About one third of the carbon dioxide released by anthropogenic activity is absorbed by the oceans. But the CO2 uptake lowers the pH and alters the chemical balance of the oceans. This phenomenon is called ocean acidification, and is occurring at a rate faster than at any time in the last 300 million years (Gillings, 2014; Hönisch et al. 2012). Acidification affects the biogeochemical dynamics of calcium carbonate, organic carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorus in the ocean and interferes with a range of processes, including growth, calcification, development, reproduction and behaviour in a wide range of marine organisms like planktonic coccolithophores, foraminifera, pteropods and other molluscs, echinoderms, corals, and coralline algae. Rapid additions of carbon dioxide during extreme events in Earth history, including the end-Permian mass extinction (252 million years ago) and the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM, 56 million years ago) may have driven surface waters to undersaturation.
The end-Permian extinction is the most severe biotic crisis in the fossil record, with as much as 95% of the marine animal species and a similarly high proportion of terrestrial plants and animals going extinct . This great crisis occurred about 252 million years ago (Ma) during an episode of global warming. The cause or causes of the Permian extinction remain a mystery but new data indicates that the extinction had a duration of 60,000 years and may be linked to massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps. The same study found evidence that 10,000 years before the die-off, the ocean experienced a pulse of light carbon that most likely led to a spike of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Volcanism and coal burning also contribute gases to the atmosphere, such as Cl, F, and CH3Cl from coal combustion, that suppress ozone formation.
Ocean acidification in the geological record, is often inferred from a decrease in the accumulation and preservation of CaCO3 in marine sediments, potentially indicated by an increased degree of fragmentation of foraminiferal shells. But, recently, a variety of trace-element and isotopic tools have become available to infer past seawater carbonate chemistry. The boron isotope composition of carbonate samples obtained from a shallow-marine platform section at Wadi Bih on the Musandam Peninsula, United Arab Emirates, allowed to reconstruct seawater pH values and atmospheric pCO2 concentrations and obtain for the very first time, direct evidence of ocean acidification in the Permo-Triassic boundary. The evidence indicates that the first phase of extinction was coincident with a slow injection of carbon into the atmosphere, and ocean pH remained stable. During the second extinction pulse, however, a rapid and large injection of carbon caused an abrupt acidification event that drove the preferential loss of heavily calcified marine biota (Clarkson et al, 2015).
The increasing evidence that the end-Permian mass extinction was precipitated by rapid release of CO2 into Earth’s atmosphere is a valuable reminder for an immediate action on global carbon emission reductions.
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