Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Modern Ocean Acidification Is Outpacing Ancient Upheaval, Study Suggests


Rate May Be Ten Times Faster, According to New Data

Some 56 million years ago, a massive pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere sent global temperatures soaring. In the oceans, carbonate sediments dissolved, some organisms went extinct and others evolved.

The deep-sea benthic foram Aragonia velascoensis went extinct about 56 million years ago as the oceans rapidly acidified. (Ellen Thomas/Yale University)

Ocean acidification in the modern ocean may already be affecting some marine life, as shown by the partly dissolved shell of this planktic snail, or pteropod, caught off the Pacific Northwest. (Nina Bednaršedk/NOAA)

Scientists have long suspected that ocean acidification caused the crisis—similar to today, as manmade CO2 combines with seawater to change its chemistry. Now, for the first time, scientists have quantified the extent of surface acidification from those ancient days, and the news is not good: the oceans are on track to acidify at least as much as they did then, only at a much faster rate. 

In a study published in the latest issue of Paleoceanography, the scientists estimate that ocean acidity increased by about 100 percent in a few thousand years or more, and stayed that way for the next 70,000 years. In this radically changed environment, some creatures died out while others adapted and evolved. The study is the first to use the chemical composition of fossils to reconstruct surface ocean acidity at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period of intense warming on land and throughout the oceans due to high CO2.

“This could be the closest geological analog to modern ocean acidification,” said study coauthor Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “As massive as it was, it still happened about 10 times more slowly than what we are doing today.”

The oceans have absorbed about a third of the carbon humans have pumped into the air since industrialization, helping to keep earth’s thermostat lower than it would be otherwise. But that uptake of carbon has come at a price. Chemical reactions caused by that excess CO2 have made seawater grow more acidic, depleting it of the carbonate ions that corals, mollusks and calcifying plankton need to build their shells and skeletons.

In the last 150 years or so, the pH of the oceans has dropped substantially, from 8.2 to 8.1--equivalent to a 25 percent increase in acidity. By the end of the century, ocean pH is projected to fall another 0.3 pH units, to 7.8. While the researchers found a comparable pH drop during the PETM--0.3 units--the shift happened over a few thousand years.

“We are dumping carbon in the atmosphere and ocean at a much higher rate today—within centuries,” said study coauthor Richard Zeebe, a paleoceanographer at the University of Hawaii. “If we continue on the emissions path we are on right now, acidification of the surface ocean will be way more dramatic than during the PETM.”

The study confirms that the acidified conditions lasted for 70,000 years or more, consistent with previous model-based estimates. “It didn’t bounce back right away,” said Timothy Bralower, a researcher at Penn State who was not involved in the study. “It took tens of thousands of years to recover.”

From seafloor sediments drilled off Japan, the researchers analyzed the shells of plankton that lived at the surface of the ocean during the PETM. Two different methods for measuring ocean chemistry at the time—the ratio of boron isotopes in their shells, and the amount of boron --arrived at similar estimates of acidification. “It’s really showing us clear evidence of a change in pH for the first time,” said Bralower.

What caused the burst of carbon at the PETM is still unclear. One popular explanation is that an overall warming trend may have sent a pulse of methane from the seafloor into the air, setting off events that released more earth-warming gases into the air and oceans. Up to half of the tiny animals that live in mud on the seafloor—benthic foraminifera—died out during the PETM, possibly along with life further up the food chain. 

Other species thrived in this changed environment and new ones evolved. In the oceans, dinoflagellates extended their range from the tropics to the Arctic, while on land, hoofed animals and primates appeared for the first time. Eventually, the oceans and atmosphere recovered as elements from eroded rocks washed into the sea and neutralized the acid.

Today, signs are already emerging that some marine life may be in trouble. In a  recent study led by Nina Bednaršedk at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, more than half of the tiny planktic snails, or pteropods, that she and her team studied off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California showed badly dissolved shells. Ocean acidification has been linked to the widespread death of baby oysters off Washington and Oregon since 2005, and may also pose a threat to coral reefs, which are under additional pressure from pollution and warming ocean temperatures.  

“Seawater carbonate chemistry is complex but the mechanism underlying ocean acidification is very simple,” said study lead author Donald Penman, a graduate student at University of California at Santa Cruz. “We can make accurate predictions about how carbonate chemistry will respond to increasing carbon dioxide levels. The real unknown is how individual organisms will respond and how that cascades through ecosystems.”

Other authors of the study, which was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation: Ellen Thomas, Yale University; and James Zachos, UC Santa Cruz.


Bärbel Hönisch Lecture on Ocean Acidification

Ocean Acidification Rate May Be Unprecedented, Study Says

Media Inquiries: 

Kim Martineau
Office:(845) 365-8708
Cell: (646)-717-0134

Kim Martineau | Eurek Alert!
Further information:

Further reports about: CO2 Earth Ocean Outpacing PETM acidity atmosphere sediments temperatures

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Satellites show Joaquin becoming a Category 4 hurricane
02.10.2015 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht Surface of the oceans affects climate more than thought
30.09.2015 | Leibniz-Institut für Troposphärenforschung e. V.

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: New Sinumerik features improve productivity and precision

EMO 2015, Hall 3, Booth E06/F03

  • Drive optimization called automatically by the part program boosts productivity
  • Automatically switching the dynamic values to rapid traverse and interpolation...

Im Focus: LZH presents additive manufacturing at the LABVOLUTION

The Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) will present how laser-based technologies can contribute to the laboratory of the future at the LABVOLUTION in Hannover in Hall 9, Stand E67/09, from October 6th to 8th, 2015. As a part of the model lab smartLAB, the LZH is showing how additive manufacturing, better known as 3-D printing, can make experimental setups more flexible.

Twelve partners from science and industry are presenting an intelligent and innovative model lab at the special display smartLAB. A part of this intelligent...

Im Focus: New polymer creates safer fuels

Before embarking on a transcontinental journey, jet airplanes fill up with tens of thousands of gallons of fuel. In the event of a crash, such large quantities of fuel increase the severity of an explosion upon impact.

Researchers at Caltech and JPL have discovered a polymeric fuel additive that can reduce the intensity of postimpact explosions that occur during accidents and...

Im Focus: 3-D printing techniques help surgeons carve new ears

When surgical residents need to practice a complicated procedure to fashion a new ear for children without one, they typically get a bar of soap, carrot or an apple.

To treat children with a missing or under-developed ear, experienced surgeons harvest pieces of rib cartilage from the child and carve them into the framework...

Im Focus: Walk the line

NASA studies physical performance after spaceflight

Walking an obstacle course on Earth is relatively easy. Walking an obstacle course on Earth after being in space for six months is not quite as simple. The...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

EHFG 2015: Securing healthcare and sustainably strengthening healthcare systems

01.10.2015 | Event News

Conference in Brussels: Tracking and Tracing the Smallest Marine Life Forms

30.09.2015 | Event News

World Alzheimer`s Day – Professor Willnow: Clearer Insights into the Development of the Disease

17.09.2015 | Event News

Latest News

Infrared thermography can detect joint inflammation and help improving work ergonomics

02.10.2015 | Medical Engineering

Semiconductor nanoparticles show high luminescence in a polymer matrix

02.10.2015 | Materials Sciences

New Sinumerik features improve productivity and precision

02.10.2015 | Trade Fair News

More VideoLinks >>>