Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification

Changes in ocean chemistry can have extensive direct and indirect effects on marine organisms and the ecosystems in which they live. Studies of marine calcifiers (corals, crustaceans, and mollusks) indicate that most, but not all, exhibit reduced calcification with increased ocean acidification. ref

Impacts on Marine Organisms

representatives of benthic calcifiers

Taxonomic variation in effects of ocean acidification. Mean effect size is shown for all organisms combined (overall), calcifiers (orange) and noncalcifiers (green). The number of experiments used to calculate mean effect sizes are shown in parentheses. ‡ Indicates significant differences among the taxonomic groups tested. Source: Kroeker et al. 2010

A growing number of studies have demonstrated adverse impacts on marine organisms as a result of ocean acidification, including the following: ref

  • Decreased rate of skeletal growth in reef-building corals
  • Reduced ability to maintain a protective shell among free-swimming zooplankton (zooplankton include “animal plankton”, mainly small crustaceans and fish larvae, and form the base of most marine food webs)
  • Reduced rate of calcium carbonate production in marine algae (crustose coralline and green algae)
  • Reduced survival of larval marine species, including commercial fish and shellfish
  • Impaired developmental stages of invertebrates (fertilization, egg cleavage, larva, settlement and reproduction)
  • Excessive CO2 levels in the blood (CO2 toxicity) of fish and cephalopods and significantly reduced growth and fecundity in some invertebrate species

Declining pH (increasing acidity) may affect organisms in ways that extend beyond declining calcification or metabolic performance, including:

  • Interactions between species during different life stages
  • Shifting competitive pressures (e.g., algae outcompeting corals)
  • Alterations in predation, which will come into play as communities respond to acidification
  • Alteration of fish larvae behavior (due to impaired sensory function in larval fish) and reduced recruitment success ref

Interactions with other stressors (e.g., nutrient input, increased sea-surface temperature, and sea-level rise) will also affect how marine communities will change in response to high CO2 conditions.

Impacts on Calcification

One of the most critical effects of increasing ocean acidity relates to the production of shells, skeletons, and plates from calcium carbonate, a process known as calcification. Acidification shifts the equilibrium of carbonate chemistry in seawater, reducing pH and the concentration of carbonate ions available for corals and other marine calcifiers to use to build their skeletons. This decreases the rate and amount of calcification among many marine organisms that build external skeletons and shells, ranging from plankton to shellfish to reef-building corals.

The reduction of dissolved carbonate ions in seawater has many implications for coral reef ecosystems. Since reef-building corals need carbonate to build their skeletons, decreasing carbonate ion concentrations will likely lead to weaker, more brittle coral skeletons and slower coral growth rates. In the future this may cause coral reefs to erode faster than they can calcify, thus decreasing the ability of coral species to compete for space.

For corals and other calcifiers like sea urchins and shellfish, reductions in calcification may:

  • Increase corals’ susceptibility to bleaching and disease
  • Decrease the ability of organisms to fend off predators and compete for food and habitat
  • Alter behavior patterns
  • Reduce capacity to tolerate ultraviolet radiation and increased rates of bioerosion and greater damage from cyclones

Laboratory studies have examined the effects of ocean acidification on many types of corals and coralline algae, revealing a range of responses from a 3% to 60% decline in calcification rate for a doubling of atmospheric CO2. ref A recent study of brain corals in Bermuda found that calcification rates have declined by 25% over the past 50 years and ocean acidification is a likely contributing factor. ref

representatives of benthic calcifiers

Examples of marine calcifiers from Kleypas et al. 2006: (a) coralline algae (photo by Nancy Sefton; courtesy NOAA/CORIS); (b) Halimeda (photo by James Watt; courtesy NOAA/NMFS); (c) benthic foraminifera (courtesy P. Hallock); (d) reef-building coral (Dendrogyra cylindrus; Cmdr William Harrigan, NOAA Corps; courtesy Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary); (e) deep-water coral (Lophelia pertusa; from 413 m depth off North Carolina. Large red crab is Eumunida picta; urchin below it is Echinus tylodes; courtesy S.W. Ross, K. Sulak, and M. Nizinski); (f ) bryozoan (courtesy NOAA/Ocean Explorer); (g) mollusk (oyster reef; courtesy South Carolina Department of Natural Resources); (h) echinoderm (brittle star; Larry Zetwoch; Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary); (i) crustacean (lobster; Dr. James P. McVey, NOAA Sea Grant Program)


Video: Climate Change: Coral Reefs on the Edge — Dr. Ove Hoegh-Guldberg on impact of ocean acidification on coral reefs

Video Preview: A Sea Change: Imagine a world without fish — Award-winning documentary and related blog about ocean acidification

Frequently Asked Questions about Ocean Acidification — 2012 (pdf, 5.7M)

Royal Society Report on Ocean Acidification: Ocean acidification due to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide (pdf, 1.1M)

Workshop report: Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs and Other Marine Calcifiers, A Guide for Further Research (pdf, 8.9M)

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Last updated July 13, 2015

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