In Arctic, scientists see dire effect of ocean acidification

A A A

The icy Arctic waters around Norway's archipelago of Svalbard may seem pristine and clear, but like the rest of the world's oceans they are facing the threat of growing acidity.

Oceans have always absorbed part of the carbon dioxide, or C02, present in the air, which in turn makes them acid. But with CO2 levels soaring, the scientific community is getting worried about acidification harming marine life.

Off the coast of Ny-Aalesund, a tiny coal mine village turned scientific outpost just 1,200 kilometres (745 miles) from the North Pole, researchers from nine European countries conducted in July an unprecedented effort to analyse the phenomenon.

To do so, they submerged nine tubes, each weighing two tonnes and the height of two double-decker busses, in the icy waters of the remote fjord framed by snow-capped mountains.

They then injected the water-tight tubes, called mesocosms, with CO2, to reproduce sea life under different acidity levels expected from now until 2150 with the aim of studying the potentially disastrous effects of acidification on marine life.

"It's here in the Arctic that the ocean will become corrosive the fastest," Jean-Pierre Gattuso, with France's National Center for Scientific Research, said, explaining why the researchers chose to turn these waters thick with icy slush into a laboratory.

The threat to the world's oceans is not so much the absolute concentration of acidity, but rather the pace at which it is changing, Gattuso explained, pointing out that "cold water swallow up gas faster than hot or temperate water."

Oceans absorb more than a quarter of the CO2 emitted by humans, which in one way is fortunate since this natural absorption mitigates the impact the gas has on the climate.

However the soaring levels of man-made CO2 in the atmosphere are proving devastating to the oceans themselves: since the beginning of the industrial era they have become 30 percent more acidic, reaching an acidity peak not seen in at least 55 million years, scientists say.

And with no sign of CO2 emissions slowing down, ocean acidification will likely keep increasing in the decades to come.

This is especially worrisome since higher acidity levels have been shown to sharply slow calcification in corals, shellfish and other species.

Corals, a source of rich biodiversity that prevents land area from being submerged and draws much-needed tourists to some of the world's poorest corners, might thus have trouble shaping their skeletons, while shellfish could lose their shells.

- Adaptation is less likely -

----------------

Ulf Riebesell, a German oceanographer, said not all sea creatures were equal in their ability to adapt to their increasingly acid environment.

"For micro-organisims which have generation times of a few days, adaptation may happen during the next 100 years or so as the ocean continues to acidify to critical levels," explained the researcher from the IFM-Geomar centre, braving glacial winds in a bright yellow padded windbreaker and a woolen hat.

But for organisms with long life spans, like corals, "adaptation is much less likely because they need so many generations to change their genetic set-up," Riebesell said.

Scientists caution the current frantic increase of seawater acidity is already causing serious problems for the pteropod, a sort of sea snail vital for the Arctic food chain.

The tiny, translucent mollusc could end up naked in the near future, unable to shape its shell in an increasingly acid environment, explained Jan Buedenbender, another German researcher from the IFM-Geomar institute.

This could have far-reaching consequences, he warned.

"They're a key species for the Arctic food system because they're feeding on very small particles and on phytoplankton, and they're getting quite big and really big animals like whales and birds and fish can feed on them," he explained.

They are also key because their shell contributes to fighting climate change, since it helps the sea snail sink to the bottom when it dies, dragging down all the CO2 ingested over its short lifespan.

By doing so "they're helping the ocean take up more CO2," Buedenbender said.

There is still a chance to save species like the pteropod, according to Iris Menn, a marine biologist with Greenpeace which shipped the giant test-tubes up to Svalbard.

But there is no easy solution. To make a difference, industrialised countries will have to slash their CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020, she said.

"We can't stop the trend anyway. We will have a high level of acidity in the water no matter what," she said.

"But what we can do is stop CO2 emissions, so the effect will be reduced."

Life and Style
A monstrous idea? Body transplants might no longer be science fiction
Science An Italian neurosurgeon believes so - and it's not quite as implausible as it sounds, says Steve Connor
Sport
Demba Ba (right) celebrates after Besiktas win on penalties
footballThere was no happy return to the Ataturk Stadium, where the Reds famously won Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
arts + ents
News
Mia Freedman, editorial director of the Mamamia website, reads out a tweet she was sent.
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
The write stuff: masters of story-telling James Joyce, left, and Thomas Hardy
arts + ents...begging to differ, John Walsh can't even begin to number the ways
Sport
Jose Mourinho on Sky Sports
footballEXCLUSIVE COLUMN Paul Scholes: It was not a leg-breaking tackle, as the Chelsea manager had claimed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

£23000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small, friendly, proactive...

Recruitment Genius: Photographic Event Crew

£14500 - £22800 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developers - .NET / ASP.NET / WebAPI / JavaScript

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Software Developer is required to join a lea...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Tax Solicitor - City

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A first rate opportunity to join a top ranking...

Day In a Page

HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

Time to play God

Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

MacGyver returns, but with a difference

Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

Tunnel renaissance

Why cities are hiding roads underground
'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

Boys to men

The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

Crufts 2015

Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
10 best projectors

How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

Monaco: the making of Wenger

Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

Homage or plagiarism?

'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower