Marine scientists across the world are hunting for clues to one of the greatest environmental catastrophes facing our planet. For years we’ve known the ocean absorbs about a third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere – but as CO2 levels continue to rise the ocean’s chemistry is changing and becoming more acidic.
In increasingly acidic waters, marine animals can’t form the skeletons and shells vital for their survival. From the planet’s poles to the tropics, thousands of species are in danger.
Now, Dr Katharina Fabricius and her team from the Australian Institute of Marine Science are trying to predict the fate of the ocean’s most vulnerable ecosystems – coral reefs.
They’ve done all they can in the lab; it’s time to move their experiments into the real world. They set off, modern day adventurers on the hunt for the ideal location to further their research.
Nestled among the volcanic islands of Papua New Guinea, locals paddle dug out canoes and tell of cracks in the ocean floor where streams of tiny bubbles bathe pristine coral reefs. Could Mother Nature’s volcanic heaving have opened a window on the ocean’s future?
Tests confirm the vents are emitting pure CO2 from deep inside the Earth’s crust, lowering the PH level of the ocean to a point matching what may be the norm by 2050. It’s the natural laboratory they’ve been hoping for. The team wastes no time setting up a raft of experiments. How will changing levels of acidity impact on sensitive coral? What are the flow on effects for crabs, fish and birds?
Could acid oceans bring down entire ecosystems?
Coral reefs are not the only systems in danger. It’s the polar seas that will be hit first – and hardest. Donna Roberts from CSIRO is studying how ocean acidification will affect tiny pteropods, or sea butterflies, that provide crucial food for fish, whales and birds. Her research underlines what’s at stake – when waters reach the acidity predicted for our oceans, the little sea butterflies dissolve in just 48 hours.
With the clock ticking, these marine scientists are facing the challenge of their careers as they uncover the secrets of acid oceans, and unravel the truth about the fate of our coral ecosystems.