Shallow secrets of ocean acidification: Current coastal consequences

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The close relationship between atmospheric CO2 and oceanic CO2 and the ensuing drop in pH at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, suggest that increasing atmospheric CO2 is driving the acidification of our oceans.
The close relationship between atmospheric CO2 and oceanic CO2 and the ensuing drop in pH suggest that increasing CO2 is driving the acidification of our oceans. Source: Doney et al. 2009.
Known as “the other CO2 problem”, ocean acidification (OA) has crept onto the scene as one of the most menacing and destructive aspects of human-induced climate change. Basically, OA refers to the dissolving of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) into the oceans, making them more acidic and spelling trouble for many marine organisms, particularly those with calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeletons (e.g., pteropods, clams, snails, corals). Since the Industrial Revolution, the pH of the oceans has dropped from ~8.2 to ~8.1, corresponding to a 30% increase in ocean acidity, with a projected 0.3-0.4 further decrease by 2100 (120-150% increase in acidity). Ultimately, OA could result in major losses to marine biodiversity, threatened food sources for a myriad of organisms (including humans), diminished coastal protection, altered food webs and ecosystem structuring, and an interrupted carbonate system (Hardt & Safina 2008). However, OA is typically attributed to the burning of fossil fuels and the human contribution to atmospheric CO2. As a result, this can be misleading when reporting the effects that ocean acidification is having in coastal waters and those that it could have in the near future.
Recently, open-ocean acidification has been distinguished from that of coastal waters on the basis that acidification in coastal regions is functionally much different than that of the open ocean (Duarte et al. 2012). As a consequence, the pH decrease in coastal waters (particularly in estuaries) is much more pronounced than that of the open-ocean, and the variability of pH ranges is much wider. Furthermore, although atmospheric CO2 is the primary driver in open-ocean acidification, it plays less of a role in coastal systems. Instead, coastal upwelling, terrestrial and freshwater runoff, organic decomposition, and other processes not occurring in the open-ocean can act as the primary drivers of acidification in coastal systems to varying degrees. As such, organisms residing within coastal waters are subjected to extremely stressful conditions for the majority of their life.

Historically, OA studies have manipulated seawater conditions to mimic future open-ocean acidification scenarios and measured the response of various organisms to these future conditions. However, to the surprise of scientists and shellfish growers alike, the changes in seawater chemistry in coastal areas (particularly the west coast of North America) and resultant biological and economical consequences are happening right now! Shellfish hatcheries on the west coast of North America have already felt the effects of OA. In 2005-2006, shellfish growers on the west coast of the United States were experiencing mass mortality of larvae in their tanks and couldn’t figure out why. When scientists equipped the tanks with pH meters and saw that it was critically low, they were able to come up with solution strategies that worked and, in essence, saved the shellfish industry in parts of the Pacific US. More recently, the loss of approximately 10 million scallops in British Columbia at Island Scallops in 2013 and a financial loss of $10 million (and the forced lay-offs of numerous staff has been attributed to a change in pH from 8.1 in 1953 to a low of 7.3 in 2001. Furthermore, a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B has reported that 53% of pteropods on the US Pacific coast had severe dissolution of their shells (Bednaršek et al. 2014).
Shell dissolution in larval oysters raised at hatcheries on the Pacific coast of North America has resulted in mass mortality events over the past 10 years. Photo courtesy of Taylor Shellfish from OSU.
Shell dissolution in larval oysters raised at hatcheries on the Pacific coast of North America has resulted in mass mortality events over the past 10 years. Image courtesy of Taylor Shellfish from OSU.
Given the magnitude and obvious immediacy of OA, understanding how this process is currently impacting coastal waters is critical. Alongside the anthropogenic sources of acidification in coastal zones mentioned above, natural causes of acidification and other physical changes (e.g., temperature, salinity, oxygen concentration, etc.) must also be taken into account when addressing acidification in coastal areas. The complex interactions between all of these factors make the task of predicting their effects on coastal ecosystems magnificently daunting. What is apparent, however, is that the pronounced acidification of coastal waters is having and will have significant consequences, not just for the organisms living in these ecosystems, but for humans as well. The overwhelming majority of the global human population depends on coastal ecosystems for survival. With coastal acidification affecting marine organisms both directly and indirectly (indeed acidification will affect more than CaCO3-bearing organisms; e.g., food web shifts and trophic cascades affecting fishes and mammals), a major source of food for billions of people is in jeopardy. Ultimately, scientific studies addressing the impacts of OA need to take the plethora of physical into account in order to sufficiently predict how coastal ecosystems are going to react to the changes that humans are imposing on them. Furthermore, studies need to start focusing more on the current impacts of OA rather than the biological impacts of future scenarios. More importantly, the general public needs to know about the implications of acidification in coastal areas to put the brakes on coastal acidification before things become drastically worse.


Bednaršek, N. et al. 2014. Limacina helicina shell dissolution as an indicator of declining habitat suitability due to ocean acidification in the California Current Ecosystem. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 20140123.
Doney, SC. et al. 2009. Ocean acidification: A critical emerging problem for the ocean sciences. Oceanography 22: 16-25.
Duarte, CM. 2013. Is ocean acidification an open-ocean syndrome? Understanding anthropogenic impacts on seawater pH. Estuaries and Coasts 10.1007.
Hardt, M. & Safina, C. 2008. Covering ocean acidification: Chemistry and considerations. [online]. The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media. Accessed 07 May 2014 from

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