Washington: Some 56 million years ago, a massive pulse of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere sent global temperatures soaring. In the oceans, carbonate sediments dissolved, some organisms went extinct and others evolved.
Scientists have long suspected that ocean acidification caused the crisis-similar to today, as man made CO2 combines with seawater to change its chemistry.
Now, for the first time, scientists have quantified the extent of surface acidification from those ancient days, and the news is not good: the oceans are on track to acidify at least as much as they did then, only at a much faster rate.
In the study, the scientists estimate that ocean acidity increased by about 100 percent in a few thousand years or more, and stayed that way for the next 70,000 years. In this radically changed environment, some creatures died out while others adapted and evolved.
The study is the first to use the chemical composition of fossils to reconstruct surface ocean acidity at the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a period of intense warming on land and throughout the oceans due to high CO2.
Study co-author Barbel Honisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University`s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said this could be the closest geological analog to modern ocean acidification, adding that as massive as it was, it still happened about 10 times more slowly than what we are doing today.
The oceans have absorbed about a third of the carbon humans have pumped into the air since industrialization, helping to keep earth`s thermostat lower than it would be otherwise. But that uptake of carbon has come at a price. Chemical reactions caused by that excess CO2 have made seawater grow more acidic, depleting it of the carbonate ions that corals, mollusks and calcifying plankton need to build their shells and skeletons.
In the last 150 years or so, the pH of the oceans has dropped substantially, from 8.2 to 8.1--equivalent to a 25 percent increase in acidity. By the end of the century, ocean pH is projected to fall another 0.3 pH units, to 7.8. While the researchers found a comparable pH drop during the PETM--0.3 units-the shift happened over a few thousand years.
The study has been published in the journal Paleoceanography.