Oceans in a High CO2 World

Today, Prince Albert II of Monaco, along with a number of secondary school students and teachers of the principality, are attending The Second International Symposium in a High CO2 World, a conference on ocean acidification. 

The site of the meeting is the oceanographic museum built by Prince Albert I in 1910 which stands as an utterly breathtaking symbol of Monaco's enduring commitment to the marine environment.

They have joined 250 scientists from around the world to learn the most up-to-date knowledge on the rapidly emerging global threat of ocean acidification and to discuss necessary policy actions.

Only four years after the very first meeting on the topic - during which scientists widely adopted the term 'ocean acidification' and embarked on a world-wide cooperative research effort - scientists have made impressive advances in our knowledge of the topic. 

Over the past four years researchers have:

  • generated clear predictions of what pH changes will occur in the world's oceans given different carbon emissions scenarios (In other words, we now have a pretty clear idea of how much, where, and when ocean pH will change, given certain fossil fuel emission scenarios.)
  • identified which ecosystems are going to experience changes first and most dramatically (Antarctica, the Arctic, and eastern boundary upwelling systems like the west coast of the United States)
  • identified which ecosystems and communities are likely to be most vulnerable (coral reefs - both tropical and deep water)
  • established that organisms around the globe are already experiencing the stress of increased acidity
  • improved our understanding that there will be 'winners' and 'losers' in the changing oceans and who they may be ..... (For example, in addition to corals, coralline algae which help to 'glue' coral reefs together will likely suffer dramatically, as will many types of echinoderms such as starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers.  On the other hand, there appears to be variation in the response of ecologically important phytoplankton species, such as coccolithophores, (i.e., some showing signs of stress and some not) suggesting that perhaps some species will be able to adapt - or that some species-rich communities may avoid collapse by shifting their composition.)

The scientific accomplishments are impressive.  However much remains to be done - not the least of which is the establishment of chemical and biological monitoring in key vulnerable and rapidly changing areas.  Little can be done without a 'Keeling' curve for the changing chemistry of the seas.

Two aspects of science and policy were evident from this meeting. 

First, when scientists coalesce around a set of questions and work cooperatively, a lot can get done.  A handful of talented and dedicated researchers have successfully elevated this global issue to the international policy arena (as evidenced by the mention of ocean acidification in the most recent IPCC report and some discussion of the issue in meetings leading up to COP15).  Policy makers need to sustain the momentum on this topic.

Second, when a major research initiative is supported by government, as was done by the European Union with EPOCA, scientific progress is substantially faster. 

The United States has yet to allocate dedicated funds to the study of ocean acidification (note:  a bill addressing this concern (HR 4174), introduced by Rep. Thomas Allen, passed in the House in July 2008 but the Senate companion bill, introduced by Senator Frank Lautenberg (S1581) has not yet passed) and this is evident by a comparatively smaller research effort in the U.S.  A major U.S. commitment is needed to ensure that this critical research field is brought out of its infancy.

The proceedings from the Second International Symposium in a High CO2 World will be published in a special issue of the journal Biogeosciences.