Ocean Acidification: A Pain in the Arctic

credit – Ocean Conservancy

No matter where you live, if you go outside and start walking north, at some point you’ll reach the Arctic Ocean. A vast expanse at the northern reaches of the planet, the Arctic Ocean supports a dizzying array of ocean wildldife, including the charismatic – and much threatened – polar bear. Most readers of The Blog Aquatic know that summer sea ice has been rapidly melting, caused by human-induced climate change from our ever rising global carbon emissions. Indeed, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere just broke a new record high.

But more poorly understood is that carbon dioxide is beginning to undermine the Arctic ocean itself through a process called ocean acidification. No less than 10 key scientific findings  can be found in a just-released assessment of ocean acidification undertaken by an international group of independent scientists.

Their assessment will be presented to the Arctic Council Ministers in Kiruna, Sweden this week. Called the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the scientists spent the last three years detailing the effects of ocean acidification on the Arctic, and exploring the consequences for the four million people living there.

The assessment concludes that the Arctic is particularly sensitive to ocean acidification, in part because the especially cold Arctic water absorbs more carbon dioxide than warmer waters to the south. In addition, the region’s ocean food web is also unusually vulnerable because it consists of only a few keys species that are themselves vulnerable to changing ocean chemistry. Most troubling, ocean acidification poses real threats to local indigenous peoples who depend on Arctic resources for sustenance, for their livelihoods, and for their culture.

These new insights into ocean acidification in the Arctic foreshadow similar processes underway in waters south of the Arctic Ocean in the Bering Sea. In these sub-Arctic waters where future Filet-o-Fish sandwiches and California rolls prosper, ocean acidification also is a direct threat to Alaska’s fishing industry. Alaska’s signature catch of cod, salmon, and crab is enjoyed by seafood consumers across the U.S. and around the world. And with over $1.6 billion in revenue in 2010 – and 53,000 jobs at stake – Alaska is rightly worried about how acidification could impact their industry. A new study published by NOAA Fisheries scientist Dr. Chris Long has documented how more acidic waters decimate juvenile red king crabs and tanner crabs, an economically important fishery in Alaska. Along with the AMAP report, Dr. Long’s research is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of how ocean acidification may disrupt northern marine food webs, including for economically important species and those of cultural significance.

All this paints a troubling picture of what may lie ahead for the world’s northern-most ocean. But it also underscores the vital role that scientific research and monitoring can play in helping anticipate what is to come, identifying ways to minimize impacts, and equipping seafood businesses and indigenous cultures with the tools to weather future changes. With the right data and information the United States, as a leader among Arctic nations, can help save the species and ecosystems upon which all peoples depend.

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