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How Ocean Acidification Impacts Florida’s Ecosystems

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© Caroline Rogers / USGS

Dr. Kimberly Yates will be a panelist at an ocean acidification roundtable we are hosting in Miami this week. There, she will join other scientists, Florida elected officials and local businesspeople in discussing what ocean acidification has in store for Florida’s marine life and its coastal communities. Follow the meeting on Twitter via #FL_OA on Friday, June 17!

OC: Your research focuses on several marine habitats in Florida: coral reefs, estuaries and mangroves. How are they coping with ocean acidification?

Dr. Yates: Most of what we know about how ocean acidification is affecting these environments comes from experimental research. We know some marine organisms will be negatively impacted, and some may benefit. For example, some species that form their skeletons and shells from minerals made of calcium carbonate, like corals and some shellfish, are negatively impacted. Ocean acidification slows the rate at which they grow their skeletons and shells, and can also cause calcium carbonate minerals to dissolve.

Other species like seagrasses and some marine algae benefit from ocean acidification because it increases their growth rates. Coral reefs have been degrading rapidly over the past few decades, and recent research shows that some reefs in the Florida Keys are beginning to dissolve during certain times of the year from ocean acidification…which was not expected to happen for another few decades. Estuaries and mangrove wetlands support many species of shellfish, and ocean acidification may negatively impact those species and the economies that depend on shell fisheries. We are still learning about how changes caused by ocean acidification are impacting these habitats.

OC: Florida is built on limestone bedrock, which is essentially the same material as coral reefs. Since ocean acidification damages coral reef skeletons, can it also hurt Florida’s foundation?

Dr. Yates: There is emerging concern about how ocean acidification might affect the limestone that creates much of Florida’s foundation. We know that ocean acidification can cause reef structure to dissolve. Historical data indicates that seawater pH is decreasing in some major springs and in the coastal waters around Florida.

Much of Florida’s carbonate foundation was formed by dissolution of limestone, causing the formation of sinkholes and our state’s aquifer system. Florida’s groundwater system is linked to coastal waters in many places where water flows from land to sea through the limestone foundation. How freshwater acidification and ocean acidification may interact to affect the limestone foundation or groundwater resources is an emerging area of study.

OC: Are there ways that marine life is adapting that you find surprising and give you hope? 

Dr. Yates: Research shows that marine seagrasses can increase seawater pH because they take up carbon dioxide when they grow. Seagrass beds in coral reef ecosystems may provide some localized protection for marine animals that are negatively impacted by ocean acidification. While many estuaries are showing decreases in seawater pH, there are special cases where seagrass is recovering in estuaries due to restoration efforts and causing an increase in seawater pH. These types of estuaries may also provide some local protection from ocean acidification.

We have also discovered reef-building corals growing in certain mangrove habitats where they help create environmental conditions that protect corals from both ocean warming and ocean acidification. These types of natural environments and adaptations that show resilience to ocean acidification are surprising and offer hope. Protecting these types of environments provides a local action that can be taken to help protect against a global issue like ocean acidification.

OC: What’s the next research question you’d like to answer about ocean acidification?

Dr. Yates: Some of my most rewarding research has been focused on exploring environments that may serve as natural refuges from climate change and ocean acidification for marine species. Only a few of those environments have been identified. Many of these natural refuges are linked to habitats that may be more vulnerable to ocean acidification. I would like to understand what makes these environments resilient, identify other habitats that may serve as refuges and determine how these types of environments may help marine organisms adapt to their changing conditions.

Dr. Kimberly Yates is a senior research scientist at the United States Geological Survey, Coastal and Marine Science Center in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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