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Scientists warn carbon dioxide emissions speeding up Arctic Ocean acidification

Alaska Dispatch
As permafrost thaws due to warming temperatures in the world's most northern reaches, long-frozen plant and animal matter will begin to decay, unleashing huge levels of carbon dioxide and methane and possibly speeding up ocean acidification. Fikret Onal / Flickr photo

A new set of findings from a Norwegian research group says that the Arctic Ocean is growing increasingly acidic, in large part due to increasing levels of carbon dioxide resulting from climate change. In a set of key findings, the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) noted that the increase in acidity is not universal across Arctic waters, but changes in pH levels have been observed from the waters off the Scandinavian countries to Russia and Alaska's Bering Strait. 

Those pH levels have dropped by about .02 per decade in the Barents Sea off of Russia and in the waters near Iceland. Sea water typically averages around a pH level of 8, and the lower that number drops, the more acidic it becomes. Ocean acidification has long been linked to carbon dioxide absorption, which can be caused by respiration of marine life and decay in the water, and the authors of the study note that the Arctic Ocean is more susceptible to increasing levels of carbon dioxide:

Owing to the large quantities of freshwater supplied from rivers and melting ice, the Arctic Ocean is less effective at chemically neutralizing carbon dioxide’s acidifying effects, and this input is increasing with climate warming. In addition, the Arctic Ocean is cold, which favors the transfer of carbon dioxide from the air into the ocean.

The researchers point a finger at human-based carbon emissions as the primary culprit for average acidity increases of 30 percent in the world's surface waters since the Industrial Revolution, but the Arctic is now poised to make its own contribution to the the Earth's carbon dioxide output. As permafrost thaws due to warming temperatures in the world's most northern reaches, long-frozen plant and animal matter will begin to decay, unleashing huge levels of carbon dioxide and methane

Though the exact impact of increased acidification in the Arctic Ocean is not yet clear, the scientists at AMAP said marine life in the Arctic is likely to undergo changes if the increase in acidity continues at the pace it's been going. This, in turn, could affect subsistence harvests for circumpolar peoples who have long fished and hunted in the waters off the world's northern coasts.

"Recreational fish catches could change in composition," the researchers said. "Marine mammals, important to the culture, diets and livelihoods of Arctic indigenous peoples and other Arctic residents could also be indirectly affected through changing food availability."

The findings of the study are likely to become a hot topic of conversation among countries participating in the Arctic Council, since AMAP is a working group of that inter-governmental organization focused on addressing Arctic issues. A ministerial meeting of the council will take place beginning later this month in Kiruna, Sweden.

See the full list of key findings, here.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com