Plankton Death To Come with Acid Oceans and Sunlight

A number of marine diatom cells (Pleurosigma), which are an important group of phytoplankton in the oceans.
Credit: Michael Stringer

Global Warming has made oceans 30% more acidic already

“It’s clear we are conducting a giant experiment on the planet and we don’t know what we are doing.”

[This is a repost from my May 8 2012 article – see here for more on acid ocean impacts — Stephen]

 By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, May 8, 2012 (IPS)

Without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, sunlight will kill an unknown number of ocean phytoplankton, the planet’s most important organism, a new study reports this week.

Not only are phytoplankton, also known as marine algae, a vital component in the ocean’s food chain, they generate at least half of the oxygen we breathe.

In the not so distant future, sunlight, the very source of life for phytoplankton, will likely begin to kill them because of the ocean’s increasing acidity, researchers from China and Germany have learned.

“There’s a synergistic effect between increased ocean acidity and natural light,” says Ulf Riebesell of the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Riebesell added that it was also possible “phytoplankton could adapt”.

Researchers were surprised to discover that diatoms, one of the most important and abundant types of phytoplankton, fared very badly during shipboard experiments conducted by co-author Kunshan Gao, from the State Key Laboratory of Marine Environmental Science at Xiamen University, Xiamen China.

Previous experiments in labs like Riebesell’s found that diatoms actually did better in high-acid seawater, unlike most other shell- forming plankton. Burning fossil fuels has made the oceans about 30 percent more acidic researchers discovered less than 10 years ago. Oceans absorb one third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted from using fossil fuels.

The good news is this has slowed the rate of global warming. The bad news is oceans are now more acidic and it will get worse as more CO2 is emitted. This is basic, well-understood ocean chemistry. 

Gao and his team made several trips into the South China Sea taking samples from surface waters where phytoplankton are found. While still on the research vessel, those samples were made as acidic as the oceans are likely to be in 2100 without major emissions reductions (800-1000 parts per million compared to current 392 ppm).

A number of marine diatom cells (Rhizosolenia setigera), which are an important group of phytoplankton in the oceans.
Credit: Karl Bruun, Nostoca Algae Laboratory, photo courtesy of Nikon Small World.

As expected under these conditions, certain types of plankton like coccolithophores did not do well but surprisingly, diatom productivity also declined.

One possible reason was the much brighter natural light on the ship versus that in science labs, Riebsell and Gao suspected. Followup lab experiments with lights mimicking the intensity of natural light in the subtropical zone of the South China Sea confirmed that the combination of high-acid sea water and light intensity was more than diatoms could handle.

Riebsell speculates that diatoms stressed by high-acid conditions can’t cope with the energy they receive from sunlight at the same time. Their study was published May 6 in Nature Climate Change.

“We don’t know at what point the combination of a certain level of ocean acidity and sunlight leads to the decline of diatoms,” he said.

This is just one of many recent studies finding negative impacts as the oceans become more and more acidic.

By 2040, most of the Arctic Ocean will be too acidic for shell- forming species including most plankton. Significant areas of the Antarctic Ocean will be similarly affected, oceanographer Carol Turley from Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK previously told IPS.

The cold waters of the polar regions allow more CO2 to be absorbed faster, turning the oceans more acidic sooner. The oceans haven’t seen a rapid change like this in 60 million years, said Turley.

She warned that global warming is also raising water temperatures and reducing the amount of oxygen in seawater in some regions. This is another potentially dangerous combination.

“Our research suggests the impact of oceanic acidification upon marine plankton could be more serious than previously thought,” said John Beardall from the School of Biological Sciences at Monash University in Australia.

Beardall and colleagues from several research centres calculate that without major reductions in CO2 emissions, ocean acidity will have a significant impact on phytoplankton before 2100. Their findings were also recently published in Nature Climate Change.

It’s not just plankton. The large and continuing decline of oysters, both wild and farmed, in the Pacific Northwest have now been linked to increased ocean acidity. Scientists have shown that oyster larvae have difficulty building shells in corrosive waters, according to a study in the Journal of  Limnology and Oceanography published last month.

“For the oceans, the Pacific Oyster larvae are the canaries in the coal mines for ocean acidification,” said Richard Feely, a co-author of the study and senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Fish and other species are showing changes in their growth, behaviour and reproduction, according to other research.

Not only are the oceans big, covering 70 percent of the planet, they are complex. Recent work by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at San Diego reveals there is huge variability in ocean acidity levels.

That makes “global predictions of the impacts of ocean acidification a big challenge,” said Jennifer Smith, a marine biologist with Scripps.

The only prediction Riebesell is willing to make is about the high likelihood of a major decline in the ocean’s biodiversity (number and types of living things) if rates of fossil fuel emissions continue. Roughly 80 percent of all life is found in the oceans.

“Changes in the oceans are happening too fast for most species to cope,” he said.

“It’s clear we are conducting a giant experiment on the planet and we don’t know what we are doing.” 

First published as Climate Change Threatens Crucial Marine Algae – IPS

7 thoughts on “Plankton Death To Come with Acid Oceans and Sunlight

  1. It would be good to provide links to the abstracts of all papers that are mentioned, instead of just to the front page of journal. Also, it would be really good if, below the end of your article, you would provide the full citation to such papers and also the source where statements were made by those who were quoted. That’s easily done in a web article such as this. In a print article I really wish journalists would provide the title of a study instead of just making reference to “a study.” Good article, though – I just think this is important to include.

    • Thanks. This not a web article. It is a wire service article and is printed in a number of newspapers and magazines where citations aren’t generally used. Some on line news sites buy the article as well. The bulk of the statements and quotes are from personal interviews I did. The NCC studies are behind a paywall.

  2. i wish you could have seen the arctic forest this past summer. it was all burned and crispy. we had a really wet year, so its n ot drought. it affected most species. the birch started turning brown in july. willow bushes were brown only on top. the hillsides, tundra, went from green to brown. if its the entire northern boreal forest, as i suspect it is, why wouudnt it be… then we are really doomed. it would be 703 Pg of carbon into the atmosphere when it decomposes, or 200 years of global emissions ,poof, and the grad student… cant remember his name, but he worked withthe anderegg brothers on the study saying all around the world forests are dying… anyway, he said , an estimate would be it would about double the carbon load on the atmosphere. so…if 400 ppm is doing this to the planet already, what would 800 ppm do? and… it didnt even make the news, nor coverage in any environmental organization. i have spent the last four months telling people about it. zero responses… zero. its like people dont have a brain… even the guy i was dating, a really smart fellow, told me to stop obsessing over it, go have fun, take a bike ride! my world just dies and he tells me to go ride a bike. each and every one of us should be shouting this from the rooftops, demanding our govt respond to the emergency…i emailed james hansen, got a reply, he hadnt heard of it.. i drove the alcan two weeks ago. the spruces were burned on the top 3 feet or so for hundreds of miles, then there would be a few miles with green, normal trees, then burned again… for a thousand miles. gardeners in fort nelson canada were reporting that their gardens went crispy, even tho they had watered well….and still… nothing from the govt. steve running, one of the worlds top climatologists, located at u of montana, missoula, didnt know of it… he tells me, go tell the alaska center for the environment…i did… they wouldnt respond either…i drove into anchorage, and nick, one of the head guys, gave me all of 60 seconds of his time. his response, its not our issue. we are trying to stop pebble mine. telling him pebble mine wont matter a bit, because we will all die, if the forest dies…. worldwide… we will die…did nothing. he had to go to lunch, so could i please call later. never a response to three more calls to him. people are insane…this is HUGE, and its not on the news. well if they kill the story of the 43 trillion suit accusing various banks and govt agencies, officials of the financial meltdown, and they kill the two kids of the exec producer of CNBC to make sure the story isnt covered, im sure they will keep killing the story on our dying planet… its not like we have a different planet to go to…ive just found your site. and ive been searching four months…not good. not fast enough for anyone looking into climate change issues. i started a little blog in june i think, but im not a computer geek, and differnt parts of it are funky, and i cant fix the counter etc. but if you want to check it out, meltdown danger. i wish i could have met you if you were anywhere near where i drove thru to idaho a couple weeks ago. we need to get together on this. i drove to the big powwow in fairbanks, they wouldnt let me say a two min. speech on the importance of this…even the tribal nations are blocking it. i emailed 200 tribes, and another 200 tribal villages , all one at a time, beause , as i said, im NOT a geek, im a farmer. a usc grad, but a tree farmer. btw, my yellow transparent apples were red this yr. red…. uv light. ozone reported as goig from 40 to 80 % in just six summer months by richard black, bbc, april and oct 2011. its letting in too much uv, adn killing the world… hey take care. im debi daniels, and email is debi daniels alaska at gmail and may God have mercy on us. will you read this comment? let me know if you did? thx

  3. Many forests and crops are dying because of fracking, which depletes the water underground. So the roots that once tapped into water underground now get no water. China buys our natural gas. It couldn’t get any worse if China declared war on us. If anyone’s worried about being invaded by China, well, if there’s anything left worth invading…. They’re doing the same fracking in China, so their country will also be uninhabitable in many places.

  4. In Dec. World Leaders are to meet in Paris to discuss Global Warming, at issue is the amount of greenhouse gases we our emitting, and their plan of action, to Stop this Heating Up and Burning Up our Planet !

    Globally we our emitting 40 – 50 Billion Toxic Tons of Carbon Dioxide a Year.

    The United States emitted 6.8 Billion Toxic Tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2014

    In the 1850s – 1870s parts per million of Carbon in our atmosphere was between 260 – 280.

    In the 1980s, there was 350 ppm of Carbon.

    2015 – 404 ppm in Our Atmosphere.

    We have passed the 1C. baseline Temp Increase !

    India, Pakistan, Japan, and the Middle East, Record Breaking, Killing Heat Waves !

    The Pacific Ocean is 3 – 8 degrees warmer than Normal.

    Massive Whale,Salmon, Starfish, Sea Lion,Sea Stars, Sea Urchins, and Bird Die – Offs !

    The Jet Stream is acting like a balloon that is loosing air.

    The Arctic Ice and Snow may be gone at the end of this Summer or Next. A Huge Natural Cooler for the Northern Hemisphere, that no man or woman has ever lived without !

    The meeting in Paris, should be about Closing the Fossil Fuel Faucet.

    “Professor Chris Field is bullshitting the planet. On whether 1.5C is still feasible” Kevin Hester

    “The message is already clear, that if the world does want to strive to limit warming to 1.5C or less, we don’t have very much of the carbon budget left.” Professeor Chris Field

    “There is no carbon budget any more and 5C is baked in according to both Shell petroleum and the International Energy Authority. ” Kevin Hester

    “Chris Field is the founding director of the Carnegie Institution’s department of global ecology and professor for interdisciplinary environmental studies at Stanford University. He is the co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) working group two (WGII) and US nominee for the chair of the IPCC.”
    With people like this driving the IPCC you can see why we are all done for.” Kevin Hester.

    There is No Carbon Budget

    California emitted 459 Toxic Tons of Carbon Dioxide in 2014.

    Gov Browns call to reduce this to 1990 levels so we can continue to emit over 400 million Toxic Tons a year, will not help us stop or slow down Global Warming and Sea Levels Rising.

    “Updates to the 2020 Limit.
    Calculation of the original 1990 limit approved in 2007 was revised using the scientifically updated IPCC 2007 fourth assessment report (AR4) global warming potentials, to 431 MMTCO2e. Thus the 2020 GHG emissions limit established in response to AB 32 is now slightly higher than the 427 MMTCO2e in the initial Scoping Plan.” Ca. Gov. Data

    What will the Temp. be at 415 ppm ?

    “Ice sheets contain enormous quantities of frozen water. If the Greenland Ice Sheet melted, scientists estimate that sea level would rise about 6 meters (20 feet). If the Antarctic Ice Sheet melted, sea level would rise by about 60 meters (200 feet).” National Snow and Ice Data Center.

    When will Sea Level Rise to 220 – 300 Feet ? 2020 ? 2025 ? ?

    What will the ppm of Carbon be when this happens ?

    As of Now, they are talking about capping GHGs at 450 ppm.

    What will the Temp. be at 450 ppm ?

    We must transition to 100% Renewable Energy

    Implement a California Residential and Commercial Feed in Tariff.

    California Residential Feed in Tariff would allow homeowners to sell their Renewable Energy to the utility, protecting our communities from, Global Warming, Poison Water, Grid Failures, Natural Disasters, Toxic Natural Gas and Oil Fracking.

    A California Commercial FiT in Los Angeles, Palo Alto, an Sacramento Ca. are operating NOW, paying the Business Person 17 cents cents per kilowatt hour.

    Sign and Share this petition for a California Residential Feed in Tariff.

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