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Ocean turning to acid at lightning speed

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musselsIncreased carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere is making the Pacific coast acidic far more rapidly than previously believed, potentially wreaking havoc for creatures living in it that are unable to tolerate the swiftly changing environment.  

Ecologists at the University of Chicago tracked the acidity of the Pacific off an island close to Washington state over the course of eight years. Their results, published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: the waters here are becoming acidic 10 times more quickly than had been predicted using other models. Their data also shows that populations of mussels—key animals in that ecosystem—are declining rapidly as the ocean becomes less alkaline.

Oceans, like trees, absorb CO2 from the atmosphere, playing a big role in slowing down climate change. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it forms carbonic acid. This extra acidity can dissolve seashells, making life particularly hazardous for many shellfish, as well as all creatures from ducks to humans that depend on them as a source of food.

“Although coastal surface waters make up only a small portion of the world’s oceans, they are focal points for ocean production and human activity,” the authors say in their report. “Our results . . . may portend much broader-scale impacts in other marine habitats.”

Although all parts of the ocean are at risk from excess acid, the most drastic effects may be felt first in colder climes such as at the Earth's poles, ScientificAmerican.com has reported previously.

(Image of mussels courtesy of C. A. Pfister)

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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