Scientists gather to push for data on ocean acidification

Carbon dioxide is increasingly dissolving in the oceans and turning them more acidic, so scientists need a way to measure the phenomenon, a workshop of ocean scientists heard on Wednesday.

“Ocean acidification is happening globally,” said Jim Christian, research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

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“It affects all kinds of organisms,” said Christian, who works at the Institute of Ocean Sciences in Sidney. “But we don’t really know what the effect is going to be yet.”

Christian and other scientists and technology developers from Canada, Japan, Germany, the U.S. and U.K., met in Victoria to discuss ways of gathering data to measure the ocean acidification phenomenon.

Oceans are becoming more acidic as they chemically react to an increase in dissolved carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, Christian said. He cautioned that ocean acidification is not the result of climate change. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere dissolves in ocean water on its own, not necessarily the result of anything the climate is doing.

Christian said increased acidification of ocean water affects the development of organisms, especially shell producers such as oysters and clams. Likewise, reef-forming corals are negatively affected by increased acid levels in the ocean.

These creatures create shells from calcium carbonate, which dissolves when exposed to acid in a chemical process that creates even more carbon dioxide and, likewise, increases the acidification process.

Wednesday’s workshop was organized by Ocean Networks Canada, an initiative of the University of Victoria, to generate ocean measurements and data for use by researchers.

The workshop heard of the difficulty in monitoring the acidification process. Autonomous sensory devices are needed to accurately measure and monitor levels of acidity and dissolved carbon dioxide in ocean waters.

Christian said it’s possible to put researchers into vessels, collect samples and then test them in a laboratory. But it’s costly.

What’s needed is a way to measure the acid levels of the ocean remotely, preferably in real time.

“You can outfit a ship and crew it with highly trained, highly skilled people collecting water samples,” said Christian. “But that’s really expensive.”

Sensors monitoring conditions such as oxygen levels, temperature and salinity are well developed. But measuring for something such as acidity, or other carbon-based information, is tougher.

“If we develop autonomous sensors, then we can apply them to moorings or floats,” he said. “We could collect from 100 times as many data points for the same amount of money.”

Kim Juniper, chief scientist at Ocean Network Canada, said ocean acidification is recognized as an issue all over the world.

It’s directly connected to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide, the result of the burning of fossil fuels, Juniper said.

The ad-hoc international group GOA-ON, (Global Ocean Acidification Observation Network), has formed to collect and share information. The best way to accomplish that is with verifiable, mutually shared measurements and recording techniques.

“So we hold workshops like this to encourage the technology community to accelerate the development of these sensors,” Juniper said. “Let’s make them more accurate, more useful for the research communities that are addressing problems like ocean acidification,” he said.

rwatts@timescolonist.com

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