling to figure out how sea-chemistry changes could reverberate through the ocean. He measures progress by the drop in emails from angry Alaskans challenging his findings. The rain-forest jungles of Milne Bay are home to wallabies, flying rodents, cockatoos and butterflies the size of dinner plates. But with a quarter of a million people spread across 600 islands, the threat to food may be more significant. Less than a decade ago, scientists expected acidification wouldn’t harm marine life until late in the 21st century. A handful of scientists predict rising CO2 emissions may change sea chemistry enough to harm corals by late in the 21st century. Atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira predicts sea chemistry will change more rapidly over the next century than it has in tens of millions of years. Seattle oceanographer Richard Feely, with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and others discover North Pacific sea chemistry has changed dramatically just since they sampled it in 1991. Feely and colleagues take an ocean research trip between Canada and Mexico and find enormous stretches of seawater already changing in ways not expected for 50 to 100 years. Scientists suspect sea-chemistry changes are killing oyster larvae in the Northwest, which would mean acidification is harming marine life at least a half-century sooner than expected. Scientists predict tiny shelled pteropods, an important food for fish, birds and whales, will begin dissolving in Antarctica between 2030 and 2038. Oceanographer Jeremy Mathis finds the chemistry of water in the Gulf of Alaska changing more drastically than models projected. Computer models based on new data project that the acidified water that occasionally kills Northwest oysters will be common every day on half the U.S. Researchers show baby king crab die in high numbers when exposed to CO2-rich waters expected later this century.
It is likely that much of the rise in sea level has been related to the concurrent rise in global temperature over the last 100 years.On this time scale, the warming and the consequent thermal expansion of the oceans may account for about 2-7 cm of the observed sea level rise, while the observed retreat of glaciers and ice caps may account for about 2-5 cm. When the strength of the haline forcing increases due to excess precipitation, runoff, or ice melt the conveyor belt will weaken or even shut down.
As of 2012, the 12 hottest years have all happened in the past 15, with July 2012 the hottest month ever recorded in the United States. NASA climatologist Gavin Schmidt says, a€?What matters is this decade is warmer than the last decade and that decade was warmer than the decade before. Because so many systems are tied to climate, a change in climate can affect many related aspects of where and how people, plants and animals live, such as food production, availability and use of water, and health risks. Some short-term climate variation is normal, but longer-term trends now indicate a changing climate. Our state and societies around the globe need to reduce human-caused greenhouse gas emissions to avoid worsening climate impacts and reduce the risk of creating changes beyond our ability to respond and adapt. Only one thing separated this spot from the lush tropical reefs a few hundred yards away. Unhealthy reef: Fabricius records data from instruments placed alongside corals in the CO2 vents off Dobu Island. It lowers the pH, making oceans more acidic and sour, and robs the water of ingredients animals use to grow shells in the first place. Shifting sea chemistry can cripple the reefs where fish live, rewire fish brains and attack what fish eat. But souring seas and ocean warming are expected to reduce even more of the plants and animals we depend on for food and income.
She is studying whether CO2 might harm tiny animals at the bottom of the marine food chain.
Acidification can kill baby abalone and some crabs, deform squid and weaken brittle stars while making it tough for corals to grow.
By the end of this century, scientists predict, seas may be 150 percent more acidic than they were in the 18th century. Sea grasses, which are expected to increase as the ocean becomes more acidic, grow far faster near the CO2 vents. The vast majority of wild seafood is fish, and fish account for three-quarters of the money made from ocean catches. Exposed to high CO2, the fish quit distinguishing between odors and were equally attracted to every scent. He arrived on the sorting line of a fish-processing plant owned by Redmond-based UniSea. So NOAA biologist Thomas Hurst exposed young pollock to high CO2 and introduced the scent of what they eat.
Some tropical fish raised in high-CO2 water gave birth to young that adjusted to their new environment. Red king crab are highly susceptible to changes in water chemistry, which raises concerns about whether snow crab will be, too.


Washington businesses or residents often own or run its trawlers, crab boats and processors. Scientists have known for years that plummeting ocean pH eventually would begin to burn through their shells.
Pteropods make up half the diet of baby pink salmon and get eaten by other fish, such as herring, that then get swallowed by larger animals.
That exposes more ocean surface to fossil-fuel emissions and lets in sunlight, which allows plankton to bloom and die, boosting carbon dioxide even more. The global conveyor belt thermohaline circulation is driven primarily by the formation and sinking of deep water (from around 1500m to the Antarctic bottom water overlying the bottom of the ocean) in the Norwegian Sea. It includes patterns of temperature, precipitation (rain or snow), humidity, wind and seasons.
Scientists project that these trends will continue and in some cases accelerate, posing significant risks to human health, our forests, agriculture, freshwater supplies, coastlines, and other natural resources that are vital to Washington statea€™s economy, environment, and our quality of life.
For example, a change in the usual timing of rains or temperatures can affect when plants bloom and set fruit, when insects hatch or when streams are their fullest.
Washington state is addressing this challenge and has adopted policies to reduce energy use, limit greenhouse gas emissions, and build a clean energy economy.
Tiles from healthy reefs nearby were covered with budding coral colonies in starbursts of red, yellow, pink and blue. The changes will increase ocean pests, such as jellyfish, and make the system more vulnerable to disasters and disease. This chemical change robs the water of carbonate ions, a critical building block for many marine organisms. It can increase sea grasses, which can be good, and boost the toxicity of red tides, which is not. But entire marine systems are built around the remaining half of susceptible plants and animals. The current shift has come so quickly that scientists five years ago saw chemical changes off the West Coast not expected for half a century. West Coast has simply seen consequences sooner because strong winds draw its CO2-rich water to the surface where vulnerable shellfish live. After ocean acidification started killing billions of baby oysters along Washington’s coast, both in the wild and in hatcheries where the Nisbets bought their oyster seed, the family took a radical step. Then he extrapolates how all those variables are likely to affect the fish people catch.
Many know increasing storms and rising seas someday will force them to move their sago tree huts to higher ground.
But they agreed they did not want CO2 from the West or an industrializing Asia transforming their reefs into places resembling the desolate nearby bubble sites. The pH of broad stretches of the North Pacific is now so low several months of the year that some animals already may struggle to grow shells. This circulation is thought to be responsible for the large flow of upper ocean water from the tropical Pacific to the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian Archipelogo. Climate patterns play a fundamental role in shaping natural ecosystems, and the human economies and cultures that depend on them. This can affect historically synchronized pollination of crops, food for migrating birds, spawning of fish, water supplies for drinking and irrigation, forest health, and more. Some changes in climate a€” and impacts on our state a€” are unavoidable, even if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions today. This plate was coated with a filthy film of algae and fringed with hairy sprigs of seaweed. The transformation will be well under way by the time today’s preschoolers reach middle age.
Clams rely on that carbonate, as do corals, lobsters, shrimp, crabs, barnacles, sand dollars, cucumbers and sea urchins.
And at night they dodge tiger sharks and saltwater crocodiles to spear small fish from beneath bountiful corals. While 2012 was also the ninth-warmest year on record world-wide, all 10 of the warmest years have occurred since 1998, continuing a trend of temperatures well above the mid-20th century average. But the climate wea€™ve come to expect is not what it used to be, because the past is no longer a reliable predictor of the future. Dull, rounded boulder corals, which seemed to thrive, still grew a third slower than normal. The record dates back to 1880 because that is when there were enough meteorological stations around the world to provide global temperature data. Our climate is rapidly changing with disruptive impacts, and that change is progressing faster than any seen in the last 2,000 years.




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