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New Maps Show Just How Acidic Earth's Oceans Are

Feb 17, 2015 04:01 PM EST
ocean acidity
Pictured: A global map of ocean acidification. The redder the color, the more alkaline, or basic — the opposite of acidic — the region is.
(Photo : Ifremer/ESA/CNES)

New maps created by scientists show just how acidic Earth's oceans are, highlighting the need to deal with the global greenhouse gas problem, according to new research.

Approximately 36 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) are released into the atmosphere each year - mostly from the burning of fossil fuels - and seawater absorbs more than 25 percent of the greenhouse gas. This process is causing the world's oceans to become warmer and more acidic, with this past summer seeing the warmest ocean temperatures on record. And as the surface pH of seawater becomes more acidic, some marine life is finding it difficult to survive.

For example, ocean acidification is robbing sharks of their vital predatory senses, impacting delicate sea stars, putting crabs into "survival mode," causing calcifiers like mollusks and starfish to struggle, and possibly costing the world its coral... as well as a trillion dollars.

What's more, ocean acidification shows no signs of stopping. According to the NOAA, the ocean's surface pH has already become 30 percent more acidic since the end of the Industrial Revolution.

However, this increased acidity is not evenly distributed around the globe, and so researchers decided to more accurately measure ocean pH and determine which areas are most affected. Rather than relying on imprecise physical data from research vessels and buoys, the international team of researchers used satellites that orbit the Earth some 700 kilometers (435 miles) above the surface. This novel technique can potentially revolutionize the way scientists study the ocean and determine the effects of harmful greenhouse gases.

"Satellites are likely to become increasingly important for the monitoring of ocean acidification, especially in remote and often dangerous waters like the Arctic," Dr. Jamie Shutler from the University of Exeter, who led the study, said in a press release. "It can be both difficult and expensive to take year-round direct measurements in such inaccessible locations. We are pioneering these techniques so that we can monitor large areas of the Earth's oceans allowing us to quickly and easily identify those areas most at risk from the increasing acidification."

They combined thermal camera imagery with salinity data, and from their results, created a global map of ocean acidification.

While open oceans for now seem to be in the safe zone, revealing seawater that is more alkaline (or basic), many coastal regions appear less alkaline and more acidic. The northeastern United States, in particular, seems vulnerable to dangerous ocean acidification over the next century.

And it's no surprise that the polar oceans (Arctic and Antarctic) are sensitive to ocean acidification, with enhanced warming reducing sea-ice cover in these regions. Arctic sea ice, for one, may even completely disappear in our lifetime as a result.

Ocean acidification does not just affect various marine creatures, but also the ecosystems in which they live. If one organism is affected by warming waters, it has a domino effect on the rest of the food chain. Hopefully with this new approach, scientists can better assess which parts of the world are to see the worst effects.

The new results are detailed in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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