Northwest Fisheries Science Center

CO2 and Ocean Acidity

Posted on 6/18/2008

Each year the world's oceans absorb huge amounts of atmospheric carbon dioxide from automobile, power plant emissions and other sources. Widely known for its role in climate change, carbon dioxide also increases the oceans' acidity, with potential for profound effects on marine ecosystems.

Rippling Through the Food Web

While species like clams or corals are particularly vulnerable because too much acidity can literally dissolve their calcium carbonate shell, the consequences of acidification can ripple through the entire food web, affecting everything from microscopic plankton, to salmon, to orcas.

Scientists expect current ocean patterns to cause some of the greatest increases in ocean acidification off our shores in the Pacific Northwest, and the Northwest Fisheries Science Center is actively researching the potential impact.

Initial Tests: Vulnerable and Valuable

The Center is laboratory-testing the response of economically and ecologically important species in waters off the Oregon and Washington. Initial studies will examine:

Because carbon dioxide has effects upon both ocean acidity and climate change, we are exploring how the combined effects of acidification and warming affect West Coast marine species.

Critical Questions

While laboratory experiments tell us how individual species are directly affected by acidification, we must also determine how changes to susceptible species will affect the entire food web. For example:

To address these question, we are developing models to help predict how acidification induced changes will ripple throughout the entire marine system.

Anticipating Change

Given the current load of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, some acidification has already taken place and more is inevitable as the oceans continue to absorb the gas. However, lower carbon dioxide emissions can reduce future acidification, and avoid some consequences of this fundamental change in ocean chemistry.

As acidification alters ocean ecosystems, scientists at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center are at the forefront of research that will help us anticipate what those changes will be.

Several NWFSC divisions conduct research on ocean acidification. You can learn more about each division by clicking on their names.

photo of Dungeness crab, click to go to slide show
Click image to view slideshow.
Click on this image to view images of some of the species that are vulnerable to ocean acidification.

photo of an coccolithophorid, click to go to NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory's Ocean Acidification page.
A coccolithophorid. To visit the Ocean Acidification information page of NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, click on the image.