Carbon Dioxide, Absorbed by the Seas, Changes the Chemistry of Water and the Growth of Marine Life
The Wall Street Journal
In the living laboratory of a submerged volcano, marine biologist Verena Tunnicliffe glimpsed sea creatures trying to survive in acidic oceans.
Carbon dioxide that bubbles up in the sulfur chimneys of the undersea Eifuku volcano near the Pacific’s Mariana Islands has turned the water into an acidic broth, with striking effects on sea life. Scientists say the corrosive conditions there offer clues to how rising levels of man-made CO2 in the air could unbalance oceans world-wide.
To her surprise, Dr. Tunnicliffe found that mussel shells she collected at Eifuku were so thin that she and her colleagues could see right through them. The water chemistry made it impossible for the mussels to extract enough calcium carbonate to form a proper covering. Compared with shells of the same species collected in more normal waters, “they were half the thickness and half the weight,” she said.
To live in these inhospitable conditions, the mollusks cannibalized their own shells, leaching from them the carbonate needed to maintain their internal muscle chemistry. “They are dissolving whatever shell they do have,” says Dr. Tunnicliffe at the University of Victoria in British Columbia. They manage to survive despite their weakened shells, the scientists speculated, because the water’s harsh chemistry is too much for the hard-shell crabs that prey on these mussels elsewhere.