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Riled Up is a journal of science, the environment, exploration, new technology, and related commentary.  Contributors include scientists, explorers, engineers, and others who provide perspectives and context not typically offered in general news circulation.  For interested readers, additional resources are included.

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Chemistry & Biology as Climate Change Tutorials

Chemistry & Biology as Climate Change Tutorials

Some aspects of climate science and the impacts from increased atmospheric carbon dioxide are easy to explain using high school textbooks. Two examples come from basic chemistry and biology.

Chemistry 101: The reaction of carbon dioxide (CO2) gas if dissolved in water (H2O), produces carbonic acid (H2CO3). The chemical formula for the process is: CO2 + H2O → H2CO3

The European Space Agency used their SMOS Earth Explorer satellite to gather 'big data' measurements of ocean pH levels from space. Until now, this basic water chemistry was only available from samples taken by ships and determined by lab experiments. One of the leaders of the ESA efforts commented: "by capitalizing on salinity measurements from SMOS, we can generate novel, value-added, data products to produce a global surface ocean pH atlas." The ESA's measurements show how the oceans chemistry is changing and is becoming more acidity.


               Ocean acidity map (credit: European Space Agency, SMOS satellite)

The ESA researchers published their findings in Environmental Science & Technology with the maps are available to other oceanic and marine biology researchers. The abstract notes: "Approximately a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans. This oceanic uptake leads to a change in marine carbonate chemistry resulting in a decrease of seawater pH and carbonate ion concentration, a process commonly called: Ocean Acidification”.

Biology 101: The formula of the effect of carbonic acid on calcium carbonate (CaCO3), the structural material of many marine organisms is: CaCO3 + H2CO3   Ca + 2HCO3

This are fundamental biological issues relating to this formula producing dissolved calcium: a significant portion of marine life relies on calcium carbonate for their hard exoskeletons. Marine micro-organisms like photosynthetic diatoms and algae produce upwards of 70% of the Earth's oxygen; the symbiotic associations of bacteria and animals (polyps) create the world's coral reefs; and shellfish including clams, mussels, and oysters as well as lobsters and crabs all require calcium carbonate to build the hard structures they inhabit. This basic fact of chemistry affecting biology is made clear in: Nature Magazine 


           Deformed oyster shells in Oregon hatchery  (credit: NSF)

The process of connecting the atmosphere to ocean chemistry is cleverly explained by an animation.

The Nature report highlights impacts on marine shellfish industries of declining harvests due to deformed and weak shells due to ocean acidification and these impacts are happening now. Commercial oysters and clams produced by aquaculture combined with crab and lobster harvests represent an industry exceeding $1 billion supplying shellfish to restaurants and fresh markets. One of the authors noted:“Ocean acidification has already cost the oyster industry in the Pacific Northwest nearly $110 million and jeopardized about 3,200 jobs.”

Losses to shellfish lovers aside, the research didn't determine valuations for environmental services provided by oysters beds to purify water or reduce the destructive forces of coast storm surges.


     Coastal locations most affected by ocean acidification, red dots  (credit: NOAA)

So, the next time you order a bucket of steamers, a plate of shucked oysters, or a lobster tail and the restaurant bill is sky-high, remember your high school chemistry and biology tutorials. WHB


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