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Race on to save coral reefs

Carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels are causing the change, says the federal study by a coalition of scientists.

By CRAIG PITTMAN
Published July 5, 2006


Carbon dioxide emitted by burning fossil fuels has altered the chemistry of the world’s oceans so much it threatens the health of coral and other marine life, a federal study released Wednesday found.


The carbon dioxide blamed for global warming is mingling with the seas and making the water more acidic, a coalition of federal and university researchers reported.

“Coral reefs across the world will feel the effects of this,” said report co-author Lisa Robbins, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in St. Petersburg.

The 96-page study, the first of its kind, resulted from a meeting in St. Petersburg last year of about 50 top oceanographers from around the world to discuss the problem.

The three-day meeting marked the first time such a group of researchers agreed on the need to tackle the issue.


The report’s lead author, Joan Kleypas, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., compared the chemical changes in the world’s oceans to avian flu: a newly discovered crisis that requires immediate attention.

“There’s a lot that needs to be done,” agreed Robbins, 47, who holds a Ph.D. in marine geology and geophysics and has worked for the Geological Survey for seven years. She previously taught at the University of South Florida.


A building block for undersea life, the world’s coral reefs are a sheltered habitat for fish, lobsters and other animals to feed and breed. They are crucial to the marine food chain. A quarter of all marine species spend part of their lives in a coral reef.

But coral reefs, the rain forest of the oceans, are dying at an unprecedented rate. As many as one-fifth of the world’s coral reefs already have been destroyed, according to a 2004 study.

A big reason: global warming heating up the oceans. Caribbean sea temperatures have reached their annual high two months ahead of schedule. That’s a sign that coral reefs, including those in the Florida Keys, might suffer the same widespread damage as last year, when up to 40 percent of coral died in abnormally warm seas around the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Sea temperatures around Puerto Rico and the Florida Keys reached 83.48 degrees Fahrenheit on Saturday, a high not normally expected until September, said Al Strong, a scientist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Coral Reef Watch.

Another hot summer could be disastrous for coral still recovering from last year.

The primary greenhouse gas causing a warming of the earth is carbon dioxide, much of it emitted by fossil fuel-burning motor vehicles. As it drifts into the atmosphere it traps the earth’s heat — much like a greenhouse.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has refused to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, saying they are not a pollutant.

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a suit over the EPA’s refusal.

The new study, titled “Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Coral Reefs and Other Marine Calcifiers,” found that the world’s oceans absorbed about 142-billion metric tons of carbon between 1800, the start of the Industrial Revolution, and 2006. The baseline measure from 1800 was found by analyzing Arctic ice cores.

A Volkswagen Beetle weighs

1 metric ton, so that’s the equivalent of dumping 142-billion VWs in the ocean, said Chris Sabine of the NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory.

“That’s going to change the chemistry of the oceans,’’ Sabine said.

Oceans are naturally alkaline, but interaction with carbon dioxide makes them more acidic.

Chris Langdon, a professor at the University of Miami, said studies show that coral calcification consistently decreases as the oceans become more acidic. That means these organisms will grow more slowly, or their skeletons will become less dense, a process similar to osteoporosis in humans. That threatens reefs because corals may be unable to build reefs as fast as erosion wears them away.

The report outlines a series of research priorities that should be pursued over the next five to 10 years.

“We really don’t have a good grasp of what it means for ocean biology,” said Kleypas, but it is probably not good news.

The co-authors, all scientists, shied away from discussing the political ramifications of their report. “I’m not going to get into that one,” said Robbins, a resident of St. Petersburg’s Pink Streets and a mother of three.

Mainly, she said, “we’re all interested in figuring out where the scientific community can best put their efforts to deal with this.”

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.