Acid Oceans May Trigger Mass Extinction

Acid Oceans May Trigger Mass Extinction

Oceans too acid for marine life like these giant clams may presage huge die-offs. Image: ByNOAA on Unsplash

A stable carbon cycle means life goes on. Too much carbon could wipe out many species. And acid oceans could hold the key.

Catastrophically widespread die-offs of many creatures could be inevitable if human activities continue to lead to more acid oceans, a new study suggests.

Mass extinction may not be an enduring mystery. Instead, it may be an intrinsic property of the carbon cycle. Once levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans reach a certain threshold, life undergoes dramatic and catastrophic change.

If a US mathematician is right – and his argument is based on statistical reasoning and the evidence in the marine sediments – then once the seas become too acidic for marine organisms to form carbonate shells, a cascade of extinction begins.

And, he warns, the “unusually strong but geologically brief duration” of manmade carbon dioxide increase in the oceans can be matched with slow but devastating extinctions in the past.

In short, human combustion of fossil fuels, combined with the destruction of the forests, could be building up to extinctions on a scale so colossal that they will be visible in the fossil record hundreds of millions of years from now.

After a certain point, the carbon cycle will take over and decide life’s direction. It happened many times long before the emergence of the human species, and it could happen again, according to a new study in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“It’s a positive feedback. More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. Is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

“Once we are over the threshold, how we got there may not matter,” said Daniel Rothman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Once you get over it, you’re dealing with how the Earth works, and it goes on its own ride.”

Professor Rothman developed his hypothesis in 2017, in the journal Science Advances, after he analysed 31 changes in the makeup of carbonate sediments laid down over the last 542 million years, and connected five great extinctions not just with carbon dioxide levels but with the rate at which these increased.

He may be for the moment a lone voice in linking four of the five major extinctions with critical levels of oceanic acidification as a consequence of a carbon dioxide threshold. But climate scientists and palaeontologists have been looking at possible links between carbon and extinction for decades.

They have also repeatedly warned that humans are about to precipitate a sixth mass extinction, chiefly on the basis that we are destroying natural habitat and erasing the conditions in which millions of species – many of them still not identified – were once able to flourish.

The carbon factor

But climate change driven by ever-increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels – powered in turn by ever-increasing combustion of fossil fuels – has also been a factor.

Whatever the risk to species or ecosystems, biologists and conservationists have warned that climate change driven by global heating can only make things worse.

And the more carefully researchers have looked at evidence of earlier catastrophic extinctions, the more bygone climate change has revealed itself. What caused the most dramatic and unequivocal of these – the “great dying” at the close of the Permian – is still hotly debated, but atmospheric conditions in one form or another have been repeatedly invoked and researchers have repeatedly drawn lessons for today.

But arguments so far have settled on whether such extinctions are a consequence of slow but inexorable episodes of volcanic discharge or some other geological shift.

Forget the trigger

Professor Rothman’s point is that the trigger itself may not be the important thing: what decides the fate of life on Earth is the level of carbon in the oceans and the rate at which it increases.

Once levels of acidification in the upper ocean reach a certain critical threshold, life is in for major disruption. If marine creatures cannot form shells, they are at risk. But even more dangerously, shells sink to the ocean floor, effectively removing carbon from circulation.

If there are fewer calcifying organisms, then less carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and oceans become even more acidic. A vicious cycle has begun.

“It’s a positive feedback,” Professor Rothman said. “More carbon dioxide leads to more carbon dioxide. The question, from a mathematical point of view is, is such a feedback enough to render the system unstable?”

Balance restored

In his mathematical model, once carbon levels reached a critical threshold, a cascade of positive feedbacks amplified the effect. Severe ocean acidification set in.

The effect was not permanent. After tens of thousands of years, the carbon cycle did slip back to equilibrium and life could evolve and adapt again.

Carbon is now entering the oceans at an unprecedented rate, over what – in geological terms – is a very brief timespan. If human-triggered greenhouse gas emissions cross a critical threshold, the consequences could be as severe as any of the previous mass extinctions.

“It’s difficult to know how things will end up, given what is happening today,” he said. “But we are probably close to a critical threshold. Any spike would reach its maximum after about 10,000 years. Hopefully, that would give us time to find a solution.” − Climate News Network

About the Author

Tim Radford, freelance journalistTim Radford is a freelance journalist. He worked for The Guardian for 32 years, becoming (among other things) letters editor, arts editor, literary editor and science editor. He won the Association of British Science Writers award for science writer of the year four times. He served on the UK committee for the International Decade for Natural Disaster Reduction. He has lectured about science and the media in dozens of British and foreign cities. 

Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolutionBook by this Author:

Science that Changed the World: The untold story of the other 1960s revolution
by Tim Radford.

Click here for more info and/or to order this book on Amazon. (Kindle book)

This Article Originally Appeared On Climate News Network

books_impacks

enafarzh-CNzh-TWdanltlfifrdeiwhihuiditjakomsnofaplptruesswsvthtrukurvi

follow InnerSelf on

facebook-icontwitter-iconrss-icon

 Get The Latest By Email

{emailcloak=off}

LATEST VIDEOS

Fossil Fuel Production Plans Could Push Earth off a Climate Cliff
by The Real News Network
The United Nations is beginning its climate summit in Madrid.
Big Rail Spends More on Denying Climate Change than Big Oil
by The Real News Network
A new study concludes that rail is the industry that's injected the most money into climate change denial propaganda…
Did Scientists Get Climate Change Wrong?
by Sabine Hossenfelder
Interview with Prof Tim Palmer from the University of Oxford.
The New Normal: Climate Change Poses Challenges For Minnesota Farmers
by KMSP-TV Minneapolis-St. Paul
Spring brought a deluge of rain in southern Minnesota and it never seemed to stop.
Report: Today's Kids' Health Will Be Imperiled by Climate Change
by VOA News
An international report from researchers at 35 institutions says climate change will threaten the health and quality of…
How Supercharged Trash Gas Could Produce More Green Energy
by InnerSelf Staff
Synthetic compounds called “siloxanes” from everyday products like shampoo and motor oil are finding their way into…
300 Million Face Severe Risk of Climate-Fueled Coastal Flooding by 2050
by Democracy Now!
As a shocking new report finds that many coastal cities will be flooded by rising sea levels by 2050, Chile’s President…
Climate Warning: California Continues To Burn, Data Estimates Of Global Flooding
by MSNBC
Ben Strauss, CEO and Chief Scientist of Climate Central joins MTP Daily to discuss alarming new information about…

LATEST ARTICLES

How Climate, Not Conflict, Drove Many Syrian Refugees To Lebanon
How Climate, Not Conflict, Drove Many Syrian Refugees To Lebanon
by Hussein A. Amery
People who fled Syria in recent years are often viewed as war refugees because of the violence that has engulfed much…
Fossil Fuel Production Plans Could Push Earth off a Climate Cliff
by The Real News Network
The United Nations is beginning its climate summit in Madrid.
Iceland Put People First To Save Melting Economy
Iceland Put People First To Save Melting Economy
by Alex Kirby
Faced in 2008 with a melting economy, Iceland acted fast to avoid total collapse. Icelanders’ own needs were its…
Big Rail Spends More on Denying Climate Change than Big Oil
by The Real News Network
A new study concludes that rail is the industry that's injected the most money into climate change denial propaganda…
How The Climate Crisis Could Reverse Progress In Achieving Gender Equality
How The Climate Crisis Could Reverse Progress In Achieving Gender Equality
by Nitya Rao
People who directly depend on the natural world for their livelihoods, like farmers and fishers, will be among the…
The Climate Crisis: 6 Steps To Making Fossil Fuels History
The Climate Crisis: 6 Steps To Making Fossil Fuels History
by Stephen Peake
In shouting “system change not climate change”, young people understand that the 3-4℃ warmer world we’re headed for…
The Five Corrupt Pillars Of Climate Change Denial
by Mark Maslin
The fossil fuel industry, political lobbyists, media moguls and individuals have spent the past 30 years sowing doubt…
How Computer Models Predict Where We’ll Go As Seas Rise
How Computer Models Predict Where We’ll Go As Seas Rise
by Elizabeth Fussell and David Wrathall
A new modeling approach can help us better understand how policy decisions will influence human migration as sea levels…