U.S. Scientists Study Ocean Acidity in Arctic

The Healey set sail from Barrow, Alaska, on August 25 to follow the route indicated in this map of the Arctic Ocean.

Washington
August 27, 2012

A U.S. Coast Guard ship is sailing the Arctic to conduct research on growing acidity in the northernmost ocean and its effect on the food chain.

Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are onboard the ship beginning their third season of research into acidification. Increasing acid levels in the world’s oceans threaten to disturb the balance of marine life and the fisheries that are critical elements in the world food supply.

About one-fourth of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes into the ocean, where it forms carbonic acid. As the level of carbon dioxide increases from human use of fossil fuels, ocean acidity will continue to rise. Higher acid levels in the water can impair the ability of sea life to build the shells and skeletons that allow them to survive in their environment.

“Comparatively more research has been devoted to the tropics, where coral reefs are threatened,” said USGS Director Marcia McNutt. “This important expedition focuses on polar latitudes, where the acidification effects can cascade from microscopic organisms up to our economy, as the organisms at risk form the base of the food chain for some of the world’s most productive fisheries.”

Besides corals, oysters, crabs, shrimp and plankton are other species likely to suffer harm from higher ocean acidity.

Previous cruises in 2010 and 2011 collected more than 30,000 water samples and traveled throughout the Canada Basin, nearing the North Pole. On this four-week trip further water and ice samples will be collected for study.

“These data will provide a better understanding of the current patterns of acidification and thus they will significantly contribute to society’s efforts to understand, forecast and potentially mitigate impacts to the Arctic ecosystem and its many globally important resources,” said USGS oceanographer Lisa Robbins, who is also project chief on this expedition.

USGS research is being conducted in a number of different water basins in the Western Hemisphere to build comparative data on how acidification affects tropical, temperate and polar environments.

Scientists from the USGS St. Petersburg (Florida) Coastal and Marine Science Center, the Woods Hole (Massachusetts) Science Center and the University of South Florida are on the U.S. Coast Guard ship Healey for the mission. USGS invites the public to track the 2012 expedition online and follow a journal the research team will be keeping.

Interested Web users can follow the expedition at http://coastal.er.usgs.gov/ocean-acidification/arcticcruise2012/.