08.10.2012 - Natural Sciences Sector

International coordination to address ocean acidification

© NOAA The Limacina helicina pictured here is a victim of ocean acidification. Its normally-protective shell is so thin and fragile, it is transparent.

Ocean acidification experts expressed increasing concerns with how marine organisms will adapt to new ‘corrosive’ conditions during an international symposium on the subject last week, warning that life throughout the world’s oceans will have to adapt rapidly to changing conditions. A new ocean acidification tour was launched in Google Earth on this occasion. It explores the phenomenon of ocean acidification and explains why even small changes to ocean carbon chemistry could have profound implications for marine life and future economic activities.

Net CO2 absorption by the world’s oceans is known to benefit human-kind by reducing the concentration of this greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. But as CO2 dissolves in seawater carbonic acid is formed, causing the ocean to acidify at rates not seen for the last 20 million years. Awareness of this ‘other CO2 problem’ has only emerged within the last decade and more research is needed to develop meaningful projections of its impacts on marine ecosystems and fisheries and to identify thresholds beyond which marine ecosystems may not be able to recover and resist. International collaboration and knowledge sharing is crucial in a research field that is expanding rapidly and experiencing fast-paced change.

During the Third Ocean in a High CO2 World Symposium, organized in Monterey, USA on 24-27 September 2012, the world’s leading experts and decision makers from every corner of the planet gathered together in order to discuss the impacts of ocean acidification including socio-economic consequences, and consider management and policy implications.

Winners and losers of ocean acidification
It provided an opportunity to share the latest knowledge, including impacts on metabolism, reproduction and behavioral patterns. Recent studies show that there is substantial standing genetic variation in natural populations of planktonic organisms, which provides the raw material for natural selection. However there are winners and losers: some species are adapting, which gives us hope, but others suffer and will decline, and still others will go extinct.

Many factors must be considered to understand how shifts at the individual or species level might ripple through an entire ecosystem and affect ocean services and resources. Ecosystem shifts will impact countries dependent on coastal fishing, fish-processing industries and tourism causing economic hardship as well as destabilizing food security for the 1 billion people who depend on fisheries for most of their protein diet.

Fostering research and cooperation
Progress on the development of a global observing network on ocean acidification was discussed during a NOAA side event. With the support of UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, this network will coordinate observation efforts worldwide and facilitate regional impact assessments of ocean acidification on vulnerable ecosystems and economic activities. This network is part of the Oceans Compact and would contribute to the implementation of the Rio+20 outcome document, ‘The Future We Want’.

A new international centre, based at the International Atomic Energy Agency Environment Laboratories in Monaco, will help coordinate international research and link science and policy. His Serene Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco announced the launch of the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre during the symposium. It will be overseen by an Advisory Board consisting of leading scientists, economists and institutions, including UNESCO-IOC, NOAA, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Foundation Prince Albert II de Monaco.

To spur technological innovation in ocean health, the X-Prize foundation announced the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health X-Prize, challenging entrepreneurs across the globe to ‘replace today’s expensive, cumbersome and slow pH monitoring systems’ with new systems, portable and easily deployable in any conditions.

Kicking the CO2 habit
This is not a problem in the far distant future. This is a problem now’ said the marine ecologist Dr Joan Kleypas from the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado. ‘It is remarkable how fast carbon dioxide emissions are altering ocean chemistry. We already see impacts on the shellfish industry in the Pacific Northwest.’

The primary way to protect the ocean from the threat of ocean acidification is to reduce CO2 emissions. Business as usual scenarios for CO2 emissions could make the ocean up to 150% more acidic by 2100. This is about common resources that flow though political boundaries: our atmosphere and our ocean. An issue of this magnitude requires a global, concerted effort.

The Ocean in a High CO2 World symposia are co-hosted by UNESCO-IOC, The Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR) and the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme. They aim to provide an interdisciplinary forum to assess what is known about ocean acidification and priorities for future research every 4 years. UNESCO-IOC is co-founder of the Ocean Acidification network, a central source of information for ocean scientists on research activities in this area.

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