The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) along with the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Studies at the University of Miami recently published a paper in Nature Climate Change where they document a coral community shifting to algal mats within the vicinity of an underwater volcano in the Pacific Ocean.
So what does this mean? Well for starters, the underwater volcano is releasing, and therefore elevating carbon dioxide levels nearby. Scientists are using this volcano as a natural laboratory to simulate what may happen regarding climate change on a global scale.
The ocean naturally absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Humans are artificially increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So why does it matter how much carbon dioxide is in the ocean? Well when water and carbon dioxide mix, it turns into carbonic acid. You can make carbonic acid at home by blowing air bubbles into a glass of water. Granted, it is a very weak acid, but it is still acidic non the less. Rain water is slightly acidic because it naturally comes in contact with carbon dioxide when it is falling to earth.
Animals like coral have shells that are made of the mineral calcite. Calcite dissolves when it comes in contact with an acid (even a very weak acid like carbonic acid.) Coral cannot survive in acidic conditions. So let's look at the big picture... If the oceans continue to absorb carbon dioxide, animals that are made of calcite will begin to die off.
Let's get back to the news story... The researchers looked at the area around the underwater volcano and used the elevated carbon dioxide levels as a model for the ocean of the future. They found that the coral will die off and algae will take its place.
Why do we care if the coral dies off? Well, coral reefs provide a habitat for a ton of underwater life. They provide food and shelter for marine life. The algae that replaces the coral just doesn't sustain the ecosystem that the coral does.
Long story short, if the oceans continues to become more acidic, then we will start to see huge marine die offs. Who would have thought we could have learned so much from an underwater volcano 450 miles off the coast of Guam?