Our Sponsors:

Read more »

Our Members

Many thanks to Kriss Sjoblom and Ron Bemis some of our many supporters.

ALL MEMBERS »

Acid seas threaten creatures that supply half the world's oxygen

Ocean acidification is turning phytoplankton toxic. Bad news for the many species - us, included - that rely on them as a principal source of food and oxygen.
What does ocean acidifcation mean for our coast?

What does ocean acidifcation mean for our coast? Photo: Jeff Huffman

What happens when phytoplankton, the (mostly) single-celled organisms that constitute the very foundation of the marine food web, turn toxic?

Their toxins often concentrate in the shellfish and many other marine species (from zooplankton to baleen whales) that feed on phytoplankton. Recent trailblazing research by a team of scientists aboard the RV Melville shows that ocean acidification will dangerously alter these microscopic plants, which nourish a menagerie of sea creatures and produce up to 60 percent of the earth's oxygen.

The researchers worked in carbon saturated waters off the West Coast, a living laboratory to study the effects of chemical changes in the ocean brought on by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide. A team of scientists from NOAA's Fisheries Science Center and Pacific Marine Environmental Lab, along with teams from universities in Maine, Hawaii and Canada focused on the unique "upwelled" zones of California, Oregon and Washington. In these zones, strong winds encourage mixing, which pushes deep, centuries-old CO2 to the ocean surface. Their findings could reveal what oceans of the future will look like. The picture is not rosy.

Scientists already know that ocean acidification, the term used to describe seas soured by high concentrations of carbon, causes problems for organisms that make shells. “What we don't know is the exact effects ocean acidification will have on marine phytoplankton communities,” says Dr. Bill Cochlan, the biological oceanographer from San Francisco State University oceanographer who was the project’s lead investigator. “Our hypothesis is that ocean acidification will affect the quantity and quality of certain metabolities within the phytoplankton, specifically lipids and essential fatty acids.”

Acidic waters appear to make it harder for phytoplankton to absorb nutrients. Without nutrients they're more likely to succumb to disease and toxins. Those toxins then concentrate in the zooplankton, shellfish and other marine species that graze on phytoplankton.

Consider the dangerous diatom Pseudo-nitzschia (below). When ingested by humans, toxins from blooms of this single-celled algae can cause permanent short-term memory loss and in some cases death, according to Dr. Vera Trainer, an oceanographer with NOAA's Fisheries Marine Biotoxins Program. Laboratory studies show that when acidity (or pH) is lowered, Pseudo-nitzschia cells produce more toxin. When RV Melville researchers happened on a large bloom of Pseudo-nitzschia off the coast of Point Sur in California, where pH levels are already low, they were presented with a rare opportunity, explains Trainer, to see if their theory “holds true in the wild.”

Multiple phytoplankton populations became the subjects of deck-board experiments throughout the Melville’s 26-day cruise, which began in mid-May and finished last week.

Another worrisome substance is domoic acid, a neuro-toxin produced by a species of phytoplankton. Washington has a long history of domoic acid outbreaks. The toxin accumulates in mussels and can wind up in humans. “Changes in the future ocean could stimulate the levels of domoic acid in the natural population,” says Professor Charles Trick, a biologist with Western University in Ontario, and one of the RV Melville researchers. Which means that the acidified oceans of tomorrow could nurture larger and more vigorous outbreaks of killer phytoplankton, which could spell death to many marine species.

During their nearly month-long cruise, researchers observed the most intense upwelling in California, which is typical for spring and early summer. Upwelling may increase off the coasts of Oregon and Washington in mid-late summer and fall. The research team took multiple measurements and water samples off all three coasts in waters of both low and high pH. Part of their hypothesis is that concentrations of essential fatty acids are lower when pH is low. They need to establish what exactly “lower'” means, but the bottom line is that fewer essential fatty acids means a less nutritional diet for fish and other organisms.

If the interaction between CO2, ocean acidity and nutrient supply to phytoplankton and other ocean-going creatures isn't something you can wrap your head around, try this: Every second breath you take is due to phytoplankton. Those single cells generate the lion’s share of the world's O2. “If they're out of balance,” says Trainer, “the rest of life on earth is going to be out of balance.”


Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!

Comments:

Posted Mon, Jun 16, 12:34 p.m. Inappropriate

The other component to look at is that the oceans are a significant sink for CO2 and increasing CO2 in the atmosphere increases CO2 in the ocean as a result.
"Since the Industrial Revolution, nearly 30 per cent of all the carbon dioxide produced by manmade emissions has been absorbed by the ocean, causing a drop in pH of ocean surface waters: ocean acidification.
The current rate of CO2 emissions is unprecedented in the past 65 million years and there are considerable risks for the marine ecosystem all over the globe."
Read more at: http://phys.org/news/2014-06-marine-life-ocean-acidification.html#jCp

Posted Mon, Jun 16, 2:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Clearly the earth is out of balance, big time. It seems like overkill, but if you want to add underperforming phytoplankton to the list of causes that's OK by me. Even so, I think you have to keep a warm spot in your heart for a diatom named Pseudo-nitzschia, whose upcoming satirical screed "Thus Spake Zooplankton" is reportedly already back-ordered at Amazon well into the next Ice age.

And how about spending some time looking for that good old silver lining? Climate change and other environmental atrocities are going to produce winners as well as losers. We never hear anything from the gloom-and-doom naysayers about that. Oil companies are already licking their chops over the prospect of a year-around ice-free ocean route to the Arctic. And that phytoplankton die-off has got to be great news for the jellyfish. So what about them? If you ask me, in the next evolutionary cycle the smart money will be on the jellyfish. On the other hand, I'm not so sure that humans will degrade into petroleum deposits quite as efficiently as the dinosaurs did. I guess we'll just have to wait and see on that one.

woofer

Posted Tue, Jun 17, 4:54 p.m. Inappropriate

Soup to nuts all readily available:

Windfall, the Booming Business of Global Warming, 2014
http://seattle.bibliocommons.com/item/show/2963392030_windfall

or if that is not positive enough for you, try the Heartland Institute, Treker's Fav ;-)

afreeman

Posted Wed, Jun 18, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

Yea, brilliant. More opportunities for oil companies to make money providing more carbon-based fuel to dump into the atmosphere. I suppose as long as it creates jobs it's ok --- nevermind the billions we'll have to spend on shoreline infrastructure, water supply, additional flooding risk, general world instability as water/food sources affect massive population instability. Yea, I can see the silver lining.

Lily32

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I may be mistaken, but I believe treker and afreeman were both being tongue-in-cheek, although it is a little harder to say with the latter given his username.

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 1:45 p.m. Inappropriate

Yea - The Heartland Institute is one of my favorite groups - right behind American's for Prosperity and the SMS - Society for More Sarcasm.

Treker

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 10:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, Lily32, look on the bright side. You'll be extinct.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Jun 18, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

Name an ecosystem on this planet that is NOT experiencing degradation.
And what exacerbates it the most? Population growth! And what do all levels of our societal structure push for the most? An assumed unlimited growth! And what means is used consistently to achieve this? Maximizing both legal and legal immigration, the two factors most influencing our rapid population growth!

That is why Obama is now pushing and extending in reach George W. Bush's Comprehensive immigration reform that legalizes illegal immigration and significantly increases all forms of legal immigration.
And the big corporations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is providing the support and money for this.

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 8:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Last I heard the human population is supposed to level out at 11 billion, much of this due to the widespread accessibility of birth control. Enough solar energy falls on the earth in an hour to supply current needs for a year. With sufficient cheap renewable energy we could recycle virtually all that we need. The big question is how quickly we will be able to make the transition.

Posted Thu, Jun 19, 11:22 p.m. Inappropriate

Most cogent analyses I've read (and that's quite a few) say "sufficient cheap renewable energy" is not possible. That is, it is not possible to replace fossil fuels with anywhere close to the quantity or quality (energy density, EROI) of petroleum. L. King Hubbert (originator of "peak oil" concept) started to develop clear graphics showing this truth in the early 1960s (Hubbert 1962 available here--http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/energyresources.pdf). A 1974 version that I like is at http://www.hubbertpeak.com/hubbert/wwf1976/ (scroll down to Figure 10--the y-axis is 10 to the 12th kwh/yr.).

louploup

Posted Tue, Jun 24, 11:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Based on your "progressive" track record, I think we can safely discount your definition of "cogent."

NotFan

Posted Fri, Jun 20, 10:19 p.m. Inappropriate

So was this cruise done in the same climate change propaganda vessel that got stuck in the ice in antarctica last winter? The "ocean acidification" scare defies elementary science, but none of that matters to the "progressives" who are every bit as faith-based as any jungle shaman or Alaska Republican vice presidential candidate.

NotFan

Login or register to add your voice to the conversation.

Join Crosscut now!
Subscribe to our Newsletter

Follow Us »