The JOIDES Resolution looks like a bizarre hybrid of an oil rig and a cargo ship. It is, in fact, a research vessel that ocean scientists use to dig up sediment from the sea floor. In 2003, on a voyage to the southeastern Atlantic, scientists aboard the JOIDES Resolution brought up a particularly striking haul.
They had drilled down into sediment that had formed on the sea floor over the course of millions of years. The oldest sediment in the drill was white. It had been formed by the calcium carbonate shells of single-celled organisms — the same kind of material that makes up the White Cliffs of Dover. But when the scientists examined the sediment that had formed 55 million years ago, the color changed in a geological blink of an eye.
“In the middle of this white sediment, there’s this big plug of red clay,” says Andy Ridgwell, an earth scientist at the University of Bristol.
In other words, the vast clouds of shelled creatures in the deep oceans had virtually disappeared. Many scientists now agree that this change was caused by a drastic drop of the ocean’s pH level. The seawater became so corrosive that it ate away at the shells, along with other species with calcium carbonate in their bodies. It took hundreds of thousands of years for the oceans to recover from this crisis, and for the sea floor to turn from red back to white.
The clay that the crew of the JOIDES Resolution dredged up may be an ominous warning of what the future has in store. By spewing carbon dioxide into the air, we are now once again making the oceans more acidic.
Storing CO2 in the oceans comes at a steep cost: It changes the chemistry of seawater.
Today, Ridgwell and Daniela Schmidt, also of the University of Bristol, are publishing a study in the journal Natural Geoscience, comparing what happened in the oceans 55 million years ago to what the oceans are experiencing today. Their research supports what other researchers have long suspected: The acidification of the ocean today is bigger and faster than anything geologists can find in the fossil record over the past 65 million years. Indeed, its speed and strength — Ridgwell estimate that current ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago — may spell doom for many marine species, particularly ones that live in the deep ocean.
“This is an almost unprecedented geological event,” says Ridgwell.
When we humans burn fossil fuels, we pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where the gas traps heat. But much of that carbon dioxide does not stay in the air. Instead, it gets sucked into the oceans. If not for the oceans, climate scientists believe that the planet would be much warmer than it is today. Even with the oceans’ massive uptake of CO2, the past decade was still the warmest since modern record-keeping began. But storing carbon dioxide in the oceans may come at a steep cost: It changes the chemistry of seawater.
At the ocean’s surface, seawater typically has a pH of about 8 to 8.3 pH units. For comparison, the pH of pure water is 7, and stomach acid is around 2. The pH level of a liquid is determined by how many positively charged hydrogen atoms are floating around in it. The more hydrogen ions, the lower the pH. When carbon dioxide enters the ocean, it lowers the pH by reacting with water.
The carbon dioxide we have put into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution has lowered the ocean pH level by .1. That may seem tiny, but it’s not. The pH scale is logarithmic, meaning that there are 10 times more hydrogen ions in a pH 5 liquid than one at pH 6, and 100 times more than pH 7. As a result, a drop of just .1 pH units means that the concentration of hydrogen ions in the ocean has gone up by about 30 percent in the past two centuries.
To see how ocean acidification is going to affect life in the ocean, scientists have run laboratory experiments in which they rear organisms at different pH levels. The results have been worrying — particularly for species that build skeletons out of calcium carbonate, such as corals and amoeba-like organisms called foraminifera. The extra hydrogen in low-pH seawater reacts with calcium carbonate, turning it into other compounds that animals can’t use to build their shells.
These results are worrisome, not just for the particular species the scientists study, but for the ecosystems in which they live. Some of these vulnerable species are crucial for entire ecosystems in the ocean. Small shell-building organisms are food for invertebrates, such as mollusks and small fish, which in turn are food for larger predators. Coral reefs create an underwater rain forest, cradling a quarter of the ocean’s biodiversity.
But on their own, lab experiments lasting for a few days or weeks may not tell scientists how ocean acidification will affect the entire planet. “It’s not obvious what these mean in the real world,” says Ridgwell.
One way to get more information is to look at the history of the oceans themselves, which is what Ridgwell and Schmidt have done in their new study. At first glance, that history might suggest we have nothing to worry about. A hundred million years ago, there was over five times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the ocean was .8 pH units lower. Yet there was plenty of calcium carbonate for foraminifera and other species. It was during this period, in fact, that shell-building marine organisms produced the limestone formations that would eventually become the White Cliffs of Dover.
But there’s a crucial difference between the Earth 100 million years ago and today. Back then, carbon dioxide concentrations changed very slowly over millions of years. Those slow changes triggered other slow changes in the Earth’s chemistry. For example, as the planet warmed from more carbon dioxide, the increased rainfall carried more minerals from the mountains into the ocean, where they could alter the chemistry of the sea water. Even at low pH, the ocean contains enough dissolved calcium carbonate for corals and other species to survive.
Today, however, we are flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide at a rate rarely seen in the history of our planet. The planet’s weathering feedbacks won’t be able to compensate for the sudden drop in pH for hundreds of thousands of years.
Scientists have been scouring the fossil record for periods of history that might offer clues to how the planet will respond to the current carbon jolt. They’ve found that 55 million years ago, the Earth went through a similar change. Lee Kump of Penn State and his colleagues have estimated that roughly 6.8 trillion tons of carbon entered the Earth’s atmosphere over about 10,000 years.
Nobody can say for sure what unleashed all that carbon, but it appeared to have had a drastic effect on the climate. Temperatures rose between 5 and 9 degrees Celsius (9 to 16 Fahrenheit). Many deep-water species became extinct, possibly as the pH of the deep ocean became too low for them to survive.
But this ancient catastrophe (known as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, or PETM) was not a perfect prequel to what’s happening on Earth today. The temperature was warmer before the carbon bomb went off, and the pH of the oceans was lower. The arrangement of the continents was also different. The winds blew in different patterns as a result, driving the oceans in different directions.
All these factors make a big difference on the effect of ocean acidification. For example, the effect that low pH has on skeleton-building organisms depends on the pressure and temperature of the ocean. Below a certain depth in the ocean, the water becomes so cold and the pressure so high that there’s no calcium carbonate left for shell-building organisms. That threshold is known as the saturation horizon.
Our carbon-fueled civilization is affecting life everywhere on Earth — even deep underwater.
To make a meaningful comparison between the PETM and today, Ridgwell and Schmidt built large-scale simulations of the ocean at both points of time. They created a virtual version of the Earth 55 million years ago and let the simulation run until it reached a stable state. The pH level of their simulated ocean fell within the range of estimates of the pH of the actual ocean 55 millions years ago. They then built a version of the modern Earth, with today’s arrangements of continents, average temperature, and other variables. They let the modern world reach a stable state and then checked the pH of the ocean. Once again, it matched the real pH found in the oceans today.
Ridgwell and Schmidt then jolted both of these simulated oceans with massive injections of carbon dioxide. They added 6.8 trillion tons of carbon over 10,000 years to their PETM world. Using conservative projections of future carbon emissions, they added 2.1 trillion tons of carbon over just a few centuries to their modern world. Ridgwell and Schmidt then used the model to estimate how easily carbonate would dissolve at different depths of the ocean.
The results were strikingly different. Ridgwell and Schmidt found that ocean acidification is happening about ten times faster today than it did 55 million years ago. And while the saturation horizon rose to 1,500 meters 55 million years ago, it will lurch up to 550 meters on average by 2150, according to the model.
The PETM was powerful enough to trigger widespread extinctions in the deep oceans. Today’s faster, bigger changes to the ocean may well bring a new wave of extinctions. Paleontologists haven’t found signs of major extinctions of corals or other carbonate-based species in surface waters around PETM. But since today’s ocean acidification is so much stronger, it may affect life in shallow water as well. “We can’t say things for sure about impacts on ecosystems, but there is a lot of cause for concern,” says Ridgwell.
Ellen Thomas, a paleoceanographer at Yale University, says that the new paper “is highly significant to our ideas on ocean acidification.” But she points out that life in the ocean was buffeted by more than just a falling pH. “I’m not convinced it’s the whole answer,” she says. The ocean’s temperature rose and oxygen levels dropped. Together, all these changes had complex effects on the ocean’s biology 55 million years ago. Scientists now have to determine what sort of combined effect they will have on the ocean in the future.
Our carbon-fueled civilization is affecting life everywhere on Earth, according to the work of scientists like Ridgwell — even life that dwells thousands of feet underwater. “The reach of our actions can really be quite global,” says Ridgwell. It’s entirely possible that the ocean sediments that form in the next few centuries will change from the white of calcium carbonate back to red clay, as ocean acidification wipes out deep-sea ecosystems.
“It will give people hundreds of millions of years from now something to identify our civilization by,” says Ridgwell.