Carbon emissions acidify ocean, kill off marine life

Posted by Gabrielle Jacobs on 22 October 2019

New research has uncovered that the asteroid responsible for decimating the dinosaur population, an estimated 66 million years ago, largely contributed towards mass-extinction by inducing rapid ocean acidification. This then altered the planet’s climate and global carbon cycling systems, a familiar reality we face today in the struggle to combat excessive carbon emissions.

The increased amounts of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere in modern times have resulted in ocean acidification, which can disturb the marine environment, much the same way it did several millennia ago.

Photo by Paul Reichle.

While the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was clear that there are no concrete findings to pinpoint the main driver of mass-extinction 66 million years ago – whether by impact from the asteroid or volcanic activity – the study demonstrates how disturbance in the ecosystem and particularly the rapid ocean acidification thereafter had a significant impact on the planet’s climate and carbon cycle.

In modern times, the dramatic increase in carbon emissions has similarly detrimental effects on the oceans and could, therefore, lead to the extinction of marine and other life forms.

Carbon emissions are problematic because carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere dissolves in bodies of water and forms carbonic acid. The increased acidity decreases the ocean environment’s pH levels, and the number of carbonate ions available, which are necessary for important biochemical processes that marine organisms rely on to thrive.

The researchers analysed sediments from this period and noted how a drop in the pH levels – increasing ocean acidity – led to ecological collapse in the periods after.

Marine organisms such as corals, snails and crustaceans (among others) are calcifiers, which depend on carbonate ions to help form coral reefs, and their skeletons and shells. These organisms, among numerous others, all fulfilling their own role in the planet’s biodiverse processes, are at risk of dying out, which is why we need to reduce emissions and find better, more sustainable practices.

Find out more about this article, ‘Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact’ at doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1905989116

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