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Regardless of global warming, rising CO2 levels threaten marine life

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Like a piece of chalk dissolving in vinegar, marine life with hard shells is in danger of being dissolved by increasing acidity in the oceans.

Ocean acidity is rising as sea water absorbs more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from power plants and automobiles. The higher acidity threatens marine life, including corals and shellfish, which may become extinct later this century from the chemical effects of carbon dioxide, even if the planet warms less than expected.

A new study by University of Illinois atmospheric scientist Atul Jain, graduate student Long Cao and Carnegie Institution scientist Ken Caldeira suggests that future changes in ocean acidification are largely independent of climate change. The researchers report their findings in a paper accepted for publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, and posted on its Web site.

"Before our study, there was speculation in the academic community that climate change would have a big impact on ocean acidity," Jain said. "We found no such impact."

In previous studies, increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere led to a reduction in ocean pH and carbonate ions, both of which damage marine ecosystems. What had not been studied before was how climate change, in concert with higher concentrations of carbon dioxide, would affect ocean chemistry and biology.

To investigate changes in ocean chemistry that could result from higher temperatures and carbon-dioxide concentrations, the researchers used an Earth-system model called the Integrated Science Assessment Model. Developed by Jain and his graduate students, the model includes complex physical and chemical interactions among carbon-dioxide emissions, climate change, and carbon-dioxide uptake by oceans and terrestrial ecosystems.

The ocean-surface pH has been reduced by about 0.1 during the past two centuries. Using ISAM, the researchers found ocean pH would decline a total of 0.31 by the
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Contact: James E. Kloeppel
kloeppel@uiuc.edu
217-244-1073
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
8-Mar-2007


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