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Carbon Dioxide and the Ocean


The buildup of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere and oceans continues to provoke changes in the natural environment that scientists have been working to measure for decades. Global increases in temperature are just one facet of a much larger issue that scientists at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science are dedicated to uncovering. “The Marine Inorganic Carbon Cycle,” a paper recently published in the journal Chemical Reviews, attempts to quantify over 60 years of research, reviewing a vast array of science that brings into question the Earth’s natural ability to rebound from the increase in inorganic carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and oceans.

Dr. Frank Millero, professor of marine and atmospheric chemistry at the Rosenstiel School and author of the study, has compiled a complete review of the carbon dioxide system ranging from the potential outcomes of the increase in dissolved inorganic carbon dioxide in the oceans, to the increase in hurricane intensity scientists feel may occur over the next hundred years. The paper aims to consolidate research that has addressed how carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial revolution have dramatically changed natural patterns in atmospheric and oceanic ecosystems.

“This paper is really a broad look at where scientific research is going in the future and where we need to invest more time and energy,” Millero said. “With oceanic and atmospheric carbon dioxide being the highest it has ever been in over 600,000 years, scientists are going to be looking at a lot of damage to natural food webs, coral dissolution, and widespread species extinction in the future.”

Carbon dioxide, the gas most responsible for the Earth’s increase in average global temperature, and most associated with anthropogenic disturbances, will affect nature’s ability to sustain life both above and below the waves. Millero points out that the gradual acidification of seawater, a process already occurring to varying extents, could eventually lead to oceans incapable of fostering life for mammals, fish, and even gastropods; those organisms which grow calcium carbonate shells for protection. Pteropods, tiny shelled marine organisms which secrete natural carbon dioxide may be one of the best ways to determine growing ocean acidification due to their high sensitivity to ocean pH. If these organisms one day disappear, their natural predators will be forced to migrate elsewhere for food sources. This could have large-scale effects on the availability of fish and carbon saturation in oceanic regions.

Though the paper covers many of the potential problems associated with the ocean’s uptake of inorganic carbon dioxide that may arise over the next century, it also provides some insights into what we can do to ameliorate the damage that has already taken place.

“The possibility of naturally disposing of inorganic carbon dioxide is a very important and capable process. More research needs to be done on the viability of some of the more known methods, but for starters, doubling gas mileage for cars in the U.S. would make a difference.”

Over the past 18 years, Kakuk has explored and documented hundreds of blue holes and underwater cave systems in the Bahamas. He and a team of expert divers use some of the most advanced technology available to explore to depths of up to 500 feet and through passages more than a mile long. Within the underwater caves of the Bahamas, they have discovered new species especially adapted to life in the dark, including blind crustaceans and fossils indicative of early life in the region. As a Navy Diver-turned-safety officer, explorer and even underwater stuntman, Kakuk has created a presentation certain to take his audience into the little known world of underwater caves, where few are able to venture.

The Lawrence J. and Florence A. DeGeorge Charitable Trust and the Charles N. and Eleanor Knight Lee Foundation sponsor this year’s monthly lecture series. The Rosenstiel School designed this series of evening programs specifically for the South Florida non-scientific community to learn more about our blue planet and to meet distinguished scientists and explorers from around the world.

The next lecture in the series will be Thursday, April 26 and is titled, “Reefs of the Past: What They Tell Us About Today’s Coral Gardens,” with Dr. Noel James, professor and research chair, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada.

All events are free and open to the public; however, seating is limited. For further information, call 305/421-4061

Rosenstiel School is part of the University of Miami and, since its founding in the 1940s, has grown into one of the world’s premier marine and atmospheric research institutions. See


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