Antarctic study raises concerns over the future of Alaska's seas

Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen
Credit: NASA/Kathryn Hansen

The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is in danger of having its habitats and food webs disrupted, and the cause may also point to future problems for seas around Alaska.

Researchers from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the University of Colorado Boulder published a collaborative study Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change that found increased ocean acidification could cause problems for animals.

Increased carbon dioxide output into the atmosphere raises the acid level of the ocean. If the rate of output stays the same, researchers say the pteropod, a type of sea snail, could have its habitat cut by more than 70 percent by the year 2100. If the carbon output increases, it could happen even sooner.

The problem is that the pteropod relies on naturally-occurring carbonate ions to build their shells. As carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, it gets more acidic. With a higher acid concentration, the concentration of those carbonate ions is reduced, so the snails are unable to make and maintain their shells.

Researchers say that the problem would persist, even if acidification were reduced right away.

"If emissions were curbed tomorrow, this suddenly shallow horizon would still appear, even if possibly delayed," said Nicole Lovenduski of CU Boulder. "And that inevitability, along with the lack of time for organisms to adapt, is most concerning."

The low temperatures of the Southern Ocean make it especially vulnerable to acidification and there are concerns the northern seas would be as well.

Claudine Hauri, co-author and a chemical oceanographer at UAF's International Arctic Research Center, is developing a model that would look at the effect of increased ocean acidification on Alaska.

"These factors put us closer to a threshold that might be harmful for a lot of organisms," said Hauri.

The study can be purchased on Nature Climate Change's website. It was funded by the National Science Foundation, an independent U.S. government foundation created in 1950.

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