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June 20, 2011
Higher emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere could have a devastating effect on coral reefs by the end of the century.
A group of scientists reached that conclusion after studying three sites on the ocean floor in Papua New Guinea, which have acidic conditions similar to those believed to exist in the oceans of the planet in less than 100 years.
The sites studied are leaking volcanic fissures in the ocean allowing exhaust gases, creating a more acidic. These are truly "natural laboratory" that make it possible to predict the future impact of one of the greatest threats to corals, ocean acidification.
By increasing the acidity around the leak, corals accused drastic changes. "We could only see a few species and was not present any of the more structurally complex, which are most important to fish," he told the BBC one of the study's authors, Chris Langdon, an expert on corals of the Rosenstiel School of Science Marine and Atmospheric University of Miami.
There were still forming corals near the leaks, but ultimately on the Porites species, which resemble in appearance to large stones and branches lack the characteristics of other species.
The three dimensional structure of the reef is offering an opportunity for many fish species live and take refuge there.
About a third of emissions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are absorbed by the oceans. When CO2 enters the ocean, reacts with sea water, producing carbonic acid, increasing its acidity.
The research adds to growing evidence of the need for a rapid transition to a future with less CO2 emissions "
Rising carbon dioxide emissions, mainly from burning fossil fuels, have caused ocean acidification, a 30% increase compared to preindustrial levels, causing the pH of surface waters of the oceans has dropped 0, 1 units.
PH is a logarithmic scale, so each number represents variation large-scale variations. A change of one pH unit means an increase of 10 times.
The acidification of the oceans also produces a reduction in the amount of so-called carbonate ions in water, which many marine animals need to form skeletons and shells.
The pH in the infiltration of Papua New Guinea is 7.8, a level considerably more acidic than the industry average of 8.1 for the world's oceans.
The leaks are probably the closest we have to simulate the impact of increased emissions of carbon dioxide in coral. Let us see what happens to the complex interactions among species in terms of increased acidity
The research adds to growing evidence of the need for a rapid transition to a future with less CO2 emissions, if we want to minimize the risk of large losses in coral reefs
The study also found that a pH of 7.7 stops the formation of all types of corals.
Another major threats facing coral reefs is the increase in ocean temperatures that can cause them to lose their pigmentation when the algae die of feeding. The phenomenon is known as coral bleaching.
The study included, besides Chris Langdon, scientists at the Institute for Marine Mammals of Australia and the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Germany.
The research results were published in the June issue of the journal Nature Climate Change