Emerging Science of a High CO2/Low pH Ocean

Project Overview

While concern over global warming from the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere as a direct result of the burning of fossil fuels is now widely recognized, the other side of the carbon dioxide emissions equation – ocean acidification via CO2 enrichment – has received far less attention. Anthropogenic CO2 only resides in the atmosphere temporarily. While some small fraction of the anthropogenic CO2 takes a brief detour through the terrestrial biosphere for about 40 years (on average) before being released back into the atmosphere by decay, about one-third of the CO2 emitted each year is quickly absorbed by the oceans. In the long run some 85% of all of mankind’s CO2 emissions will be absorbed by gas exchange across the air-sea interface. This amount is established by the chemical capacity of the ocean and the total amount of fossil fuels burned. The annual rate of uptake is controlled by ocean mixing. There is no ambiguity here. The accumulation of fossil fuel CO2 in the upper ocean, and its penetration to the deep-sea in newly formed bottom waters, is plainly observable by ocean chemists. We have now “disposed” of about 530 billion tons of fossil fuel CO2 in the oceans, and the rate of invasion now exceeds 1 million tons of CO2 per hour. We are thereby acidifying the ocean and fundamentally changing the remarkably delicate geochemical balance. The consequences for life in the sea are only now beginning to be investigated, but comparable events in our geologic history have caused massive changes in ocean ecosystems, including widespread extinctions.

Artist's rendition of anthropogenic CO<small><p id=2 and the resulting Ocean Acidification” width=”495″ height=”400″ /> Artist’s rendition of anthropogenic CO2 and the resulting Ocean Acidification

Artist’s rendition of anthropogenic CO2 and the resulting Ocean Acidification[/caption]Over the past years we have explored the needs of the national and international community in regards to studying this problem so that the necessary and useful systems can be created and tested at MBARI. On March 20, 2007 we held a workshop co-sponsored by the Center for Ocean Solutions, with senior staff in attendance from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), to lay the foundations. From these efforts a clear picture has emerged. There is great interest in MBARI creating a usable and exportable form of the Free Ocean CO2 Enrichment (FOCE) techniques with colleagues from France, the U.K., Norway, Canada, Taiwan, and Japan, who have all expressed direct interest. Key NOAA staff have also expressed strong interest and are exploring ways to work with us.

We re-designed the prototype system developed in 2005 to reflect the lessons learned, and used short-term connections to the MARS cable to enable long-term testing deployments, thereby addressing other elements. Recent work in Japan has established that biological impacts—for example impaired reproduction in shrimp—occur at lower pCO2 levels, and over longer time scales, than previously recognized. The MBARI experiments in 2008 and beyond will have an increased emphasis on early life forms of key species. The economic impacts of this phenomenon will be additive to the thermal impacts of climate change, and will be expressed in complex ways—for example in fisheries, and in tourism as coral reef systems are affected. More broadly we are happy if this theme draws more widespread collegial interest and engagement (both within MBARI and beyond) as the subject matter unfolds.

Questions? Comments? Please contact Edward Peltzer.


Upper-ocean systems
Acoustical ocean ecology
Acoustic instruments
Acoustic fingerprinting
Acoustic community ecology
Acoustics in the news
Biological oceanography
Global modes of sea surface temperature
Krill hotspots in the California Current
Nitrate supply estimates in upwelling systems
Chemical sensors
Chemical data
Land/Ocean Biogeochemical Observatory in Elkhorn Slough
Listing of floats
SOCCOM float visualization
Periodic table of elements in the ocean
Biogeochemical-Argo Report
Profiling float
Interdisciplinary field experiments
Ecogenomic Sensing
Genomic sensors
Field experiments
Harmful algal blooms (HABs)
Water quality
Environmental Sample Processor (ESP)
ESP Web Portal
In the news
Ocean observing system
Midwater research
Midwater ecology
Deep-sea squids and octopuses
Food web dynamics
Midwater time series
Respiration studies
Zooplankton biodiversity
Seafloor processes
Revealing the secrets of Sur Ridge
Exploring Sur Ridge’s coral gardens
Life at Sur Ridge
Mapping Sur Ridge
Biology and ecology
Effects of humans
Ocean acidification, warming, deoxygenation
Lost shipping container study
Effects of upwelling
Faunal patterns
Previous research
Technology development
High-CO2 / low-pH ocean
Benthic respirometer system
Climate change in extreme environments
Station M: A long-term observatory on the abyssal seafloor
Station M long-term time series
Monitoring instrumentation suite
Sargasso Sea research
Antarctic research
Geological changes
Arctic Shelf Edge
Continental Margins and Canyon Dynamics
Coordinated Canyon Experiment
CCE instruments
CCE repeat mapping data
Monterey Canyon: A Grand Canyon beneath the waves
Submarine volcanoes
Mid-ocean ridges
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Hydrothermal systems
Back arc spreading ridges
Near-ridge seamounts
Continental margin seamounts
Non-hot-spot linear chains
Eclectic seamounts topics
Margin processes
Hydrates and seeps
California borderland
Hot spot research
Hot-spot plumes
Magmatic processes
Volcanic processes
Explosive eruptions
Volcanic hazards
Hydrothermal systems
Flexural arch
Coral reefs
ReefGrow software
Eclectic topics
Submarine volcanism cruises
Volcanoes resources
Areas of study
Bioluminescence: Living light in the deep sea
Microscopic biology research
Open ocean biology research
Seafloor biology research
Automated chemical sensors
Methane in the seafloor
Volcanoes and seamounts
Hydrothermal vents
Methane in the seafloor
Submarine canyons
Earthquakes and landslides
Ocean acidification
Physical oceanography and climate change
Ocean circulation and algal blooms
Ocean cycles and climate change
Past research
Molecular ecology
Molecular systematics
SIMZ Project
Bone-eating worms
Gene flow and dispersal
Molecular-ecology expeditions
Ocean chemistry of greenhouse gases
Emerging science of a high CO2/low pH ocean
Brewer, P.G., Peltzer, E.T., Lage, K., (2022). Life at low Reynolds number Re-visited: The efficiency of microbial propulsion. Deep Sea Research Part I: Oceanographic Research Papers, 185: 1-5. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dsr.2022.103790
Goyet, Catherine, Davis, Daniel L., Peltzer, Edward T., Brewer, Peter G., (1995). Development of improved space sampling strategies for ocean chemical properties: Total carbon dioxide and dissolved nitrate. Geophysical Research Letters, 22: 945-948.
Brewer, Peter G., Goyet, Catherine , Friederich, Gernot, (1997). Direct observation of the oceanic CO2 increase revisited. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 94: 8308-8313.
Full publications list