Researchers in the Marine Science Dept. released the results of the largest study on ocean acidification ever conducted, revealing that global warming leads to destructive increases in ocean acidity levels.
Ecology, evolution and marine biology professor Gretchen Hofmann and 18 other researchers in the department compiled the data, released this week, using 15 underwater sensors developed at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography to observe a wide variety of ocean locations including warm tropical waters and the Antarctic. The acidification process is sparked when carbon emissions reach saltwater and form carbonic acid, lowering overall pH levels and making it more difficult for invertebrates to form shells or exoskeletons.
Ecology and physiology professor Mark Brzezinski said new technology allowed researchers to make more in-depth observations of the large-scale effects of acidification compared to similar instruments used in past studies.
“You can buy pH meters almost anywhere that work very well,” Brzezinski said. “What the new sensors can do is take that same technology and put it into a can in the ocean that survives and takes accurate measurements.”
Using the underwater sensors, ocean pH levels and amounts of acidification can be measured for time periods ranging from two minutes to two months. Additionally, researchers can determine how short-term processes like tides and currents affect pH levels, Brzezinski said.
According to Hofmann, the study surveyed a range of ocean locations with differing climates to achieve the most efficient results possible.
“We do research in the Antarctic, French Polynesia and also right here on the California coast where we have sensors right by campus,” Hofmann said. “We have learned that different parts of the ocean are not the same and we can see how they have adapted and how they will respond in the future.”
Althouagh acidification can benefit some species, the phenomenon has dire effects on vital coral reefs that protect coastal lands from storms and floods, according to Brzezinski.
Third-year biology major Vanessa Lang said since many underwater species are harmed by low pH levels, the general welfare of fundamental ecosystems is particularly threatened.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of [ocean acidification], but it affects a lot of invertebrates and has a big impact on food chains and coral reefs,” Lang said. “A lot of fish live on the reef for shelter — it’s a huge center for biodiversity and it’s important to protect things like that.”
In addition to ongoing academic research on acidification, Hofmann said local residents should take steps to protect underwater ecosystems by adjusting daily habits that can lead to high carbon output.
“First, as an academic research community, we can do research and outreach the public to increase our understanding and awareness to what [ocean acidification] will do to our ecosystems,” Hofmann said. “Secondly, we can change the way we live our lives in terms of how we use resources, such as driving less, restricting our use of plastic bags [and] cutting down on carbon emissions.”