Livermore Scientists Find CO2 From Oil, Gas and Coal Could Make Ocean More Acidic, Harming Marine Life, Coral Reefs

Sept. 24, 2003

Livermore Scientists Find CO2 From Oil, Gas and Coal Could Make Ocean More Acidic, Harming Marine Life, Coral Reefs

LIVERMORE, Calif. - Researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have found that continued release of carbon dioxide during the next several centuries would increase ocean acidity more rapidly than during the past 300 million years, resulting in damage to marine life
The burning of coal, oil and gas release the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere. Eventually, the ocean absorbs most of this carbon dioxide. CO2 emissions since the Industrial Revolution have contributed greatly to global climate change, notably an increase in overall temperatures worldwide.

Oceanic absorption of CO2 originally was viewed as beneficial because it removed greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. However, the most recent research, conducted by Livermore scientists Ken Caldeira and Michael Wickett, shows that continued emission to the atmosphere of CO2 from fossil-fuel burning may make the oceans more acidic than they have been for millions of years - except for the extreme events in the Earth’s remote past, such as when the dinosaurs became extinct.

Previous studies have shown that marine organisms such as coral reefs, calcareous plankton and sea life with calcium carbonate skeletal material are likely to be harmed by increasing ocean acidification. Organisms living in the deep sea may be particularly sensitive to increased ocean acidification.

These results, titled "Anthropogenic CO2 and Ocean pH" appear in the September 25 issue of Nature.

Using computer models, Caldeira and Wickett calculated ocean acidification that might occur if CO2 emissions in the atmosphere from the burning of coal, oil and gas continued in a "business as usual" pathway. They then used a geochemical model to predict maximum ocean chemistry changes over the past several hundred million years. They found that the amount of acidification occurring in the future simulation exceeded any seen in the record of slow geologic change.

LLNL is conducting research to understand how this acidity could be neutralized, with one option using crushed limestone to absorb some of the acid. In addition, Laboratory scientists are studying interactions between the carbon cycle and climate and are leading the effort to develop a more systematic evaluation of climate models.

The Lab is also studying ways of storing fossil fuel CO2 underground so that it does not contaminate the atmosphere or the oceans, as well as investigating the use of hydrogen, fusion and other approaches as environmentally acceptable energy sources.

This research was funded by the Department of Energy's Office of Biological and Environmental Research.


Founded in 1952, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a national security laboratory, with a mission to ensure national security and apply science and technology to the important issues of our time. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration.

Laboratory news releases and photos are also available electronically on the World Wide Web of the Internet at URL and on UC Newswire.