The Atlantic Ocean Is Acidifying at a Rapid Rate

A new study finds it’s absorbing 50 percent more carbon than it was a decade ago, and that could have dire consequences for dolphins, whales, and other marine life.
A fishing boat heads out of Gloucester Harbor in Massachusetts. (Photo: John Tlumacki/Getty Images)
Feb 3, 2016
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Over the past 10 years, the Atlantic Ocean has soaked up 50 percent more carbon dioxide than it did the decade before, measurably speeding up the acidification of the ocean, according to a new study.

The paper, published Saturday in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, “shows the large impact all of us are having on the environment,” Ryan Woosley of the University of Miami said in a statement. “Our use of fossil fuels isn’t only causing the climate to change but also affects the oceans by decreasing the pH.”

The burning of oil, coal, and natural gas for energy and the destruction of forests are the leading causes of the carbon dioxide emissions driving climate change. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen from 355 parts per million in 1989 to just over 400 ppm in 2015.

Decreasing pH in seawater can harm the ability of shelled organisms, from microscopic coccolithophores to the oysters and clams that show up on our dinner plates, to build and maintain their bony exteriors.

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Researchers reported last year that acidification is also threatening to wipe out large populations of phytoplankton, the tiny ocean plants at the base of food webs that support fish, dolphins, whales, and other marine life.

Climate change is altering ocean chemistry in other ways as well. Scientists announced on Tuesday that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet is not only releasing huge amounts of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean—slowing down an important heat-carrying ocean current—but may also be carrying about 441,000 tons of phosphorous into coastal waters.

The meltwater picks up the mineral as it flows along the bedrock at the base of the ice sheet, which is continually pulverized by the weight and movement of the ice.

“We find annual phosphorus input (for all of Greenland’s outlet glaciers) are at least equal to some of the world’s largest rivers, such as the Mississippi and the Amazon,” Jon Hawkings, a researcher at the University of Bristol, said in a statement.

This phosphorous flow could increase as the great melt of the Greenland ice sheet continues, Hawkings and his colleagues believe—and that matters because the mineral is a crucial nutrient in food webs.

They speculate that a richer supply of phosphorous in the Arctic Ocean could lead to increased plankton populations, which could help support more fish, birds, whales, and other marine mammals in both the Arctic and the subarctic.

Those regions, however, are acidifying along with the rest of the world’s oceans.

This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction 2/4/16: An earlier version of the photo caption in this article misstated the location of Gloucester Harbor. It is in Massachusetts.

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