Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Ocean Acidification, Now Watchable in Real Time

Temperature and salinity measurements averaged between 2010 and 2014 to show ocean alkalinity. (Credit: ESA) Click to Enlarge.
The depressing task of monitoring ocean acidification just got a little easier.  A collection of scientists from Europe, the U.S. and India have developed a technique that could provide the first global and nearly real-time assessment of our rapidly acidifying seas.

Their findings were published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology on Monday, showing how data from satellites that measure salinity and other ocean conditions could be combined to produce a whole new way of monitoring acidification.  Currently, scientists rely on ship, buoys, floats and lab tests to track the data and although these disparate pieces can construct a baseline of acidification, there are gaps in coverage.

Oceans are taking in about 90 percent of the excess heat created by human greenhouse gas emissions, but they’re also absorbing some of the carbon dioxide (CO2) itself.  According to the European Space Agency, about a quarter of all human CO2 emissions are being taken in by the world’s oceans.

A complex set of chemical processes dissolves that CO2 and turns it into carbonic acid,  which dissolves shells and coral, creating a cascade effect that could disrupt entire marine ecosystems.  The current rate at which oceans are acidifying has been unseen in 300 million years and the consequences could be costly.

A recent study (pdf) estimated $1 trillion annually in losses caused by ocean acidification by 2100, if left unmitigated.  Some research has looked at “designer” corals and other creatures that could survive more acidic seas but more work needs to be done to figure out just what will thrive (or at least survive) the changing acidity.

The new monitoring techniques can help monitor hot spots such as the Bay of Bengal, the Arctic Ocean and the Caribbean, three places where ocean acidification could have major economic impacts but where little research has been done.

New monitoring efforts may come in particularly useful in the coming months, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says there is a risk of major coral bleaching in the tropical Pacific and Indian Oceans through May, an event that may rival severe bleaching that occurred in 1998 and 2010.  Some island nations in the tropical Pacific including Kiribati, Nauru and the Solomon Islands are already seeing ocean conditions that can cause bleaching.

Read more at Ocean Acidification, Now Watchable in Real Time

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