Bermuda's pink sands under threat as seas become more acidic

Bermuda may soon have to remove "pink sandy beaches" from its tourism advertising, if the chemistry of the ocean continues to change.

The foraminifera Homotrema rubrum which gives the blush to Bermuda beaches, is one of the many ocean organisms that scientists think will be badly affected by oceans becoming more acidic .

The Royal Gazette met with Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) scientists Andreas J. Andersson, Nick R. Bates, and Samantha J. de Putron to talk about the Bermuda Ocean Acidification Coral Reef Investigation (BEACON), a BIOS project designed to study ocean acidification and its effects on Bermuda's coral reef.

  • A baby coral growing on a tile in the laboratory at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

    A baby coral growing on a tile in the laboratory at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

  • Corals being grown in the laboratory at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

    Corals being grown in the laboratory at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.


Bermuda may soon have to remove "pink sandy beaches" from its tourism advertising, if the chemistry of the ocean continues to change.

The foraminifera Homotrema rubrum which gives the blush to Bermuda beaches, is one of the many ocean organisms that scientists think will be badly affected by oceans becoming more acidic .

The Royal Gazette met with Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS) scientists Andreas J. Andersson, Nick R. Bates, and Samantha J. de Putron to talk about the Bermuda Ocean Acidification Coral Reef Investigation (BEACON), a BIOS project designed to study ocean acidification and its effects on Bermuda's coral reef.

The ocean is naturally slightly alkaline, but scientists now have direct evidence the huge volume of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, caused by the burning of fossil fuels, is changing the chemistry of the ocean.

"There are a lot of organisms effected by decreasing pH levels in the ocean," said Dr. Andersson. "The crustose coralline algae, for example, is incredibly important. They are quite vulnerable.

"They also produce this mineral phase that is more soluble than what the corals produce.

They cue the coral larvae to settle. Less of this algae cover may mean less coral larvae settling and building the coral community.

"We have experimental evidence that suggests that these guys cannot recruit and settle down when the acid levels of the ocean rise."

And there is already data to suggest that over the next century, Bermuda will see about a thirty percent decrease in the growth rate of new corals.

Dr. Bates said: "Most marine species, particularly corals, have a narrow range of chemical conditions in which they feel comfortable. As we acidify the ocean we are moving them out of their comfort range."

Scientists are concerned that these chemical changes might be the last straw for corals.

"There is already a lot of pressure on the coral reef system including pollution, over-fishing, and bleaching, among other things," added Dr. Bates. "Ocean acidification is another hammer on the coral reef system."

This may have serious implications for Bermuda.

Dr. Bates said: "In Bermuda the coral reef is so important. It acts as a nursery for fisheries, and protects us against coastal erosion, amongst other things.

"The increasing acidification may mean that corals not only grow more slowly, but are also weakened structurally. That means that they will break down faster under wave action during storms."

The BEACON project is being funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), a well-known American organisation.

But BIOS wants to go further with ocean acidification research. They are currently seeking funding to form a BEACON Centre.

The centre would have several components such as field sites where equipment would measure carbon dioxide levels in the ocean continuously; indoor tank areas to study the effects of increasing acidification under controlled conditions; a modeling aspect that uses computers to correlate the data and make predictions, and also an educational side that seeks to inform school groups and the general public.

The state-of-the-art experimental set-up to conduct controlled experiments on key marine organisms would cost upwards of $500,000. Money for BEACON salaries and educational programmes is also needed.

Dr. Bates said the scientific community has been concerned about global warming for a long time, but now their worries have expanded to include ocean acidification.

"We know very little about ocean acidification," Dr. Andersson said. "We need to understand it better. Bermuda is an especially suitable place to do this research."

Bermuda is a good place to study ocean acidification because there is a natural gradient in carbon dioxide across the reef platform that allows for important cross-comparison between marine calcifiers (such as corals) exposed to different carbon dioxide conditions but near similar environmental conditions in a natural environment.

It is also has one of the most northerly coral reefs in the world.

That means that Bermuda's coral reefs would experience critical chemical changes in the ocean sooner than coral reefs in the tropical latitudes.

"Bermuda would act as the canary in the coal mine," said Dr. Andersson.

Another reason for setting up the BEACON Centre here is that BIOS already has a long history of coral reef work.

BIOS' Bermuda Atlantic Times Series (BATS) project has monitored conditions in the ocean off Bermuda since the 1980s.

"The Bermuda Government is funding the monitoring sites along the coral reef platform," said Dr. Bates. "That looks at the changes of Bermuda's coral reef and sea grass. Through (BATS) we also have the longest time series of chemical data in the world. We have some data going back to the 1970s, but continuously since 1983.

"That provides a reference point to what is happening to the coral reef in Bermuda itself."

Another reason to monitor decreasing pH values in the ocean off Bermuda is that Bermuda itself has no point source of pollution.

The Bermuda coral reefs are being affected by global air pollution, not localised pollution.

"Ocean acidification is one of the big environmental threats to marine ecosystems," said Dr. Andersson. "We are finally recognising the problem. It will probably be one of the big topics at the Conference of the Parties (COP15) in Copenhagen, Denmark in December."

COP15 is the fifteenth Conference of the Parties (COP) under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

The conference will take place from December 7 to December 18. Leaders from 189 countries are expected to take part, and at least 10,000 people from around the world will attend with observer status.

The goals of the climate change convention are to stabilise the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at a level that prevents dangerous man-made climate changes.

COP15 is considered a prelude to renegotiating the Kyoto Protocol that attempted to reduce or control the growth of carbon dioxide emissions by specified amounts.

In 1997, many developed countries such as Japan and Australia and nations in the European Union, ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

But President George W. Bush, refused to agree to it, because countries like China and India, were not bound by the protocol.

The Obama government is expected to get behind climate change "robustly", so there is a lot riding on COP15.

Dr. Bates, Dr. Andersson and Dr. de Putron believe there is a lot riding on the upcoming COP15 conference early next month.

Reducing carbon dioxide emissions, global warming and ocean acidification, promised to be a hot topic.

"China recently passed the United States in total carbon dioxide emissions," said Dr. Andersson. "They want to have their development. That is why the Copenhagen meeting is such an important venue. But it will be very challenging to decide what goal they will shoot for."

Dr. Andersson said that unfortunately, the actual carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere exceeds the worst case scenarios of most scientists.

"It doesn't seem like we will slow down in the foreseeable future," said Dr. Andersson.

Dr. Bates said if the world's leaders don't take action now the world's temperature may increase by about five degrees fahrenheit within the near future.

He believed that such a drastic temperature change would cause worldwide political and economic chaos, shifting water and food resources, and making continents like Africa even drier.

"If we act now, we could maybe slow down the rate of change and maybe it would only rise by two degrees," he said.

Dr. de Putron, whose speciality is the study of coral reefs, said the ordinary person can help by reducing their reliance on fossil fuels.

"I try and stress that everything counts, because you could slow down the rate of climate change," she said.

"We need to work on reducing our use of energy," said Dr. Bates.

He said even something as simple as growing your own vegetables helped.

"We bring everything into Bermuda," he said. "Perhaps if everyone grew a few vegetables in their garden that would be one less trip the container ships had to make to Bermuda.

"Bermuda can try and diversify energy production. The government is already pretty cognizant of that and are trying to diversify. But we are always going to be pretty energy hungry."

For more information telephone BIOS at 297-1880 or go to their web page at www.bios.edu .

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