As the first week of the sixteenth meeting of the UN climate negotiations in Cancun, Mexico (COP 16) draws to a close, Oceana is releasing a new report on climate change’s evil twin: ocean acidification.
Ocean Acidification: The Untold Stories details new findings for many different species of marine life that will be affected by a more acidic ocean. Coral reef ecosystems will be some of the first casualties of an acidified ocean; impacts to these beautiful and important habitats could have huge consequences for a quarter of the entire biological diversity of the oceans that depend on coral reefs for food and shelter.
Marine life ranging from the smallest plankton to the largest whale may be affected by ocean acidification. Shellfish such as sea urchins, lobsters, sea stars and brittle stars are some prime examples of creatures that could be affected. More acidic oceans are expected to lead to a shortage of carbonate, a key building block that these animals need to build their shells and skeletons.
In addition to coral reefs and shellfish, animals without shells or skeletons such as squid and various types of fish may be negatively affected in a variety of ways. Impacts to individual species may ultimately disrupt entire food webs. For example, pteropods are tiny swimming sea snail that forms a large base of the food chains and their shell building is particularly vulnerable to increasing ocean acidity.
If pteropod populations plummet from acidified waters, this will affect the population numbers of animals that eat them, like salmon. If salmon numbers drop due to a loss of pteropods, it could further impact predators that eat salmon, such as killer whales.
As the report reveals, the impacts from ocean acidification may already be occurring – pacific oyster farms have been failing (likely due at least in part to more acidic conditions) and corals have been showing decreased growth rates in the Great Barrier Reef in recent years. Some species may actually flourish in an acidified ocean, but these species, like jellyfish and algae, are often viewed as nuisance or weedy species and do not support a wide variety of ocean life.
We are currently conducting an uncontrolled experiment on our oceans, forcing marine species to live in unusual conditions unlike any that have existed for many millions of years. We do not know the full extent of this global experiment, but we do know that for some species the changes we are forcing on them will be too great.
In order to prevent the drastic consequences of ocean acidification, Oceana recommends adopting a policy of stabilizing atmospheric carbon dioxide at 350 ppm or below, banning offshore drilling, conserving energy and promoting a shift to alternative energy sources such as offshore wind.
Our report’s release coincides with Oceana’s presence at COP 16, where we are explaining the impacts of ocean acidification on marine life and society and pushing for stronger policies that limit carbon dioxide emissions.