Friday, April 13, 2012

The oyster in the mine shaft

About seven years ago two oyster hatcheries located on the US Pacific northwest coast began to experience mortality rates which decimated 80 percent of their brood stock. The oyster larvae were dying before they had a chance of developing.

There was a strong suspicion that some strain of bacteria was to blame. And, in the initial research investigations, some elevated bacteria levels and some toxins were discovered. However, none was persistent nor strong enough to have caused a die-off in successive years.

One group looked at a particular possibility: the chemistry of the north eastern Pacific coastal waters. What they found was conclusive proof that increased acidity in the coastal waters of Pacific North America was preventing oyster larvae from properly forming coherent shells, killing them long before they could start to mature. (If you don't want to wade through a scientific oceanographic paper, you can get the gist from this Seattle Times report).

It is now documented that the world's surface oceans have suffered a 16% decrease in carbonate ion concentrations and the pH of global sea water has dropped by 0.1 of a unit from the pre-industrial era. It is likely colder northern waters are suffering even a greater loss of balance.

The reason is simple. The oceans are the largest carbon sink on the planet. They suck up 2 million tonnes of CO2 daily. The more that gets pumped into the atmosphere, the more the ocean sucks up. As the oceans absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere it adds to the CO2 that naturally rises due to coastal upwellings. The increased CO2 levels create a higher acidity level. The elevated acid (reduced pH) is corrosive to calcium carbonate minerals, the stuff that marine life uses to make critically protective shells.

Here is a short, simple, but informative video on how the process of shell formation is impaired by increased CO2.

Of course, there's more to it but, compared to climate physics and chemistry, the chemistry of the ocean, particularly where CO2 is having an effect, is relatively easy. And it's very obvious.

Upwellings occur as a result of ocean movement. Simply put, storms and high wind move the surface and draw up the deeper CO2 saturated water. Much of the CO2 from the deep is naturally occurring although a significant portion is the result of anthropogenic increases in the atmosphere.

What isn't natural is the elevated CO2 already at the surface. When the deeper ocean water rises it mixes with surface water. The resultant coastal water has a higher CO2 level than is usually found. That disturbs the formation of calcium carbonate, which weakens shell formation and ... oysters pay the price.

Big deal?

Yes it is. In fact it's very big. For one thing this is happening decades faster than anyone ever thought it could. But the worst is yet to come.

The upwelling water and the wide area surface waters take decades to move. The increased CO2 saturation in the water that has been arriving on the North American Pacific coast is from many decades ago when anthropogenic CO2 was, as the authors of the paper point out, substantially lower.

What's coming will be even more acid and even more corrosive.

Those baby oysters are the canary in the mine shaft.


Scott in Montreal said...

Ocean acidification is indeed chilling. I first read about it a couple of years ago, in a Guardian story I believe. The marine biologist interviewed for that story spoke of being so struck with horror at learning of the ramifications, she had to leave the presentation and throw up. She couldn't figure out how the marine food chain could possible adapt in time to avoid a near complete extinction in a few decades. It was a really distressing read.

Boris said...

This tears at the soul.

Dana said...

Once again proving that the opposable thumb and consciousness together in one creature is an evolutionary dead end.

David Wilson said...

fyi: your link to the source paper goes straight to a paywall, this link ( ) goes to the abstract

opit said...

Must be. There are catastrophic outbreaks in the past that killed off all life. There are still people around who don't buy into the noise that co2 regulates heat - me being one. That's not an opinion arrived at without thought and exploration - but it sure isn't politically correct with all the hullabaloo instigated by the UN's IPCC.
There's a lot of junk science going around - but not enough to reassure one that survival is likely.
I rather wonder if you wouldn't find Desmedoma Despair interesting. She and I don't agree on AGW at all - but she has interesting perspectives.