New Research Shows Bleak Future for Life in Acidic Oceans By Century's End

ocean floor photo

Photo by dimsis via Flickr CC

There's little good news about the ocean these days, unfortunately. We've taken it past the point of any sort of speedy recovery, from rising shorelines to over-fished species, from plastic pollution to acidification. And for this last problem, it looks like dire consequences are inevitable within this century, according to new research from the University of Plymouth and the University of Santa Catarina, Brazil on the Mediterranean Sea. By looking closely at the impact of pH changes on single-celled organisms called Foraminifera, the researchers found that boosting CO2 caused foram diversity to drop from 24 species to a mere four species, noting the tipping point for species death occurs at pH 7.8. Scientists estimate that that's just the pH level the oceans will be at by the end of this century, spelling disaster for crustaceans and everything else that depends on them. The Geological Society reports that the research on these forams are ideal for illustrating what to expect, since they're an important and apparent part of the fossil record -- including during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maxiumum (PETM) when a massive release of carbon caused rapid warming and probably ocean acidification 55 million years ago. By looking closely at CO2 vents in the Mediterranean, the researchers have been able to look into what could happen again to forams and other organisms. One of the researchers on the project, Dr Hall-Spencer, states, "We knew the results were likely to show a decline in foram diversity but we weren't expecting such a seismic shift."

"At a mean pH level of 7.8, calcified organisms begin to disappear, and non calcifying ones take over. We are headed towards that being the case in this century. The big concern for me is that unless we curb carbon emissions we risk mass extinctions, degrading coastal waters and encouraging outbreaks of toxic jellyfish and algae."

In other words, by 2100, we could see an end of crustaceans and an influx of jellyfish. Considering that researchers estimate we'll have wiped out the oceans fisheries by 2050, it's not too comforting to know we're also on our way to wiping out shellfish by 2100.

The only real answer seems to be a radical shift in how we forage for seafood, and a 180-degree turn in how much carbon emissions we're letting off into the atmosphere. The odds of that happening in time to stave off such a large shift in and loss of ocean species, so far, seem slim.

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