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Oceans may soon be more corrosive than when the dinosaurs died

Increased carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly making the world's oceans more acidic and, if unabated, could cause a mass extinction of marine life similar to one that occurred 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs disappeared. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology will present this research at the AGU/ASLO Ocean Sciences meeting in Honolulu, HI on Monday, Feb 20.

Caldeira's computer models have predicted that the oceans will become far more acidic within the next century. Now, he has compared this data with ocean chemistry evidence from the fossil record, and has found some startling similarities. The new finding offers a glimpse of what the future might hold for ocean life if society does not drastically curb carbon dioxide emissions.

"The geologic record tells us the chemical effects of ocean acidification would last tens of thousands of years," Caldeira said. "But biological recovery could take millions of years. Ocean acidification has the potential to cause extinction of many marine species."

When carbon dioxide from the burning of coal, oil, and gas dissolves in the ocean, some of it becomes carbonic acid. Over time, accumulation of this carbonic acid makes ocean water more acidic. When carbonic acid input is modest, sediments from the ocean floor can buffer the increases in acidity. But at the current rate of input--nearly 50 times the natural background from volcanoes and other sources--this buffering mechanism is overwhelmed. Previous estimates suggest that in less than 100 years, the pH of the oceans could drop by as much as half a unit from its natural value of 8.2 to about 7.7. (On the pH scale, lower numbers are more acidic and higher numbers are more basic.)

This drop in ocean pH would be especially damaging to marine animals such as corals that use calcium carbonate to make their shells. Under normal conditions the ocean is supersaturated with this mineral, making it easy for such cr
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Contact: Dr. Ken Caldeira
kcaldeira@globalecology.stanford.edu
650-704-7212
Carnegie Institution
20-Feb-2006


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