With an increasing focus on a burgeoning list of extreme weather events, elevated temperatures, and rising sea levels, ocean acidification or “the other CO2 problem”, just doesn’t get its due respect.
Yet, all over the globe these treasures of palette and eye are under increasing chemical assault.
Ocean acidification is the result of our seas absorbing about a third of the carbon dioxide that we release in to the atmosphere. Adding carbon dioxide to seawater adds hydrogen ions, and a
ll you need to remember from high school chemistry is that more hydrogen ions translates into: more acidity.
Just as acid slowly dissolves away a human tooth, so too can it dissolve a seashell. Another unfortunate outcome of adding carbon dioxide to seawater is that it challenges the ability of animals to make their shells.
Currently, building blocks for shells saturate the seawater. But this is changing. By mid-century or even sooner, these building blocks will be in short supply. Accordingly, shelled marine organisms will have to expend additional energy to repair and construct their shells, energy that might have better been used to grow or reproduce.
Just as acid slowly dissolves away a human tooth, so too can it dissolve a seashell.
Chuck Amsler, who co-directs our UAB National Science Foundation funded research program on ocean acidification in Antarctica, and his wife, Maggie, a research associate, are currently at the U.S. Palmer Station on the western Antarctic Peninsula (you can follow their blogs at www.uab.edu/antarctica). There, continuing work we initiated last year, they are directing a team of UAB graduate students studying how ocean acidification may make life difficult for algae and invertebrates.
The work is important because when it comes to “first-impacts” of ocean acidification Antarctica is the “canary in the coal mine.” This is largely because the Southern Ocean that surrounds Antarctica is so cold. The colder the water, the more carbon dioxide absorbed and the greater the acidity. Accordingly, Antarctica has become the Earth’s natural laboratory to first study ocean acidification.
Will Antarctic organisms be able to adapt to the rapidly changing ocean chemistry?
Just last year marine scientists working in the Southern Ocean discovered populations of pteropods, tiny planktonic snails with wafer-thin shells, already showing signs of wear and tear. Their outer shells are pitted and rough, signs of dissolving. As abundant as the stars in the sky, shelled pteropods play a key role in the global cycling of carbon. Will these swimming snails and the cornucopia of marine organisms that carpet the sea floors of Antarctica survive? Should they not, we stand to lose the keys to potential cures to cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, and other life-threatening diseases.
Our UAB Antarctic chemical ecology and natural products program, in collaboration with marine chemist Bill Baker at the University of South Florida, has discovered chemical compounds from Antarctic marine algae and invertebrates with potent activity against the H1N1 flu virus and melanoma skin cancer. It would be a shame for an acid sea to dissolve away such opportunities.