Science and Technology News

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Ocean Acidification: Finding New Answers Through National Science Foundation Research Grants

Projects address concerns for acidifying marine ecosystems

With increasing levels of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and moving into marine systems, the world's oceans are becoming more acidic.

The oceans may be acidifying faster today than at anytime in the past 300 million years, scientists have found.

To address the concern for acidifying marine ecosystems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded new grants totaling $12 million in its Ocean Acidification program. 

The program is part of NSF's Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) investment.

The awards, the second round in this program, are supported by NSF's Directorates for Geosciences and Biological Sciences, and Office of Polar Programs.

From tropical oceans to icy seas, the projects will foster research on the nature, extent and effects of ocean acidification on marine environments and organisms in the past, present and future.

"With this round of awards, NSF has an increasingly diverse portfolio of research projects on ocean acidification," says David Garrison, program director in NSF's Directorate for Geosciences and chair of NSF's Ocean Acidification Working Group.

"These scientists will make major contributions to understanding this serious environmental threat," says Garrison.

"We look forward to building on this effort over the next few years, and expect that ocean acidification research will be a major contribution to SEES efforts at NSF."

Ocean acidification affects marine ecosystems, organisms' life histories, ocean food webs and biogeochemical cycling, scientists have discovered.

The researchers believe there is a need to understand the chemistry of ocean acidification and its interplay with marine biochemical and physiological processes before Earth's seas become inhospitable to life as it is known today.

Animal species from pteropods--delicate, butterfly-like planktonic drifters--to hard corals are affected by ocean acidification. So, too, are the unseen microbes that fuel ocean productivity and influence the chemical functioning of ocean waters.

As the oceans become more acidic, the balance of molecules needed for shell-bearing organisms to manufacture shells and skeletons is altered.

The physiology of many marine species, from microbes to fish, may be affected.  A myriad of chemical reactions and cycles are influenced by the pH, or acidity, of the oceans.

"The Ocean Acidification awards address how organisms detect carbon dioxide and levels of acidity, and regulate these variables in their cells and body fluids," says William Zamer, program director in NSF's Directorate for Biological Sciences.

"These projects include studies of whether populations of animals have the genetic capacity to adapt to ocean acidification. The findings will yield new insights about how a future more acidic ocean will affect marine life."

Has ocean life faced similar challenges in our planet's past?

Earth system history informs our understanding of the effects of ocean acidification in the present and the future, says Garrison. 

For a true comprehension of how acidification will change the oceans, he says, we must integrate paleoecology with marine chemistry, physics, ecology and an understanding of the past environmental conditions on Earth.

Overall, Ocean Acidification grantees will ask questions such as will regional differences in marine chemistry and physics increase acidification? Are there complex interactions, cascades and bottlenecks that will emerge as the oceans acidify, and what are their ecosystem implications? And if current trends continue, how far-reaching will the changes be?


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