Oregon State University

West Coast consortium studies ocean acidification

Sea urchins are vulnerable to acidification

In the summer, you may have to go 20 miles out to sea to find it, but close to the seafloor, near the edge of Oregon’s continental shelf, is a preview of the future: water as acidic as what the world’s oceans may be like in 50 to 100 years. “The future of ocean acidification is already here off the Ocean coast,” says Oregon State University oceanographer Francis Chan.

On a global basis, ocean acidity has increased about 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Revolution. So what, you might ask? The problem lies in basic chemistry: carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air mixes into seawater and, through a series of reactions, weakens calcium carbonate structures such as shells and coral reefs. In addition, recent studies suggest that increasing acidity (carbon dioxide forms carbonic acid in water) interferes with the ability of corals, sea urchins and other creatures to regulate functions from metabolism to reproduction.

Not all parts of the ocean are equally vulnerable, says Chan, an assistant professor of zoology. “Some places are going to be pretty resilient. They won’t feel the effects (of increasing acidity) for many decades or even a couple of hundred years. But there are other areas where people have said we really need to pay attention, that will be early warning systems, the canary in the coal mine.”

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