Unprecedented Rate and Scale of Ocean Acidification Found in the Arctic

Receding ice exposes seawater to carbon dioxide, driving ocean acidification.

Special to USF News

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. (Sept. 12, 2013) — Acidification of the Arctic Ocean is occurring faster than projected according to a new study conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and the University of South Florida published in the journal PLoS One. The increase in rate is being blamed on rapidly melting sea ice, a process that may have important consequences for the health of the Arctic ecosystem.

Ocean acidification is the process by which pH levels of seawater decrease due to greater amounts of carbon dioxide being absorbed by the oceans from the atmosphere. Currently oceans absorb about one-fourth of the greenhouse gas. Lower pH levels make water more acidic, and lab studies have shown that more acidic water decrease calcification rates in many calcifying organisms, reducing their ability to build shells or skeletons. These changes, in species ranging from corals to shrimp, have the potential to impact species up and down the food web.

Study co-author, and co-project chief, Jonathan Wynn, a USF Assistant Professor of Geology.

The team of USGS and USF researchers found that the decline of sea ice in the Arctic summer has important consequences for the surface layer of the Arctic Ocean. As sea ice cover recedes to record lows, as it did late in the summer of 2012, the seawater beneath is exposed to carbon dioxide, which is the main driver of ocean acidification.

In addition, the freshwater melted from sea ice dilutes the seawater, lowering pH levels and reducing the concentrations of calcium and carbonate, which are the constituents, or building blocks, of the mineral aragonite. Aragonite and other carbonate minerals make up the hard part of many marine micro-organisms’ skeletons and shells. The lowering of calcium and carbonate concentrations may impact the growth of organisms that many species rely on for food.

The new research shows that acidification in surface waters of the Arctic Ocean is rapidly expanding into areas that were previously isolated from contact with the atmosphere due to the former widespread ice cover.

“A remarkable 20 percent of the Canadian Basin has become more corrosive to carbonate minerals in an unprecedented short period of time. Nowhere on Earth have we documented such large scale, rapid ocean acidification,” according to lead researcher and ocean acidification project chief, U.S. Geological Survey oceanographer Lisa Robbins.

Globally, Earth’s ocean surface is becoming acidified due to absorption of man-made carbon dioxide. Ocean acidification models show that with increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide, the Arctic Ocean will have crucially low concentrations of dissolved carbonate minerals, such as aragonite, in the next decade.

“In the Arctic, where multi-year sea ice has been receding, we see that the dilution of seawater with melted sea ice adds fuel to the fire of ocean acidification,” according to co-author, and co-project chief, Jonathan Wynn, a USF Assistant Professor of Geology. “Not only is the ice cover removed leaving the surface water exposed to man-made carbon dioxide, the surface layer of frigid waters is now fresher, and this means less calcium and carbonate ions are available for organisms.”

Researchers were able to investigate seawater chemistry at high spatial resolution during three years of research cruises in the Arctic, alongside joint U.S.-Canada research efforts aimed at mapping the seafloor as part of the U.S. Extended Continental Shelf program. In addition to the NOAA supported ECS ship time, the ocean acidification researchers were funded by the USGS, National Science Foundation, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Compared to other oceans, the Arctic Ocean has been rather lightly sampled.

“It’s a beautiful but challenging place to work,” said Robert Byrne, a USF Distinguished University Professor at the College of Marine Science and one of the world’s leading experts on seawater chemistry.

Using new automated instruments, the scientists were able to make 34,000 water-chemistry measurements from a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy during expeditions in 2010 and 2011 to the western Canada Basin and the northern Arctic Ocean. Byrne credits scientists and engineers at the USF College of Marine Science with developing much of the new technology.

“This unusually large data set, in combination with earlier studies, not only documents remarkable changes in Arctic seawater chemistry but also provides a much-needed baseline against which future measurements can be compared.”

Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.