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Ocean acidity is dissolving shells of tiny snails off U.S. West Coast

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

NOAA-led research team has found the first evidence that acidity of continental shelf waters off the West Coast is dissolving the shells of tiny free-swimming marine snails, called pteropods, which provide food for pink salmon, mackerel and herring, according to a new paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Researchers estimate that the percentage of pteropods in this region with dissolving shells due to ocean acidification has doubled in the nearshore habitat since the pre-industrial era and is on track to triple by 2050 when coastal waters become 70 percent more corrosive than in the pre-industrial era due to human-caused ocean acidification.

The new research documents the movement of corrosive waters onto the continental shelf from April to September during the upwelling season, when winds bring water rich in carbon dioxide up from depths of about 400-600 feet to the surface and onto the continental shelf.

"Our findings are the first evidence that a large fraction of the West Coast pteropod population is being affected by ocean acidification," said Nina Bednarsek, Ph.D., of NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, the lead author of the paper. "Dissolving coastal pteropod shells point to the need to study how acidification may be affecting the larger marine ecosystem. These nearshore waters provide essential habitat to a great diversity of marine species, including many economically important fish that support coastal economies and provide us with food."

The term “ocean acidification” describes the process of ocean water becoming corrosive as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human sources. This change in ocean chemistry is affecting marine life, particularly organisms with calcium carbonate skeletons or shells, such as corals, oysters, mussels, and small creatures in the early stages of the food chain such as pteropods. The pteropod is a free-swimming snail found in oceans around the world that grows to a size of about one-eighth to one-half inch.

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