Monday, November 20, 2006

A remarkable similarity

The more that effective communicators do to help scientists raise awareness of the significance of ocean acidification the better. So it is good to see Elizabeth Kolbert (whose work on the impacts of atmospheric climate change I praised in the spring 2005 debate on the politics of climate change) writing about it (The Darkening Sea, The New Yorker, 20 November 2006, text not available online).

It may be that the similarities between her article and mine, published in New Scientist on 5 August 2006, are coincidental, dictated by the logic of the subject and sequencing interviews with the small number of distinguished scientists in this field.

And there are some differences. For example: I interviewed James Orr while she spoke to Chris Langdon; Kolbert was able to meet the scientists face to face while I had only a telephone; and she had more space to spin a yarn - not an option with the procrustean rigours of New Scientist, which is one of the reasons I am writing a book.

Still, if I were her and someone showed me the article that Caspar Henderson had published earlier I would either be quite surprised by how alike the two pieces are, or quite embarrassed.

(The text of mine is attached as a comment to this post. Please contact me directly if you would like a pdf with pictures and graphs)


Blogger Caspar Henderson said...

New Scientist
5 August 2006


The Other CO2 problem


As the oceans turn acid, coral reefs will vanish along with innumerable other sea creatures. Caspar Henderson reports on a disaster in the making

A FEW years ago, Victoria Fabry saw the future of the world’s oceans in a plastic jar. She was aboard a research vessel in the frigid waters of the North Pacific, carrying out experiments on a species of pteropod called Cliopyramidata –frisky little mollusks with shells up to a centimeter long and flaps on their bodies that they use to swim in a way that resembles butterfly flight. Something strange was happening in Fabry’s jars. “The pteropods were still swimming like billy-o, but their shells were visibly dissolving,” says Fabry, a biologist from California State University San Marcos. “I could see it with the naked eye.”

She realised that the animals’ respiration had increased the carbon dioxide concentration in the jars, which had been sealed for 48 hours, changing the water’s chemistry to a point where the calcium carbonate in the pteropods’ shells had started to dissolve. Fabry and her colleagues were
aware that at some point in the future the massive influx of carbon dioxide from human activity might reduce the alkalinity of the oceans. “But this was way before anybody thought such a trend would affect organisms like these.” What Fabry had stumbled on was a hint of “the other CO2 problem”.

It has taken several decades and hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of research for climate change to be recognised as a serious threat. But another result of our fossil fuel habit – ocean acidification – has only begun to be researched in the last few years. Its impact could be momentous, says Joanie Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, lead author of a report on ocean acidification released last month. CO2 forms carbonic acid when it dissolves in water, and the oceans are soaking up more and more of it. Recent studies show that the seas have absorbed about a third of all the fossil-fuel carbon released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and they will soak up far more over the next century. Yet until quite recently many people dismissed the idea that humanity could alter the acidity of the oceans, which cover 71 per cent of the planet’s surface to an average depth of about 4 kilometres. The ocean’s natural buffering capacity was assumed to be capable of preventing any changes in acidity even with a massive increase in CO2 levels.

And it is – but only if the increase happens slowly, over hundreds of thousands of years. Over this timescale, the release of carbonates from rocks on land and from ocean sediments can neutralise the dissolved CO2, just like dropping chalk in an acid. Levels of CO2 are now rising so fast that they are overwhelming the ocean’s buffering capacity.

In 2003 Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, and Michael Wickett at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, both in California, calculated that the absorption of fossil CO2
could make the oceans more acid over the next few centuries than they have been for 300 million years, with the possible exception of rare catastrophic events.

It was in their Nature paper that the phrase “ocean acidification” appeared in the scientific literature for the first time. The potential seriousness of the effect was underlined in 2005 by the work of James Zachos of the University of California at Santa Cruz and his colleagues, who studied one of
these rare catastrophic events. They showed that the mass extinction of huge numbers of deep-sea creatures around 55 million years ago was caused by ocean acidification after the release of around 4500 gigatonnes of carbon (New Scientist, 18 June 2005, p 19). It took over 100,000 years for the
oceans to return to their normal alkalinity. Around the same time as the Zachos paper, the UK’s Royal Society published the first comprehensive report on ocean acidification.

It makes grim reading, concluding that ocean acidification is inevitable without drastic cuts
in emissions. Marine ecosystems, especially coral reefs, are likely be badly affected, with fishing and tourist industries based around reefs losing billions of dollars each year. Yet the report also stressed that there is huge uncertainty about the effects on marine life.

On the one hand the chemistry of ocean acidification is very certain,” says James Orr of
the Laboratory of Sciences of the Climate Environment (CEA-CNRS) in France.“ On the
other hand the biological and ecological impacts are very complex. The consequences
for ocean life are far harder to predict.”

So what progress has been made since the report came out? How serious an issue is acidification given all the other threats to the oceans, from overfishing and pollution to warming waters and changes in currents? The sea creatures most likely to be affected are those that make their shells or skeletons from calcium carbonate, including tiny plankton and massive corals. Their shells and skeletons do not dissolve only because the upper layers of the oceans are supersaturated with calcium carbonate (see Graphic, page 33). Acidification reduces carbonate ion concentrations, making it harder for organisms to build their shells or skeletons. When the water drops below the saturation point, these structures will start to dissolve.

Calcium carbonate comes in two different forms, aragonite and calcite, aragonite being more soluble. So organisms with aragonite structures, such as corals, will be hardest hit. Early studies suggested that calcification rates of corals would decrease by 10 to 30 per cent during a rapid doubling of atmospheric CO2, as is happening now. More recent studies have tended to widen the range of uncertainty suggesting that CO2 doubling might cause anything from a 3 to 54 per cent decrease in carbonate production. “In experiments with lower pH that simulate future conditions, the corals don’t die. They just grow more slowly,” says Kleypas.

That may not sound too bad, but the long-term effects could be severe. “Corals undergoing
these sorts of stresses may become unable to compete for space. They may reach sexual maturity more slowly,” says Kleypas. Another complication is that the oceans are warming at the same time as becoming more acidic. A few researchers have suggested that slower coral growth due to declining carbonate levels will be more than offset by faster growth due to higher ocean temperatures. Such arguments are flawed, says Carol Turley, director of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK and a lead author of the Royal Society report. This is because even fairly short periods of abnormally high temperatures – as little as 1 °C higher than the long-term average for a month – can cause corals to expel the algae hat supply most of their food, resulting in bleaching and sometimes the death of the coral.

Box 1

What is ocean acidification?

The oceans are naturally alkaline, with an average pH of around 8.2, although this can vary by up to 0.3 units depending on location and season. When CO2 dissolves in seawater it forms a weak acid, lowering the pH. The rate at which extra CO2 is being injected into the oceans far exceeds the rate at which natural processes can neutralise its acidity. The average pH of the oceans has already fallen by about 0.1 units compared with pre-industrial levels. This may not
sound like much, but because the pH scale is logarithmic, a 0.1 unit change means a 30 per cent increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions. Even if all carbon emissions stopped today, it would still take thousands of years for the oceans to recover. If global emissions of CO2
continue to rise, the average pH of the oceans could fall by 0.5 units by 2100, equivalent to a threefold increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions. Some claim the term “ocean acidification” is a misnomer, because the oceans are becoming less alkaline rather than actually becoming acidic (falling below pH7), but most scientists think it is correct to describe any process that lowers pH as acidification.

End Box 1.

coral. Bleaching events are already increasingly common and it is not clear whether corals will be able to adapt as temperatures continue to soar. Could reef-building corals move to cooler waters further north and south to escape the heat? Acidification puts a kibosh on that too, says Turley. Corals thrive in waters three times past the aragonite saturation point, but carbonate levels are lower towards the poles.
A recent review by Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland, Australia, concluded that corals could become rare by the middle of this century because of the double whammy of rising temperature and falling carbonate levels. Caldeira’s view is even starker: “If you look at the business-as-usual scenario for emissions and its impact with respect to aragonite on surface waters, by the end of the century there is no place left with the kind of chemistry where corals grow today.”

If the outlook for tropical corals is bleak, the consequences of acidification for organisms in more southerly and northerly waters causes even more concern. “Tropical surface waters will be affected by ocean acidification last,” says Ulf Riebesell of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel,
Germany. “In higher latitudes the waters could tip much sooner into being corrosive.”
Early studies suggested that high-latitude surface waters would become undersaturated
with respect to aragonite only if atmospheric CO2 reached four times pre-industrial levels.

But in September 2005, Orr, Fabry and colleagues published evidence suggesting that some polar and sub-polar surface waters will become undersaturated at just twice pre-industrial levels – conditions that are likely to occur within the next 50 years.

In shipboard experiments, they found that the shells of pteropods started dissolving after just two days in water at the pH predicted for 2050. This is worrying because pteropods are an important part of the ecosystems in the Southern Ocean and Arctic and sub-Arctic waters, where animals such as cod, salmon
and whales eat them. “In standard ocean surveys their abundance is used as an indicator of ecosystem health,” says Orr.

Could the pteropods simply move to warmer waters that are not approaching the saturation horizon so fast? “We think it unlikely, as they would have to outcompete organisms already living there,” says Orr.

The fate of all the creatures that feed on pteropods will depend on whether species less vulnerable to acidification take their place in the food chain. There’s also great concern about another major ecosystem in high latitudes: cold-water coral reefs. These corals are far less studied than their distant tropical cousins because they are found deep down in dark cold waters, typically at 100 to 1000 metres but sometimes much deeper. Only in the last dozen years or so has a picture of their true extent and
astonishing nature begun to emerge. One system stretches from Norway down to the coast of Africa. At around 4500 kilometres, it is roughly two-and-a-half times as long as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

The richness of these reefs is also astonishing. In terms of biomass production and even biodiversity, cold-water corals may be as important as warm-water corals. Over 1,300 species were found on one reef in the north-east Atlantic, says Murray Roberts of the Scottish Association for Marine Science in
Oban. He stresses how poorly understood they are. “For example, we think they are very important as fish habitats, but to what extent and exactly how we really don’t yet know.” Deep-water trawling is already destroying many cold-water corals, which grow far more slowly than their tropical cousins. They are also found in waters that are closer to the aragonite saturation horizon, and could therefore easily tip over into being corrosive.

Little work has been done to find out if these corals will stop growing in such conditions,
but many researchers think it likely. Besides affecting calcification, increased CO2 levels could also have a direct impact on many sea creatures by making their blood more acidic. This can have a range of effects, including reducing the ability of the blood to carry oxygen. Most of what we know comes
from studies on the short-term impact of big CO2 increases, rather than the small, long-term increases that ocean acidification will bring, but such experiments are now starting to be carried out. One study last year showed that the growth of the edible Mediterranean mussel Mytilus galloprovincialis slowed and its shell started to dissolve when kept for three months in seawater with a pH of 7.3, about the lowest level to which surface waters might fall. The team concluded that such conditions might be
fatal for the mussel, a vigorous species that is invading many parts of the world. In another study, two species of sea urchin and an edible conch, Strombus luhuanus, were exposed to smaller increases in CO2 for six months. The growth of all three species slowed, and the shells of one of the sea urchin species thinned. Sea urchins play an important role in coastal ecosystems by grazing on algae, so any reduction in their numbers could have a big impact.

No one knows how many other important species, such as fish, will be affected. One key question is the extent to which life will be able to adapt to changing levels of CO2. A recent study, for instance, showed that some corals can switch to making calcite instead of aragonite. However, they did so in response to lowered levels of magnesium rather than higher levels of CO2, and the calcite-producing corals grew far more slowly. “We need to understand much more about the effects on physiology of various animals, including coral larvae. What if they can’t glue themselves down?” says Kleypas. “We are messing with entire food webs, and we have no idea of the consequences.”

Some of these questions may only be resolved by observing what actually happens. In the meantime,
researchers are trying to find out more through modeling and other techniques, including field experiments conducted in mesocosms – essentially large aquariums. These experiments are throwing up a few surprises. This spring for instance, Riebesell and his colleagues looked at the effects of
higher CO2 levels during the spring bloom in phytoplankton. The researchers put huge bags
in a Norwegian fjord, exposed the water in them to present-day, twice present-day and three times present-day CO2 levels, and monitored them over five weeks. Many of the findings are still to be published, so Riebesell is cautious in describing them, but some broad trends emerge.

As expected, coccolithophores – single-celled algae that are among the ocean’s most important primary producers – found it increasingly difficult to produce their elaborate calcite plates, or liths, as CO2 levels
increased. However, it made little difference. “These organisms normally expend quite a bit of energy to build their liths,” says Riebesell. “They must be important to them, and yet we are not seeing any immediate ill effects from having thinner ones.” The same could not be said for plankton tentatively identified as the larvae of marine snails. Their numbers fell when CO2 levels doubled and they almost vanished at three times pre-industrial levels. “This was completely surprising,” says Riebesell. “In lab
experiments, we saw the organisms were affected but they did not disappear altogether.” He stresses that such findings must be treated with caution, because they are based on a small number of limited studies. All the experiments have been done near the shore, for example, rather than in open seas.“You
really have to be out there,” says Riebsell, whose group is testing a prototype open-ocean facility in the Baltic Sea this summer.

So far the picture looks relentlessly gloomy, but could there actually be some benefits to adding so much CO2 to the seas? One intriguing finding, says Riebesell, concerns gases that influence climate. A few experiments suggest that in more acidic conditions, microbes will produce more volatile organic compounds such as dimethyl sulphide, some of which escapes to the atmosphere and seeds cloud formation. More clouds would mean cooler conditions, which could potentially be an important negative feedback that might slow global warming.

Box 2 Can We prevent ocean acidification?

There are two options: try to neutralize the additional acid by large-scale engineering projects
or stop it at source by cutting carbon emissions. There is probably no practical way of
neutralising the acid. To dump enough chalk into the sea to counter acidification, for example,
would mean denuding an area of pure chalk 60 kilometres square and 100 metres deep every year.

As for reducing emissions, a report by the UK’s Royal Society concluded that to avoid irreversible damage, particularly in the Southern Ocean, total future emissions would need to be considerably less than 900 gigatonnes of carbon by 2100. This would require drastic action, as we are emitting about 7 gigatonnes a year and this figure is rising. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution in Stanford, California, thinks that the target needs to be zero emissions. “People laugh at this,” he says, “until I point out a few simple facts.” The oceans naturally absorb just 0.1 gigatonnes more CO2 per year than they release. Now they are soaking up an extra 2 gigatonnes a year, more than 20 times the natural rate, Caldeira says. “Even if we halve emissions, that will merely double the time until we kill off your favourite plant or animal.”
Caldeira also points out that the US Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality
criteria stipulate that the pH of open ocean waters should not be changed more than 0.2 units outside the range of naturally occurring variation. “They were thinking of acidity caused
by direct industrial pollution, of course, but the logic applies for CO2.”

End box 2

In theory, more CO2 also means more “fertiliser” for the planktonic photosynthesisers at the base of the food chain. Could this boost the productivity of the oceans and help mop up some of the excess
carbon, thus slowing global warming? Up to a point, says Riebesell. Some of his experimental work suggests there could be an enhancement of up to 30 per cent in the rate at which carbon could be fixed and transported down into the deep ocean. If correct, it could b another negative feedback for climate change, tempering a runaway greenhouse effect. This issue is complex because the formation of calcium carbonate releases CO2 into the water. So in theory a slowing down in calcification by marine life could be seen as a good thing. However, all the organic parts of calcifiers are built from carbon, which is safely locked away in sediment if the bodies of these creatures reach the ocean floor. Overall,
calcifying organisms act as a massive carbon pump. “They are the major means by which
carbon is sent to the deep ocean,” says Orr.

Hitherto, the consensus has been that extra carbon dioxide will not increase productivity in the oceans because the limiting factors are light and nutrients. In fact, one study last year predicted that changes in ocean currents caused by global warming will reduce the supply of nutrients, slashing productivity by a
fifth (New Scientist, 15 April, p 42). Even if there is a fertilisation effect, says Fabry, most photosynthesisers decay and release their CO2 long before their remains reach the seafloor. The dense shells of calcifying organisms help them sink, so if calcifiers produce smaller shells or are replaced by non-calcifying organisms, less carbon dioxide could be locked away in the deep ocean despite higher productivity. Riebesell agrees that he may have seen a temporary boost in productivity with few positive consequences.

Fertilisation is just one of a whole array of questions that urgently need to be answered. Ecosystem-scale research is vital, says Caldeira, along with a better understanding of how marine life responded to and recovered from other catastrophic events in the past. As well as the event 55 million years ago, during the Palaeocene Eocene Tertiary Maximum, acidification may also have occurred at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (KT) boundary 65 million years ago. Caldeira thinks that the meteor thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs also released vast quantities of sulphur dioxide, acidifying the surface layers of the oceans for at most a year or two. At that time most of the calcareous plankton went
extinct. Corals disappeared from the fossil record for 2 million years. When they did reappear, the reefs were much less diverse.

Human-induced acidification might not be as bad as the KT event, but it will almost certainly be worse than that in the Palaeocene Eocene Tertiary Maximum.“We may release about the same amount of CO2,” says Caldeira, “but instead of releasing it over tens of thousands of years, we will do it in hundreds.”

Calculating the effect on people and economies is virtually impossible, given all the uncertainties, but it could be enormous. Take the impact on tropical corals, assuming that warming and other pressures such as pollution do not decimate them first. Estimates for the number of people deriving substantial benefits from the reefs are sometimes put in the range of 500 million to 1 billion, many millions of whom depend directly on reefs. Reefs also protect the shorelines of many countries and form the foundation of many islands. Acidification could start eating away at reefs just when they are needed more than ever because of rising sea levels, and possibly stronger storms. “No serious scientist believes the oceans will be devoid of life or even that there will be less photosynthesis,” Caldeira says.“Wherever there is light and nutrients something will live. A likely outcome will be a radical simplification of the ecosystem.” That will mean the loss of many species. “Our children will no longer be able to see the amazingly beautiful things that we can,” says Orr. “I tell my son, go to see the corals now because soon it will be too late.”

Caspar Henderson is based in Oxford, UK. He is writing a book on the future of coral reefs
5 August 2006 | NewScientist

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