Call for more work on ocean acidification

SPREP/WMO team with the message…Science to services for a resilient Pacific in Samoa on Thursday. Call has been made for more work om monitoring, research and responses to ocean acidification in the region. Photo: SPREP

By ILIESA TORA

Apia, Samoa – August 9, 2019: 9.55am (Nuku’alofa Times/Eviro News): Ocean acidification in the region is real and there must be some urgency on the monitoring, researching and response to the issue, the 5th Pacific Meteorological Council meeting here in Apia has heard.

Presenting an update on the “Oceans Acidification in the Pacific” at the TATTE Conference Centre on Thursday (August 8), Robert McIntosh of the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP) said the PMC needs to design a path forward to tackle the issue.

Ocean acidification is affecting marine life and future predictions points to possible loss of tuna and coral if the situation does not change.

He said the last PMC meeting in the Solomon Islands in 2017 had endorsed “the inclusion of marine climate change and ocean acidification as a priorities”.

SPREP’s Robert McIntosh presenting on ‘Oceans Acidification in the Pacific’ at the PMC Meeting in Apia on Thursday. Photo: SPREP

“The PMC has to recognise the urgency of monitoring, researching and responding to ocean acidification at both national and regional scales, and the value the PMC, National Meteorology Hydrology Services (NMHS), SPREP, Pacific Community (SPC), University of the South Pacific (USP), and other partners can add by helping coordinate and advocate for that work,” he said.

“We recommend that PMC design a path forward that defines the roles PMC and NMHS wish to take with respect to monitoring, researching, and/or coordinating responses to ocean acidification.”

Mr McIntosh recommended that national governments and appropriate national agencies establish baseline monitoring necessary to capture natural variability in ocean carbon chemistry and understand long-term trend, and that  future ocean observation platforms include ocean acidification monitoring.

He also recommended that the PMC coordinate national inventories of ocean acidification work currently underway in each country and of needs for addressing the issue, with an aim towards advocating for more donor support for regional-scale work to address those needs.

Mr McIntosh highlighted the work that is currently being done in the region in relation to ocean acidification.

This includes the:

1. PPOA: The New Zealand-Pacific Partnership on Ocean Acidification (PPOA) project is a collaborative effort between SPREP, USP and SPC to build resilience to ocean acidification in Pacific island communities and ecosystems with financial support from the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the government of the Principality of Monaco.

The PPOA project was developed to address needs identified during the 3rd UN Small Island Developing States Conference held in Apia, Samoa in 2014 and is focused on i) research and monitoring, ii) capacity building and awareness raising, and iii) implementing practical adaptation actions.

2. PI-TOA: The Pacific Islands and Territories Ocean Acidification network (PI-TOA) is a regional hub of the Global Ocean Acidification Observing Network (GOA-ON).

GOA-ON is a collaborative international network to document the status and progress of ocean acidification in open-ocean, coastal, and estuarine environments, to understand the drivers and impacts of ocean acidification on marine ecosystems, and to provide spatially and temporally resolved biogeochemical data necessary to optimize modelling for ocean acidification.

To date, PPOA, in partnership with the Ocean Foundation, has sponsored ocean acidification trainings and distributed “GOA-ON in a Box” OA monitoring kits for 11 Pacific scientists from 8 Pacific island countries. As capacity for ocean acidification monitoring increases in the region, there is an increasing need for collaboration and communication among the various islands and territories, for which PI-TOA provides a platform.

PI-TOA members are currently involved in researching and monitoring OA at USP and at national universities and research stations around the region.

 3. KIOST: The Korea Institute of Ocean Science and Technology (KIOST) is currently establishing OA monitoring (MAPCO2) buoys in Pacific island countries including Palau, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) and Samoa.

Samoa Met is currently in discussions with Samoan government regarding establishing a national-level body for coordinating OA work in Samoa.

What is Ocean Acidification?

SPREP says that our global ocean absorbs approximately 30% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere. This CO2 combines with seawater to produce carbonic acid, turning the seawater more acidic and depleting the seawater of carbonate that many forms of sea life need to build their shells. CO2 is an acid gas, so the addition of CO2 to the ocean from burning fossil fuels is making seawater more acidic; we call this process “ocean acidification.”

Understanding ocean acidification

As the ocean absorbs CO2, the CO2 combines with seawater forming carbonic acid. The carbonic acid quickly dissociates into hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions. Some of the hydrogen ions then combine with naturally occurring carbonate ions to form more bicarbonate.

Corals will be killed off by the increase in ocean acidification. Photo: SUPPLIED

This reduces the concentration of carbonate in the seawater. A reduction in carbonate concentration is bad because carbonate is an important building block for sea life that builds calcium carbonate shells and skeletons, such as calcifying plankton and algae, clams, sea urchins, and corals.

This chemical reaction also results in decreasing the seawater’s pH. pH is a measure of the concentration of hydrogen ions, also known as acidity; the lower the pH, the higher the concentration of hydrogen ions, and the more acidic the water.

Ocean acidification is happening now

For the last 20 million years, the pH of the ocean has remained relatively stable between approximately 8.1 and 8.2.  Over the last 200 years, as humans have accelerated the burning of fossil fuels, the ocean’s average surface pH has decreased by 0.11, representing a 28% increase in acidity since the start of the industrial revolution.

Hence, ocean acidification is not a problem expected to occur in the future, ocean acidification is already happening and being observed now. Projections for the end of this century indicate that our oceans’ surface waters could be 150 times more acidic than pre-industrial revolution.

This would result in an ocean that is more acidic than at any time over the last 20 million years. It would also mean a change in pH that is 100 times faster than at any time in the past.

PMC meeting delegates have to make a decision on what pathway the organisation and also the region will take on the ocean acidification issue. Photo: SPREP

 Why is ocean acidification a problem?

 It reduces the ocean’s concentration of carbonate. With decreasing seawater saturation of carbonate, marine life, including calcifying plankton and algae, clams, sea urchins, and corals, will find it difficult to build their skeletons and shells.

This will lead to a reduction in the growth rates of many of these creatures.

One study projects that by 2050, coral reefs will dissolve faster than they can build their skeletons. Loss of coral reefs will mean loss of critical habitat for important seafood species and would result in increased rates of coastal erosion. This will have a huge impact on ocean and coastal ecosystems, including coral reef ecosystems, shellfish, and plankton – the basis of the food web. Ocean acidification threatens our biodiversity. Eventually this will affect livelihoods, food security, and indigenous cultural practices and traditions.

Many species of fish could be affected

 A study that looked at ocean acidification effects on yellowfin tuna found that larvae reared at decreasing pH levels (pH 8.1, 7.6, 7.3 and 6.9) showed increasing organ damage in the kidney, liver, pancreas, eye and muscle, which correlated with decreased growth and survival. A loss of fisheries productivity would threaten national economies that are highly dependent on fisheries resources, particularly Pacific islands. Fish is a cornerstone of food security for the people of the Pacific –  fish provide 50–90% of animal protein in the diet of coastal communities across a broad spectrum of Pacific islands, and national fish consumption per person in many Pacific islands is more than 3–4 times the global average

Ocean acidification adds to stress

Ocean acidification adds to other stresses coral reefs face, like ocean warming and coral bleaching

 Ocean acidification can be considered a “stress multiplier” for coral reefs, as it combines with other stresses that corals are currently facing, e.g., rising sea surface temperatures, increasing frequency and duration of bleaching events, increasing intensity of tropical cyclones, overfishing, destructive fishing methods, and land-based sources of pollution.

Loss of coral reefs would mean loss of critical habitats for important seafood species and would result in increased rates of coastal erosion, since coral reefs are known to reduce 97% of wave energy that would otherwise impact shorelines.

Additionally, loss of reefs would pose a financial threat to the tourism industry of many islands.

The PMC meeting will continue discussions on the issue and clear pathways on the direction to take is expected to be part of the outcomes of the 5th PMC.

Note: Iliesa Tora is part of the SPREP Pacific Media team covering the 5th Pacific Meteorological Council meeting here in Apia, Samoa. His trip has been funded by the PMC/World Meteorology/SPREP.

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