15 Feb 2010: Analysis
by carl zimmer
A new study says the seas are acidifying ten times faster today than 55 million years ago when a mass extinction of marine species occurred. And, the study concludes, current changes in ocean chemistry due to the burning of fossil fuels may portend a new wave of die-offs.
The JOIDES Resolution looks like a bizarre hybrid of an oil rig and a cargo ship. It is, in fact, a research vessel that ocean scientists use to dig up sediment from the sea floor. In 2003, on a voyage to the southeastern Atlantic, scientists aboard the JOIDES Resolution brought up a particularly striking haul.
They had drilled down into sediment that had formed on the sea floor over the course of millions of years. The oldest sediment in the drill was white. It had been formed by the calcium carbonate shells of single-celled organisms — the same kind of material that makes up the White Cliffs of Dover. But when the scientists examined the sediment that had formed 55 million years ago, the color changed in a geological blink of an eye.
“In the middle of this white sediment, there’s this big plug of red clay,” says Andy Ridgwell, an earth scientist at the University of Bristol.
In other words, the vast clouds of shelled creatures in the deep oceans had virtually disappeared. Many scientists now agree that this change was caused by a drastic drop of the ocean’s pH level. The seawater became so corrosive that it ate away at the shells, along with other species with calcium carbonate in their bodies. It took hundreds of thousands of years for the oceans to recover from this crisis, and for the sea floor to turn from red back to white.
The clay that the crew of the JOIDES Resolution dredged up may be an ominous warning of what the future has in store. By spewing carbon dioxide into the air, we are now once again making the oceans more acidic.
Today, Ridgwell and Daniela Schmidt, also of the University of Bristol, are publishing a study in the journal Natural Geoscience, comparing what happened in the oceans 55 million years ago to what the oceans are
experiencing today. Their research supports what other researchers have long suspected: The acidification of the ocean today is bigger and faster than anything geologists can find in the fossil record over the past 65 million years. Indeed, its speed and strength — Ridgwell estimate that current ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago — may spell doom for many marine species, particularly ones that live in the deep ocean.
“This is an almost unprecedented geological event,” says Ridgwell.
When we humans burn fossil fuels, we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where the gas traps heat. But much of that carbon dioxide does not stay in the air. Instead, it gets sucked into the oceans. If not for the oceans, climate scientists believe that the planet would be much warmer than it is today. Even with the oceans’ massive uptake of CO2, the past decade was still the warmest since modern record-keeping began. But storing carbon dioxide in the oceans may come at a steep cost: It changes the chemistry of seawater.