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NOAA Coral Reef Watch

New Study Leads to Better Understanding of Ocean Acidification

An industrial chimney spewing smoke

Too much acid in the ocean is bad news for sea life. Acid eats away at calcium carbonite, the primary ingredient of shells and skeletons that many ocean animals depend on for survival. The shell pictured here is a victim of this process. The normally-protective shell is so thin and fragile, it is transparent.

A new study finds significant ocean acidification in the Caribbean, and may lead to a better understanding of how coral reefs will adapt to this harmful process.

Previous NOAA studies have shown that a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans place in the atmosphere each year ends up being dissolved into the ocean.

The result is that the ocean becomes more acidic, making it harder for corals, clams, oysters, and other marine life to build their skeletons or shells. A number of recent studies demonstrate that ocean acidification is likely to harm coral reefs by slowing coral growth and making reefs more vulnerable to erosion and storms.

The new study confirms that ocean acidification is a significant problem across much of the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, but identified strong natural variations in ocean chemistry in some parts of the Caribbean.

These shifts in ocean chemistry may prove important when predicting the long-term impacts of ocean acidification to coral reefs.

The study was published in the Oct. 31, 2008, issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research – Oceans. It was conducted by scientists from NOAA and the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

NOAA scientists used four years of ocean chemistry measurements taken aboard the Royal Caribbean Cruise Line ship Explorer of the Seas together with daily satellite observations to estimate changes in ocean chemistry over the past two decades in the Caribbean region for the study.

An industrial chimney spewing smoke

A quarter of the carbon dioxide we produce each year ends up dissolving into ocean waters. This makes the ocean more and more acidic.

It was the first time that scientists succeeded in tracking ocean acidification levels on a monthly basis.

The resulting new ocean acidification tracking products are available online along with animations of the changes since 1988.

The study supports other findings that ocean acidification is likely to reduce coral reef growth to critical levels before the end of this century unless humans significantly reduce carbon dioxide emissions. While ocean chemistry across the region is currently deemed adequate to support coral reefs, it is rapidly changing as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels rise.