Thursday, January 12, 2012

Environment:  Taking Fears of Acid Oceans with a Grain of Salt

Coral reefs around the world are suffering badly from overfishing and various forms of pollution. Yet many experts argue that the greatest threat to them is the acidification of the oceans from the dissolving of man-made carbon dioxide emissions.
The central concern is that lower pH will make it harder for corals, clams and other "calcifier" creatures to make calcium carbonate skeletons and shells. Yet this concern also may be overstated. Off Papua New Guinea and the Italian island of Ischia, where natural carbon-dioxide bubbles from volcanic vents make the sea less alkaline, and off the Yucatan, where underwater springs make seawater actually acidic, studies have shown that at least some kinds of calcifiers still thrive—at least as far down as pH 7.8.

In a recent experiment in the Mediterranean, reported in Nature Climate Change, corals and mollusks were transplanted to lower pH sites, where they proved "able to calcify and grow at even faster than normal rates when exposed to the high [carbon-dioxide] levels projected for the next 300 years." In any case, freshwater mussels thrive in Scottish rivers, where the pH is as low as five.

Laboratory experiments find that more marine creatures thrive than suffer when carbon dioxide lowers the pH level to 7.8. This is because the carbon dioxide dissolves mainly as bicarbonate, which many calcifiers use as raw material for carbonate.

Human beings have indeed placed marine ecosystems under terrible pressure, but the chief culprits are overfishing and pollution. By comparison, a very slow reduction in the alkalinity of the oceans, well within the range of natural variation, is a modest threat, and it certainly does not merit apocalyptic headlines.

For more, see Taking Fears of Acid Oceans with a Grain of Salt, January 7, 2012 at WSJ.com.

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