Ocean Acidification: Hands-On Experiments to Explore the Causes and Consequences

By Bruno, Barbara C.; Tice, Kimberly A. et al. | Science Scope, February 2011 | Go to article overview

Ocean Acidification: Hands-On Experiments to Explore the Causes and Consequences


Bruno, Barbara C., Tice, Kimberly A., Puniwai, Noelani, Achilles, Kate, Science Scope


Ocean acidification is one of the most serious environmental issues facing the planet (e.g., Doney 2006; Guinotte and Fabry 2009). It is caused by excess carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) in the atmosphere. Human activities such as burning fossil fuels put C[O.sub.2] and other heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, which causes the Earth's average temperature to increase. This increase is commonly referred to as "global warming" or "climate change," but the problem doesn't stop there. Because there is no barrier between the atmosphere and the ocean, about one-third of this atmospheric C[O.sub.2] dissolves in the ocean, where it reacts -with seawater to form carbonic acid (e.g., Doney 2006): C[O.sub.2] + [H.sub.2] [right arrow] [H.sub.2]C[O.sub.3]

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Like any acid, carbonic acid ([H.sub.2] C[O.sub.3]) lowers the ocean's pH by releasing hydrogen ions. Monthly measurements taken by the Hawaii Ocean Timeseries (HOT) program show that the ocean's C C[O.sub.3] concentration has increased---and its pH has correspondingly decreased--since the program began in the late 1980s.

A more acidic ocean threatens coral reefs and calcareous plankton in several ways. First, both calcareous plankton and coral reefs are made of calcium carbonate, which dissolves in acid. Second, studies have shown that calcification (growth) rates can be slowed 20%-60% in a more acidic ocean (e.g., Kleypas et al. 2006; Kuffner et al. 2007). Thus, a more acidic ocean can dissolve existing coral reefs and calcareous plankton, and also slow future growth. This can have devastating effects on our ocean environment. Plankton form the base of the marine food web: With out plankton, the entire marine food web collapses (C-MORE 2008). Coral reefs are among the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Although they cover less than 0.1% of the ocean floor, they are home to over 25% of the world's marine species (Spalding, Ravilious, and Green 2001). For more detailed information on ocean acidification in nontechnical language, teachers are referred to Doney et al. 2009, Doney and Feely 2009, the ACID TEST documentary (NRDC 2009) and the special issue of Current: The Journal of Marine Education on ocean acidification (Guinotte and Sano 2009).

FIGURE 1

Pre- and postsurvey (correct answers italicized)

1. The average concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in
the atmosphere has -- in recent years.

a. increased

b. decreased

c. remained constant

2. When carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) dissolves in water, it
forms a(n) --.

a. base

b. acid

c. precipitate

d. metalloid

3. When carbon dioxide dissolves in water, the pH --.

a. increases

b. decreases

c. stays the same

4. Bread dough rises because yeast in the dough
produces --.

a. hydrogen ([H.sub.2])

b. carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2])

c. oxygen ([O.sub.2])

d. nitrogen ([N.sub.2])

5. Increasing carbon dioxide (C[O.sub.2]) in the ocean results
in --.

a. higher salinity

b. lower salinity

c. benefits for reef-building corals

d. problems for reef-building corals

6. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14 and is a measure
of how acidic or basic a substance is. Pure water
is -- with a pH of 7. Solutions with a pH
less than 7 are --, while solutions with a
pH greater than 7 are --.

a. neutral/basic/acidic

b. acidic/basic/neutral

c. basic/neutral/acidic

d. neutral/acidic/basic

e. acidic /neutral/basic

7. If the pH of a solution changes from 2 to 3, there is
a -- change in acidity.

a. 1x

b. 2x

c. 10x

d. 20x

8. The salmon-fishing industry is a multibillion-dollar
business that supplies food for a large population of
the world. How could ocean acidification affect this
industry?

a. It would not have any impact on the industry.

b. It would increase fishing stocks.

c. It would decrease fishing stocks.

9. Please share your opinion and circle how you feel
about the following statement: Higher levels of
carbon dioxide emissions are harmful to the ocean
environment. … 

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