Ocean Acidification Could Destroy Ecosystems

As we pump more and more CO2 into our atmosphere, we will see a greater acidification of our oceans than what we have seen in the past but researchers studying species living near volcanic CO2 vents are learning what it takes to survive.

“When an organism’s environment becomes more acidic, it can dramatically impact not only that species, but the overall ecosystem’s resilience, function, and stability,” says co-author Fiorenza Micheli, a professor of biology at Stanford University. “These transformations ultimately impact people, especially our food chains.”

Most research into ocean acidification happens in the lab, which makes it hard to see how it will affect ecosystems and the species that live within them. This ‘real-life’ laboratory gave the researches a glimpse into how acidification could play out in the future and how marine animals will adapt.

The researchers were able to analyze specific traits in marine animals like sea snails; their growth was impeded, it took longer for their shells to grow and their shells were thinner and more brittle compared to their counterparts in less acidic water.

So why care about sea snails? We like with most ecosystems, the smallest change can have big effects down the food chain. Sea snails are a key food source for larger marine animals and may affect fish populations sizes, which would have a flow-on effect through the food chain, all the way to us.

The researchers found that the high acidic locations had the least number of species, but also the lowest amounts of “functional diversity”, the range of ecosystem-support services or roles that each species can provide.

“Studying the natural carbon dioxide vents in Ischia allowed us to unravel which traits from different species, like snail shell strength, were more vulnerable to ocean acidification. These results illuminate how oceans will function under different acidification scenarios in the future,” says lead author Nuria Teixidó, a marine biologist from Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Italy, who was a visiting researcher at Stanford during the research.

The acidification of the waters around Ischia destroyed the local coral populations, that formed the habitat for multiple species in the area. Extrapolating out these findings on a more global scale could give us a glimpse into how species will adapt but also show us how complete ecosystems will collapse. This will threaten food security for millions of people who rely on seafood as their primary food source and could also affect economies that depend on tourism.

“The effects of ocean acidification on whole ecosystems and their functioning are still poorly understood,” Micheli says. “In Ischia, we have gained new insights into what future oceans will look like and what key services, like food production and coastal production, will be lost when there is more carbon dioxide in the water.”

The National Geographic Society, the Total Foundation, a Maire Curie Cofund, and a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Global Fellowship funded the work.

Source: Stanford University

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