West Coast Study Suggests Long Term Impacts of Ocean Acidification

May 29, 2017

There’s a new study of the effects of ocean acidification on tiny shell-forming sea creatures in northern California. The findings suggest the ongoing buildup of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere could set up a destructive feedback loop with the deep ocean. And that could disrupt natural cycles for centuries to come. 

The study – from the University of California Davis – found that a common type of plankton had trouble growing and repairing their shells in acidic water. 

This was surprising, says researcher Catherine Davis, since the waters off the Pacific coast are often more acidic than in many other places because of currents that cycle water from the deep ocean back to the surface.

"And since these organisms were from the Pacific Coast, we might actually expect them to be more tolerant to low pH conditions," Davis said. "And what we found was that was not the case."

Davis says normally, when these creatures die, their shells sink to the ocean floor. There, the calcite in the shells helps counteract the acidity of the deep ocean water. Skimpier shells means less calcite gets to the ocean floor, leaving the deep ocean more acidic. 

The takeaway?

"If you’re translating the effects of ocean acidification into the deep ocean, you’re essentially creating a store of carbon that can be released back to the atmosphere hundreds and thousands of years down the line."

And that could worsen the impacts of climate change for a very long time