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Arctic water may be acidic enough to dissolve shells by 2030

"A key advance of this study was combining the power of field observations with numerical models," said study co-author Scott Doney.

By
Brooks Hays
Ocean acidification in the arctic could dissolve mollusk shells within 15 years. Photo by longtaildog/Shutterstock.
Ocean acidification in the arctic could dissolve mollusk shells within 15 years. Photo by longtaildog/Shutterstock.

SEATTLE, June 16 (UPI) -- The health of mollusks on both the East and West coasts has already been damaged by spikes in ocean acidification. And researchers say, as global warming continues, acidification will only get worse.

A new study by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says acid levels in arctic waters are expected to rise high enough to dissolve shells by 2030.

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"Our research shows that within 15 years, the chemistry of these waters may no longer be saturated with enough calcium carbonate for a number of animals from tiny sea snails to Alaska King crabs to construct and maintain their shells at certain times of the year," Jeremy Mathis, an oceanographer at NOAA's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, said in a press release. "This change due to ocean acidification would not only affect shell-building animals but could ripple through the marine ecosystem."

Mathis is the lead author of a new study on acidification trends, published this week in the journal Oceanography.

As the ocean absorbs excess CO2 from the atmosphere, the water's acidity levels increase. As acidity levels grow, it becomes more difficult for carbonates to reach saturation levels. Mollusks like clams and oysters use a form of calcium carbonate called aragonite to build and maintain shells. If proper saturation levels can't be maintained, these shells can be corroded, or worse yet, juvenile mollusks won't be able to form shells.

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The new research involved collecting new data on temperature, salinity and acidity trends in the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort seas. The new data was integrated into new acidification prediction models.

"A key advance of this study was combining the power of field observations with numerical models to better predict the future," explained study co-author Scott Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Mathis, Doney and their colleagues say a hit to shell-making creatures could send shock waves through important arctic ecosystems, disrupting food chains that support some of the world's most productive fisheries.

Researchers hope that studying the dynamics of arctic ocean chemistry will help them better predict how other parts of the ocean will react to growing levels of carbon dioxide.

"The Pacific-Arctic region, because of its vulnerability to ocean acidification, gives us an early glimpse of how the global ocean will respond to increased human-caused carbon dioxide emissions, which are being absorbed by our ocean," said Mathis. "Increasing our observations in this area will help us develop the environmental information needed by policy makers and industry to address the growing challenges of ocean acidification."

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