July 26, 2010

Icy Arctic Waters Facing Acidic Threat

The icy Arctic waters around Norway's archipelago of Svalbard are facing the threat of acidity.

The waters have always absorbed part of the carbon dioxide present in the air, making them acidic.  However, the scientific community is getting worried about the acidification harming marine life with CO2 levels rising.

At a tiny coal mine village turned scientific outpost just 745 miles from the North Pole, researchers from nine European countries conducted an unprecedented effort in July to analyze the phenomenon.

The researchers submerged nine tubes, each weighing two tons, in icy waters of the remote fjord framed by snow-capped mountains.

The team then injected the water-tight tubes to reproduce sea life under different acidity levels expected from now until 2150, hoping to study the potential disastrous effects of acidification on marine life.

"It's here in the Arctic that the ocean will become corrosive the fastest," Jean-Pierre Gattuso, with France's National Center for Scientific Research, told AFP news.

Gattuso said the threat to the world's oceans is not as much the absolute concentration of acidity, but rather the pace at which it is changing.  He told AFP that "cold water swallows up gas faster than hot or temperate water."

The ocean absorbs over a quarter of CO2 emitted by humans, which is fortunate because this natural absorption mitigates the impact the gas has on the climate.

However, rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere are proving devastating to the oceans.

With no sign of CO2 emissions slowing, ocean acidification will most likely increase in the years to come.

Corals might have trouble shaping their skeletons, while shellfish could lose their shells.

Ulf Riebesell, a German oceanographer, told AFP that not all sea creatures were equal in their ability to adapt to their increasing acid environment.

"For micro-organisms which have generation times of a few days, adaptation may happen during the next 100 years or so as the ocean continues to acidify to critical levels," explained the researcher from the IFM-Geomar centre, braving glacial winds in a bright yellow padded windbreaker and a woolen hat.

However, Riebesell said that for organisms with long life spans, like corals, "adaptation is much less likely because they need toss many generations to change their genetic set-up."

Scientists warn about the current frantic increase of seawater acidity already causing serious problems for the pteropod.

The translucent mollusk could end up without a shell in the future because of an increasingly acid environment, said Jan Buedenbender, another German researcher from the IFM-Geomar institute.

He said this could have far-reaching consequences.

"They're a key species for the Arctic food system because they're feeding on very small particles and on phytoplankton, and they're getting quite big and really big animals like whales and birds and fish can feed on them," he told AFP.

They also are key contributors to fighting climate change because when they die they drag down all the CO2 ingested over its short lifespan with it.

By doing so "they're helping the ocean take up more CO2," Buedenbender said.

According to Iris Menn, a marine biologist with Greenpeace that shipped the giant test-tubes up to Svalbard, there is still a chance to save species like the pteropod.

She said that in order to make a difference, industrialized countries would have to slash their CO2 emissions by 40 percent by 2020.

"We can't stop the trend anyway. We will have a high level of acidity in the water no matter what," she told AFP.

"But what we can do is stop CO2 emissions, so the effect will be reduced."


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