A Big Brother-style network for keeping an eye on the world's oceans is long overdue, a group of oceanographers says.
The world's oceans have changed dramatically over the past several hundred years. The ocean surface is 30 percent more acidic today than it was in 1800, with much of that increase occurring in the last 50 years — a rising trend that could both harm coral reefs and profoundly impact tiny shelled plankton at the base of the ocean food web, scientists warn.
Despite the seriousness of the impacts of such changes to the ocean's marine life patterns, water temperature, sea level and polar ice cover, the world's oceanographers have yet to come together to deploy their swarm of spy cams and sensors to monitor these ocean conditions that have a fundamental impact on life across the planet.
A team of major oceanographic institutions from around the world will urge government officials and ministers meeting in Beijing on Nov. 3 to help complete an ocean-wide monitoring network by 2015. The system could cost $15 billion up front, and $5 billion each year to operate. However, those backing the project say the value of such information would dwarf the investment required.
"Most ocean experts believe the future ocean will be saltier, hotter, more acidic and less diverse," said Jesse Ausubel, a founder of the oceanography group behind the monitoring push, Partnership for Observation of the Global Oceans (POGO), and of the recently completed Census of Marine Life. "It is past time to get serious about measuring what's happening to the seas around us."
The average pH level (a logarithmic scale that measures a liquid's acidity) at the ocean surface has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 units, "rendering the oceans more acidic than they have been for 20 million years," with expectations of continuing acidification due to high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which dissolves into the world's oceans, the POGO scientists write in a recent report.
Because colder water retains more carbon dioxide, the acidity of surface waters may increase fastest at Earth's high latitudes where the zooplankton known as pteropods are particularly abundant. Pteropods are colorful, free-swimming sea snails and sea slugs on which many animals higher in the food chain depend.
"Ocean acidification could have a devastating effect on calcifying organisms, and perhaps marine ecosystems as a whole, and we need global monitoring to provide timely information on trends and fluxes from the tropics to the poles," said Peter Burkill, who is involved in the ocean monitoring push.
The U.S. and European Union governments have recently signaled support, said Kiyoshi Suyehiro, chairman of POGO. However, "international cooperation is desperately needed to complete a global ocean observation system that could continuously collect, synthesize and interpret data critical to a wide variety of human needs."