July 11, 2012

Rising Ocean Acid Levels Threatening World’s Coral Reefs

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

The acid levels of the world's oceans are increasing far faster than scientists had expected, making it one of the biggest threats to coral reefs and threatening both food supplies and the tourism industry, the head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) told reporters Monday.

Speaking with Kristen Gelineau of the Associated Press (AP), Jane Lubchenco, head of the American scientific organization, said that the increased acidity of those waters is causing a sort of "osteoporosis of the sea" and referred to it as the "equally evil twin" of climate change. She added that there was a "perfect storm of stressors" damaging reefs across the globe, and warned that the situation was "very serious."

Acidity in the oceans' waters is increased when the oceans absorb excess carbon dioxide in the Earth's atmosphere, Gelineau explained.

However, the levels are rising more quickly than anticipated, and experts are concerned what affect that could have not just on the reefs, but on other forms of sea life, including oysters (whose shell growth can be stunted by the acid) and clown fish (which are losing their sense of smell, leading them to swim towards predators and putting their lives in danger), she added.

"Surface waters are changing much more rapidly than initial calculations have suggested," Lubchenco, who was in in Cairns, Queensland, Australia to speak at the annual International Coral Reef Symposium (ICRS 2012), told the AP.

"It's yet another reason to be very seriously concerned about the amount of carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere now and the additional amount we continue to put out," she added. "The carbon dioxide that we have put in the atmosphere will continue to be absorbed by oceans for decades. It is going to be a long time before we can stabilize and turn around the direction of change simply because it's a big atmosphere and it's a big ocean."

Another possible impact of the increasing acid levels is the impact on tourism created by the potentially deteriorating reefs, as well as the weakening of the protection the coral provides from tsunamis and other environmental disasters. Furthermore, the decrease in the seafood population - a vital source of money and protein for many cultures - could cause both health and economic concerns amongst some people.

"Some attempts to address the problem are already under way. Instruments that measure changing acid levels in the water have been installed in some areas to warn oyster growers when to stop the flow of ocean water to their hatcheries," Gelineau said. However, Lubchenco emphasized that these efforts were only a short-term solution, and that the most important thing was to lower the amount of carbon being emitted into the atmosphere.