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Scientists Discuss Acid in the Oceans

The world’s oceans are becoming more acidic. How much to we know about the trend and how can mankind solve the problem?

Those were the issues facing a group of scientists at the California Academy of Sciences earlier this month when they gathered for the first of three discussions “Eye Opening Science-The Changing Oceans.”

The pH balance of the seas has been decreasing due to higher levels of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by human activity including the burning of fossil fuels.

Over acidification can lead to bleaching of coral reefs and damage to the fragile ecosystem as animals like oysters and snails cannot make the calcium carbonate they need to survive.

This change is happening at a rate 100 times greater than before the geological record, said Geerat Vermeij Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UC Davis.

The earth underwent a similar change between 145 to 165 years ago when large amounts of carbon dioxide were released probably from prehistoric volcanic eruptions.

Oddly enough, some organisms that needed calcium to form skeletons did quite well in that environment, Vermeij said.

“Why during those times when the ocean was very acid, could you be doing very well in calcification and today you are not ?” he asked.

The answer could be the ability of certain organisms to adapt to the conditions, an evolutionary process that allows some animals to live while others succumb.

Taking advantage of that diversity could be the key to preserving certain species, said Jonathon Stillman associate professor at San Francisco State.

“There is great hope that if we can discover that diversity and preserve that diversity those organisms can be used to populate our planet in the future.”

And coral reefs can recover is human change some of their habits said Terry Gosliner the academy’s Dean of Science and Collections.

Overfishing in emerging nations like the Philippines has taken a toll on coral reefs abut in area where fishing has been banned the reefs can recover rapidly in as little as five to 10 years, Gosliner said.

A historical study of reefs in the Caribbean Sea revealed that fish declined in size and abundance when the Native American population grew before the arrival of the Columbus and other Europeans.

As the native population shrank under colonial rule, the numbers of fish increased only to fall again in modern times when the population reached pre-colonial levels said Peter Roopnarine, a geologist and academy curator.

Roopnarine said reversing the amount of acid in the ocean is like a bus that has left the station.

Stillman disagreed saying changes in human lifestyles could reduce the amount of harmful carbon dioxide in the air.

“It’s very inconvenient to make changes in the way we use our cheapest and easily accessible source of energy which is fossil fuels but we have to,” he said.

Singapore has the highest level of carbon dioxide emissions of any country in the world, Stillman said, possibly from shipping which carries goods from Europe to Asian markets.

Maybe relying on local food and other resources is preferable to shipping them into a country but Stillman acknowledged that changing consumption habits is a hard thing to do.

“There are a lot of hard decisions to make as humans but we can turn the bus around right now,” he said.

The last discussion in “Eye Opening Science” will be held Saturday, March 29 from 9-11 a.m. in the academy boardroom.

Tickets are $25 for members, $35 for adults and $25 for seniors. Ticket does not include museum admission.

To reserve by phone dial 1-877-227-1831 or visit www.calacademy/events/lectures for more information.