Ocean acidification: Making new discoveries through National Science Foundation research grants

Posted on National Science Foundation: 26 Aug 2013 — Press Release 13-148

 With increasing levels of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and moving into marine systems, the world’s oceans are becoming more acidic.

The oceans may be acidifying faster today than at any time in the past 300 million years, scientists have found.

To address the concern for acidifying marine ecosystems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded new grants totaling $12 million in its Ocean Acidification Program.

The program is part of NSF’s Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability (SEES) investment.

The awards, the third round in this program, are supported by NSF’s Directorates for Geosciences and Biological Sciences.

“These new awards will expand the scope of our knowledge about the types of marine organisms, populations, communities, and ecosystems that may be affected in unique ways by a more acidic ocean,” says David Conover, director of NSF’s Division of Ocean Sciences.

From tropical oceans to icy seas, the projects will foster research on the nature, extent and effects of ocean acidification on marine environments and organisms in the past, present and future.

“NSF is excited to add these high-quality research projects to our growing ocean acidification award portfolio,” says David Garrison, program director in NSF’s Directorate for Geosciences and chair of NSF’s Ocean Acidification Working Group.

Ocean acidification affects marine ecosystems, organisms’ life histories, ocean food webs and biogeochemical cycling, scientists have discovered.

Researchers believe there is a need to understand the chemistry of ocean acidification and its interplay with marine biochemical and physiological processes, before Earth’s seas become inhospitable to life as we know it.

Animal species from pteropods–delicate, butterfly-like planktonic drifters–to hard corals are affected by ocean acidification. So, too, are the unseen microbes that fuel ocean productivity and influence the chemistry of ocean waters.

As the oceans become more acidic, the balance of molecules needed for shell-bearing organisms to manufacture shells and skeletons is altered.

The physiology of many marine species, from microbes to fish, may be affected. Myriad chemical reactions and cycles are influenced by the pH, or acidity, of the oceans.

The newly funded projects include studies of whether populations of animals have the genetic capacity to adapt to ocean acidification. The findings, scientists say, will yield new insights about how a future more acidic ocean will affect marine life.

“These awards will extend our understanding of the physiological abilities of organisms to adjust to acidifying oceans in the near-term, and the evolutionary capacities of populations to adapt to predicted ocean acidification in the next century,” says William Zamer, program director in NSF’s Directorate for Biological Sciences.

Has ocean life faced similar challenges in our planet’s past?

“Earth system history informs our understanding of the effects of ocean acidification in the present and the future,” says Garrison.

For a true comprehension of how acidification will change the oceans, he says, we need to integrate paleoecology with marine chemistry, physics, ecology and an understanding of the past environmental conditions on Earth.

NSF Ocean Acidification Program grantees will ask questions such as: Will regional differences in marine chemistry and physics increase acidification? Are there complex interactions, cascades and bottlenecks that will emerge as the oceans acidify, and what are their ecosystem implications? And if current trends continue, how far-reaching will the changes be?


Click here for a list of NSF 2013 Ocean Acidification awardees, their institutions and projects