How does rising atmospheric CO2 affect marine organisms?

Click to locate material archived on our website by topic

The Deleterious Effects of Increases in Atmospheric CO2 on the Growth and Development of Blue Mussels
Berge, J.A., Bjerkeng, B., Pettersen, O., Schaanning, M.T. and Oxnevad, S. 2006. Effects of increased sea water concentrations of CO2 on growth of the bivalve Mytilus edulis L. Chemosphere 62: 681-687.

What was done
Five 5-liter aquariums were continuously supplied with low-food-supply sea water that was extracted from the top meter of the Oslofjord outside the Marine Research Station Solbergstrand in Norway, while CO2 was continuously added to the waters of the aquaria so as to maintain them at five different pH values (means of 8.1, 7.6, 7.4, 7.1 and 6.7) for a period of 44 days. Prior to the start of the study, blue mussels (Mytilus edulis L.) of two different size classes (mean lengths of either 11 or 21 mm) were collected from the outer part of the Oslofjord, and 50 of each size class were introduced into each aquarium, where they were examined close to daily for any deaths that may have occurred, after which shell lengths at either the time of death or at the end of the study were determined and compared to lengths measured at the start of the study. Simultaneously, water temperature rose slowly from 16 to 19C curing the initial 23 days of the experiment, but then declined slightly to day 31, after which it rose rapidly to attain a maximum value of 24C on day 39.

What was learned
A lack of mortality during the first 23 days of the study showed, in the words of the authors, that "the increased concentration of CO2 in the water and the correspondingly reduced pH had no acute effects on the mussels." Thereafter, however, some mortality was observed in the highest CO2 (lowest pH) treatment from day 23 to day 37, after which deaths could also be observed in some of the other treatments, which mortality Berge et al. attributed to the rapid increase in water temperature that occurred between days 31 and 39.

With respect to growth, the Norwegian researchers report that "mean increments of shell length were much lower for the two largest CO2 additions compared to the values in the controls, while for the two smallest doses the growth [was] about the same as in the control, or in one case even higher (small shells at pH = 7.6)," such that there were "no significant differences between the three aquaria within the pH range 7.4-8.1."

What it means
Berge et al. conclude that their results "indicate that future reductions in pH caused by increased concentrations of anthropogenic CO2 in the sea may have an impact on blue mussels," but that "comparison of estimates of future pH reduction in the sea (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003) and the observed threshold for negative effects on growth of blue mussels [which they determined to lie somewhere between a pH of 7.4 and 7.1] do however indicate that this will probably not happen in this century." Indeed, Caldeira and Wickett's calculation of the maximum level to which the air's CO2 concentration might rise yields a value that approaches 2000 ppm around the year 2300, representing a surface oceanic pH reduction of 0.7 units, which only drops the pH to the upper limit of the "threshold for negative effects on growth of blue mussels" found by Berge et al., i.e., 7.4. Consequently, blue mussels will likely never be bothered, even in the least degree, by the tendency for atmospheric CO2 enrichment to lower oceanic pH values.

Caldeira, K. and Wickett, M.E. 2003. Anthropogenic carbon and ocean pH. Nature 425: 365.

Reviewed 7 June 2006