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Researchers Find Upwelling of ‘Acidified’ Water on the Pacific Continental Shelf

A team of researchers from the US, Canada and Mexico found evidence of the acidification of the ocean caused by the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide less than 20 miles off the west coast of North America during a field study from Canada to Mexico last summer. This was the first time “acidified” ocean water has been found on the continental shelf of western North America.

Ocean acidification is an issue of basic chemistry: atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by and reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). This reaction of CO2 with seawater reduces the availability of carbonate ions required for calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeleton and shell formation. The effect on organisms depends upon the state of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) saturation. In regions where the concentration is high, formation of shells and skeletons occurs. In regions where it is low, the water becomes corrosive, and the dissolution of shells begins to occur.

Thus, increasing acidity resulting from increasing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 could have profound affects on basic marine life. Concern about this began to accelerate in 2003 with the publication of a short paper in Nature by researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who suggested that unabated anthropogenic increases in CO2 in the atmosphere may drive changes in ocean pH values greater than any experienced in the past 300 million years. (Earlier post.)

Acidification of the Earth’s ocean water could have far-reaching impacts on the health of our near-shore environment, and on the sustainability of ecosystems that support human populations through nourishment and jobs. This research is vital to understanding the processes within the ocean, as well as the consequences of a carbon-rich atmosphere.

—Richard W. Spinrad, NOAA assistant administrator for oceanic and atmospheric research

The report on the upwelling on the Pacific Continental Shelf is published online in the journal Science. The report was written by Richard A. Feely and Christopher Sabine, both oceanographers at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, Wash. Their co-authors are J. Martin Hernandez-Ayon of the Instituto de Investigaciones Oceanologicas from the University of Baja California, Mexico; Debby Ianson of Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Sidney, British Columbia, and Burke Hales, of Oregon State University College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, Corvallis, Ore.

Our findings represent the first evidence that a large section of the North American continental shelf is seasonally impacted by ocean acidification. This means that ocean acidification may be seriously impacting marine life on our continental shelf right now.

While this absorption provides a great service to humans by significantly reducing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and decreasing the effects of global warming, the change in the ocean chemistry affects marine life, particularly organisms with calcium carbonate shells, such as corals, mussels, mollusks, and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain.

—Richard Feely

The study was the first in what is planned to be a biennial sequence of observations and studies of carbon along the west coast of North America. The researchers participated in the North American Carbon Program West Coast Cruise on the R/V Wecoma, owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by Oregon State University. The international scientific team plans to continue their studies of ocean acidification in follow up cruises in late 2009.

Previous studies found ocean acidification at deeper depths farther from shore. The researchers said that the movement of the corrosive water appears to happen during the upwelling season during the spring and summer, when winds bring CO2-rich water up from depths of about 400-600 feet onto the continental shelf. The water that upwells off of the North American Pacific coast has been away from the surface for about 50 years.

The field study collected samples from Queen Charlotte Sound, Canada, to San Gregorio Baja California Sur, Mexico. The closest they found corrosive water was about four miles off of the northern California coast.

We observed seawater that is undersaturated with respect to aragonite upwelling onto large portions of the continental shelf, reaching depths of approximately 40-120 m along most transect lines and all the way to the surface on one transect off northern California. While seasonal upwelling of the undersaturated waters onto the shelf is a natural phenomenon in this region, the ocean uptake of anthropogenic CO2 has increased the areal extent of the affected area.

...These observations clearly show that seasonal upwelling processes enhance the advancement of the corrosive deep water into broad regions of the North American western continental shelf. Since the region experiences seasonal periods of enhanced aragonite undersaturation, it is important to understand how the indigenous organisms deal with this exposure and whether or not future increases in the range and intensity of the corrosiveness will affect their survivorship.

Presently, little is known about how this intermittent exposure to corrosive water might impact the development of larval, juvenile and adult stages of aragonitic calcifying organisms or finfish that populate the neritic and benthic environments in this region and fuel a thriving economy. Laboratory and mesocosm experiments show that these changes in saturation state may cause significant changes in overall calcification rates for many species of marine calcifiers including corals, coccolithophores, foraminifera and pteropods, which are a significant food source for local juvenile salmon. Similar decreases in calcification rates would be expected for edible mussels, clams and oysters.

Other research indicates that many species of juvenile fish and shellfish of significant economic importance to coastal regions are highly sensitive to higher-than-normal CO2 levels such that high rates of mortality are directly correlated with the higher CO2 levels.

—Feely et. al.


  • Richard A. Feely, Christopher L. Sabine, J. Martin Hernandez-Ayon, Debby Ianson, Burke Hales. (2008) Evidence for Upwelling of Corrosive “Acidified” Water onto the Continental Shelf. Science DOI: 10.1126/science.1155676



Does these 'acidified' waters have any connection the the areas of low oxygen content zones also recently found on continental shelves?

Kit P

Corrosive sea water, quick someone warn the navy. Who da thunk water with chloride ions would be CORROSIVE.

The measured alkalinity of the ocean has deceases 0.01 pH units. I looked up in my graduate level environmental chemistry text the chapter on water with a basic pH or a pH greater than 7. The correct terminally is alkalinity.

Litesong, the fastest growing anaerobic bacteria that break down organic matter are acid forming. It is hard to tell what is happening since NOAA has hired Stephan King to write press releases.


For those interested in the issue of ocean acidification GCC had an article from Feb 5, 2005 that has some good links to papers and symposiums on the topic. There is a great deal of concern in the scientific community regarding this problem. The ocean pH was a constant 8.2 until about 1950 at which point it started to drop, by 2000 it was 8.1, by 2025 it is expected to be 8.0, by 2050 it is expected to be 7.9.
A pH decrease of .1 translates to a 26% more acidic condition. A pH decrease of .3 translates to a 200% more acidic condition.

Ocean acidification is unrelated to climate change and the effects of it are more definitively measured than that of atmospheric CO2...although the lag is about 50 years. The carbonic acid measured today is the result of CO2 absorption 50 years ago.

Kit P. wrote: Corrosive sea water, quick someone warn the navy. Who da thunk water with chloride ions would be CORROSIVE.

Kit, your understanding on this issue is non-existent, but you never let that stand in the way of posting, do you? The dissolution of shells has nothing to do with the corrosion of metal. As the water gets more acidic, the dissolution increases. Any reduction of pH is acidification, i.e., moving in the acidic direction. It has nothing to do with the absolute pH. How did you get your hands on a graduate level environmental chemistry text? Buy it at a swap meet?


A prelude to Soylent Green.

As we receive more and more evidence that we are polluting our planet into unsustainable territory, people separate into two camps ... Each has a now familiar direction for progress to take ...

1) "lets find MORE oil to use, and ignore the consequences"
2) "lets find develop and use alternatives to oil"

What camp are you pitching your tent in?

Kit P

There is a great deal of concern in the scientific community

Kit P

“There is a great deal of concern in the scientific community” about their next grant. That is why they use alarmist language. You could accurately say that you found an insignificant change in alkalinity.

There is the language of science and the language of fear mongering. No evidence of anything was presented here other than the unethical behavior.

We treat the shared resources with so much ignorance that it is unbelievable.

Worldwide fishing catches are decreasing, not increasing. The only place they may be increasing is the Indian where mechanization is only starting to make inroads.

Changing the PH balance changes the types or organisms and the ability of organisms to survive. This changes the food chain of which we are very much are a part of and extract huge amounts of protein from.

It is truly ignorant to suppose that the only reason that science is done is through alarmism. They got the funding for this irrespective of the findings before hand. What they found according to acceptable procedures is what they found. Period. Speculation on their motives is just supposition and has nothing to do with their findings.

Kit P, your view on this is based wholly on your attitude towards environmentalism or any science that belongs in that domain. It has no bearing on the validity of the study. There is no proof on the ethical behaviour of those involved in the study. In fact fisheries Canada has in the past been very supportive of fishing industry practices that have led to the destruction of more than one fishery in Canada.


KitP: I showed your comments to a retired marine invertebrate biologist in my family. Her reaction: "that guy doesn't know WTF he's talking about". I'm afraid you've made rather a fool of yourself this time.

Kit P

My view of this article is based on reading the article. Our environment is always changing. How much is changing in the context of normal natural changes? This press release us 100% alarmist and 0% useful reporting of their findings.

There is no reason to think small changes in alkalinity will have any significant effect. That is why no numbers were presented. Those who have actually studied the environment would not be worried by small changes because that is what is expected.

“attitude towards environmentalism”

There is the scientific study of the environment and then there is the religion of environmentalism. That later requiring no knowledge of either the environment or science. My religion calls for us to be stewards of the environment. It sad to see how many skip the step of first being a student of the environment.

Kit P

Neil, I am not a marine biologist but I have stayed at a Holiday INN. I do have a finely tunes BS meter. If your retired family member would like to pony with a defense of unethical scientist I could be persuaded.

I would be interested in which marine organism is sensitive to a pH decrease of 0.01 in an alkaline ocean environment.

And it is obvious that you view any talk about environmental consequences as religious environmentalism. This is not some quack study by some left handed group. It is multigovernmental, multinationalistic long term effort. It seems a fairly concise summation of the recorded data. There is nothing alarmist about it.

If you can't accept the realistic consequences of a changing environment then what are you a steward of? Are you just a yes man to the changes? An archivist?

How much is changing in the context of normal natural changes?
From this it is obvious that you aren't basing it on the article and are spinning your own bias into it. The atmospheric CO2 levels are increasing and they are acidifying the oceans in a well understood way. The article did not try to even state whether atmospheric CO2 increases were natural or not. But you are.

As a first study, it is obvious now that seasonal acidification has occured in the past and is occuring now. The question is whether the acidification is increasing in light of increasing atmospheric CO2 levels and whether this will negatively effect marine ecosystems and to what degree. It is most likely significant given that it will effect the bottom level organisms that form the various food chains.

There is a differences between fear mongering and just pure statements of fact. Just because the facts are unpalatable and induce fear doesn't mean they are untrue or that they cannot come to pass if the consequences for actions are ignored.


"What camp are you pitching your tent in?"

Propaganda 101: Ask the sheep, "You wid us or agin us??"

Martin B

Strictly, the oceans are becoming less alkaline. But the accepted term is acidification. If the alkalinity drops too much, corals and shellfish will die off, followed by everything that feeds on them, i.e. the oceans will die.

This is a more certain phenomenon than global warming. There is some reason to believe that astronomical factors might counteract global warming, but there is no doubt that the oceans will continue to become more acid. No astronomical factors can remove the CO2 from the atmosphere. It will inevitably continue to be absorbed by the oceans, even if we stop burning oil now.

Martin B

Strictly, the oceans are becoming less alkaline. But the accepted term is acidification. If the alkalinity drops too much, corals and shellfish will die off, followed by everything that feeds on them, i.e. the oceans will die.

This is a more certain phenomenon than global warming. There is some reason to believe that astronomical factors might counteract global warming, but there is no doubt that the oceans will continue to become more acid. No astronomical factors can remove the CO2 from the atmosphere. It will inevitably continue to be absorbed by the oceans, even if we stop burning oil now.

Martin B

Sorry about the double post.


Like so many arguments with regard to CO2, there are lots of conflicting data. e.g. the following:

In discussing the significance of their findings, Herfort et al. suggest, as we have long contended (Idso et al., 2000), that "hermatypic corals incubated in the light achieve high rates of calcification by the synergistic action of photosynthesis," which, as they have shown, is enhanced by elevated concentrations of HCO3- ions that come courtesy of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 content.

Herfort, L., Thake, B. and Taubner, I. 2008. Bicarbonate stimulation of calcification and photosynthesis in two hermatypic corals. Journal of Phycology 44: 91-98.

Never-the-less, major efforts underway to convert electric generating plants to minimal carbon release (sustainable alternatives and nuclear) technology must continue. And focus on the enormous new demands of emerging economies as well as established ones.

Kit  P

“But the accepted term is acidification.” By who? Fear mongers!!!

I suspect no one has actually read the paper to see what it says. Here is the deal. I would like to read research that is paid for with tax dollars.

The accepted term alkaline unless you have an agenda.


"Like so many arguments with regard to CO2, there are lots of conflicting data. e.g. the following:"

I'm not quite sure how the quote provided is conflicting data... I might call it a silver lining (at best), like saying global warming might increase the primary productivity of northern Canada.

KitP: Most of the scientists I know are scientists rather than industrial researchers specifically because they would rather publish what they find than look for what industry wants. There's a LOT more money to be made working for industry than for universities, NOAA, EPA, DOE, Fish & Wildlife etc..

That's just my experience. You may know differently.


@ Kit P
"This press release..."

One of us is a complete senseless ignorant, an idiotic fool, a charlatan, a fraud, a moron, and it is not me.

It is not a 'press release' as you think it is and write in bad english, it is a scientific study that takes years to complete and it is published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, that is, it is read, reviewed and scrutinized before it is approved for publication by a bunch of top university professors and likewise researchers in top institutions in the country and from around the world such as Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Yale, (what is your GPA, did you go there? just kidding...) that are not only very familiar with the subject, but are experts in their field, in this case oceanography (can you spell it?), and have been studying the subject for 20 years or more, with a job that you won't ever get, reputation that you don't have or ever will, and a family to feed possibly much like yourself.

'Science', not the subject but the journal, is the world's top scientific peer-reviewed (look it up for what it means, will you ?) journal in the world today, if you know that much as you claim you do but in reality you don't have, why don't you write an article on the Bose-Einstein condesate or ocenan acidity that you so desire to be an expert in and want us so to believe you are but in fact you are not and submit to Science, the peer-reviewed scientific journal not the name, understand ?, for publication ? Better yet, don't waste their time, my time or ours and shut up. Your time is another question, but it is already wasted.

You are not a steward, you have never been, you never will. What you are is a condescending bug, a very little man, a dishonest liar, that soon will turn to dust like everyone else but has lived an insignificant dishonest life. For that, there is no excuse. You don't have to humilliate people, you understand that much, don't you ?



Maybe you missed the post: "This reaction of CO2 with seawater reduces the availability of carbonate ions required for calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeleton and shell formation."

IPCC expert Hanson testified to Congress in 2006 that the change in ocean alkalinity caused by anthropogenic CO2 is killing sea coral. In fact the vast majority of study shows sea corals dying of disease. This paper presents data that indicates the opposite of Hanson, i.e. *in conflict* with Hanson's claim.

Jane: your rant is juvenile at best. Apparently so emotionally driven one should question your ability to function rationally. The reason for listening to differing expertise is precisely to preserve discussion which yields a balanced point of view. It is only a balanced point of view that has value in making policy decisions. And the value of this forum is to encourage open minded debate and discussion, informing said balance. Live with it.

Increasing acidity in the oceans is an additional stressor to corals that cannot but hurt the corals and their formation.

Here's a paper that even states that there is a link to decreasing calcification.

Herfort paper

...hence, in our experiments, pH was always adjusted to 8.2

The paper done by Herfort is specifically tailored to what would happen to photosynthetic and calcification rates with increased carbonate levels specifically from increasing sodium carbonate for two coral species. It was not specially designed to answer the acidification question at all especially in terms of larval developement or in terms of total impact on different species.

CO2Science is not a credible site to get information on any climate related science but a great place to get spin as I have just shown. Frankly those who follow it should realize that it is totally interpreting things to try to spin their views. Looking at the original shows just how badly they warp things to do this.



Oceana: no point jumping in to defend KitP, he's just one of the regular trolls around here and some people have gotten tired of being polite to him. Associating yourself with him won't help your credibility if you have a legitimate point to make.

Andrey Levin

Jees, what a dumbs write NOAA PR pieces.

Periodic upwelling of cold (and hence CO2 rich) deep water is regular occurrence, for example at La Nina events (ongoing), and is extremely beneficial to ocean life: it brings to the surface nutrient-rich water from the depth. Upwelling in this particular location is manifestation of negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which will bring cooler weather for 20-25 incoming years. The effect was not observed before because PDO phenomena was not yet discovered 35 years ago, last time PDO was negative.

Only total idi=t could say that oceanic water is corrosive because of carbon dioxide. Rainwater has tons of dissolved CO2 which makes it acidic, but is way less corrosive than sea water.

pH of ocean water reduced from 8.18 to 8.11 in last 3 centuries, and is modeled to reduce to 8.0 if atmospheric CO2 will double. So far, no identified effects on coral life have been proved. Horror stories about dying coral reefs is same bs as drowning polar bears: both corals and bears are thriving, mostly because of governmental conservation efforts. Numerous studies were performed on corals flooded with extremely high concentrations of CO2. Results are mixed: some species were damaged, some prospered, most just adapted. Some materials about corals could be found here:

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