A Solution to Saving the Oceans May Be Out in Space

Using satellites to detect acidification of the seas may help preserve marine mammals and fisheries.

Corals and other shell-building animals are especially vulnerable to harm from ocean acidification. (Photo: Nila Tanzil/Reuters)

Feb 17, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

In science fiction, starship captains get information on the condition of the planets they orbit with the push of a button or a spoken command.

Back in the real world, we’ve been trying for years to find better ways to comprehensively track global ocean acidification as the seas absorb growing amounts of carbon from the burning of fossil fuels. As climate change accelerates, ocean acidification is destroying coral reefs that serve as the spawning grounds for fish that feed millions of people around the world as well as provide dinner for dolphins, whales, and other marine mammals.

As the past year’s searches for lost airliners have shown, this isn’t a simple problem to solve. The oceans are a vast and harsh environment that takes a toll on sensors and other equipment deployed to monitor marine conditions.

But solutions, it turns out, are orbiting the earth. By finding new ways to analyze satellite observations of three ocean conditions—surface temperature, salinity, and chlorophyll levels—an international team of scientists has figured out how to track acidification as well, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The researchers hope to use their techniques on the Arctic and sub-Arctic oceans, home to some of the world’s most abundant fisheries. Human communities in the Arctic Circle as well as diverse marine birds, mammals, and other wildlife depend on the Arctic marine food web for survival.

They also want to devote satellite attention to the Caribbean. The reefs of the U.S. and Caribbean nations are biodiversity hot spots that add billions of dollars to the region’s economy every year. But they are threatened by warming oceans, pollution, and destructive bottom-trawl fishing in addition to changing ocean chemistry.

Space-based acidification monitoring could also transform our understanding of the Indian Ocean, “one of the least studied and most poorly understood ocean basins in the world,” say the researchers. Billions of people living in countries ringing the Indian Ocean depend on its coastal waters for food.

Ocean acidification has already claimed billions of victims: A massive die-off of young oysters in 2005 crashed the $110 million Pacific Northwest oyster industry, which is still struggling to recover and adapt, as The Seattle Times reported.

"It can be both difficult and expensive to take year-round direct measurements in such inaccessible locations,” Dr. Jamie Shutler of the University of Exeter, a study coauthor, told Carbon Brief. “We are pioneering techniques so that we can...quickly and easily identify those areas most at risk from the increasing acidification."

Ocean acidification is caused by the same overload of carbon dioxide pollution that has destabilized the climate. The ocean absorbs about 25 percent of human-propelled carbon dioxide emissions from the atmosphere. As those emissions have risen, so has the amount of carbon taken up by the ocean, which has pushed down pH levels in some areas. Since the industrial revolution, ocean surface water acidity has grown by 26 percent.