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Ocean acidification

Carbon reflux

Parts of the Arctic Ocean could become inhospitable to shellfish within two decades. The rest of the world’s oceans may not be far behind
Worried more about shellfish than Shell

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Acidification of the world’s oceans has long been identified as one of the vicious side-effects of increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

As early as the 1980s, the phenomenon, sometimes labelled as the “evil twin” of global warming, has been described as a potential problem, not least for shellfish, which suffer as vital shell-building nutrients disappear from the water as more carbon dioxide is absorbed.

Now, a recently published paper now puts a date on when the Arctic Ocean, the most vulnerable of the world’s oceans to the development, could reach dangerously high acidity levels.

SEE VIDEO: A climate of change: Ocean acidification in Alaska (at end of article)

Wiring in the journal Oceanography, scientists, from Noaa, a US federal agency, the University of Alaska and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, predict that within 30 years, large parts of Alaska’s continental shelf could become inhospitable to shellfish.

While certain characteristics will make the Chukchi, Beaufort and Bering seas among the first to reach acidity levels that threaten the ability of marine animals to build and maintain shells, other areas are likely to follow.

The scientists, using data collected on observations on water temperature, salinity and dissolved carbon during two month-long expeditions in 2011 and 2012, predict that the Chukchi and Beaufort seas will reach such shells by 2030. The Bering Sea is forecast to follow suit by 2044.

First noted in the 1980s, ocean acidification has been found to coincide with increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.

SEE RELATED: Changing ocean chemistry could doom Alaskan crab industry

Most are familiar with the effects carbon dioxide, as well as other greenhouse gasses, have when in the atmosphere. About a quarter of carbon dioxide, however, is absorbed by oceans. Like when trees and other terrestrial organisms that absorb carbon dioxide, this has often viewed primarily been viewed benignly.

However, as carbon dioxide levels in the oceans rises, it leads to a decrease in the amount of calcium carbonate, which shellfish, including those eaten by larger animals, such as small snails, and commercially harvested species, including the Alaska King crab, use in their shells.

While all oceans are subject to the same pressures that lead to increased acidity levels, a number of factors mean Arctic waters are hit harder.

Looking at the Alaskan case, the scientists explain that in addition to carbon dioxide absorbed from the air, the state’s coastal waters, which are considered to have a naturally low calcium carbonate concentration to begin with, must now also deal with an increased inflow of freshwater from melting glaciers and rivers. At the same time carbon-dioxide-rich water is rising from lower depths. Making matters worse, cold water also absorbs more carbon dioxide than warmer water.

SEE RELATED: A rapidly fraying lifeline

In Alaska, ocean acidification would be more than just an ecological disaster. The state’s fishing industry would also suffer a serious blow. According to Noaa estimates, Alaska lands 60% of America’s commercial fish, by volume.

At an estimated $5 billion, the catch accounts for a third of the wholesale value of all the country’s fish in 2013. On top of that, Noaa estimates have also found that fishing tourism generates $300 million in revenue each year.

In addition to the 100,000 jobs the industry supports, some 120,000 Alaskans – 17 percent of the state’s population – rely on subsistence fishing for at least some portion of their protein intake.

The potential of losing a significant portion of that income would be enough to give any policymaker an upset stomach.