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News Release 10-186

NSF Awards Grants to Study Effects of Ocean Acidification

Projects address concern for acidifying marine ecosystems

Photo of a deep-sea coral.

Corallium rubrum and other deep-sea corals are affected by ocean acidification.

October 13, 2010

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With increasing levels of carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere and moving into marine systems, the world's oceans are becoming more acidic, scientists have shown.

To address the growing concern for acidifying marine systems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded 21 grants under the Ocean Acidification theme of its Climate Research Investment. The awards are supported and managed by NSF's Office of Polar Programs, Directorate for Geosciences, and Directorate for Biological Sciences.

Projects will foster research on the nature, extent and effects of ocean acidification on marine environments and organisms in the past, present and future--from tropical systems to icy seas.

"Ocean acidification likely affects marine ecosystems, life histories, food webs and biogeochemical cycling," says Karl Erb, director of NSF's Office of Polar Programs. "We need to understand the chemistry of ocean acidification and its interplay with marine biochemical and physiological processes--before Earth's seas become inhospitable to life as we know it."

Animal species from pteropods--delicate, butterfly-like planktonic drifters--to hard corals are affected by ocean acidification; so, too, are the unseen microbes that fuel ocean productivity and influence the chemical functioning of ocean waters.

As oceans become more acidic, the balance of molecules needed for shell-bearing organisms to manufacture shells and skeletons is altered. The physiology of many marine species, from microbes to fish, may be affected. A myriad of chemical reactions and cycles are influenced by the pH of the oceans.

Has ocean life faced similar challenges in our planet's past?

"Earth system history informs our understanding of the effects of ocean acidification on the present-day and future ocean," says Tim Killeen, NSF assistant director for Geosciences. 

"For a true comprehension of how acidification will change the oceans," says Killeen, "we must integrate paleoecology with marine chemistry, physics, and ecology, and an understanding of the past environmental conditions on Earth."

NSF's ocean acidification awards involve researchers from all these disciplines. 

The investigators will use diverse approaches such as observational systems, experimental studies, theory and modeling, says Erb, to make important new discoveries about how we're changing the world's oceans.

NSF Ocean Acidification Awards

PI (Principal Investigator): Paul Falkowski; Institution: Rutgers University
Title: The molecular basis of ocean acidification effects on calcification in zooxanthellate corals
Summary: Coral reefs are formed and maintained by calcifying organisms, particularly reef-building corals. Current predictions are that coral species will be affected; however, the limited number of available measurements exhibit significant variability. This program is focused on the molecular basis for calcification in corals in order to understand how corals will respond to ocean acidification.

PI: Emily Carrington; Institution: University of Washington
Title: Effects of ocean acidification on coastal organisms: an ecomaterials perspective
Summary: Ocean acidification may affect the integrity of biologically-manufactured materials, which in turn may alter interactions among members of marine communities. The research emphasizes an ecomaterial approach. A team of biomaterials and ecomechanics experts will apply their unique perspective to detail how environmental conditions affect the structural integrity and ecological performance of organisms.

PI: Uta Passow; Institution: University of California-Santa Barbara
Title: Will high carbon dioxide conditions affect production, partitioning and fate of organic matter?
Summary: Researchers will investigate the potential effects of ocean acidification on the strength of the biological pump--the transfer of carbon from the surface ocean to its depths--under an increased carbon dioxide scenario. How carbon over-consumption affects the strength of the biological pump will depend on the fate of the extra carbon that is either incorporated into phytoplankton cells forming particulate organic matter (POM), or is excreted as dissolved organic matter (DOM).

PI: Francois Morel; Institution: Princeton University
Title: Effects of pCO2 [partial pressure of carbon dioxide] and pH on photosynthesis, respiration and growth in marine phytoplankton
Summary: This project is an examination of the growth rates and physiological responses of marine phytoplankton to increasing concentrations of carbon dioxide and acidity. The results will make it possible to assess, and eventually predict, future changes in phytoplankton ecology and ocean productivity in response to ocean acidification.

PI: Jonathon Stillman; Institution: San Francisco State University
Title: Synergistic effects of temperature and pH variability on physiology, transcriptome and proteome of porcelain crabs
Summary: Organisms that live on the ocean floor (crabs, sea stars and oysters) experience daily variations in their pH (acidity) that are greater than those caused by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This project asks the question: how do increases in ocean acidity, which changes slowly through time, compare with the daily variations in pH that seafloor organisms experience? The impacts of simultaneous changes in pH and temperature will be assessed, and scientists will determine whether early life history stages (crab larvae) are more sensitive to ocean acidification than adults.

PI: Robert Carpenter; Institution: California State University-Northridge
Title: The effects of ocean acidification on the organismic biology and community ecology of corals, calcified algae and coral reefs
Summary: The project focuses on the corals, calcified algae, and coral reefs of Moorea, French Polynesia, and establishes baseline community-wide calcification data for the detection of ocean acidification effects on a decadal scale. It builds on the research context and climate change focus of the NSF Moorea Coral Reef Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site, one of 26 such NSF LTER sites around the world. While coral reefs have undergone unprecedented changes in community structure in the past 50 years, they now may be exposed to their gravest threat since the Triassic.

PI: James McClintock; Institution: University of Alabama-Birmingham
Title: The effects of ocean acidification and rising sea surface temperatures on shallow-water benthic organisms in Antarctica
Summary: Researchers will investigate the individual and combined effects of rising ocean acidification and sea surface temperatures on shallow-water calcified benthic organisms in Western Antarctic Peninsula marine communities. The Southern Ocean ecosystem is among the most vulnerable marine environments, due to low carbonate ion content of seawater and weakly calcified organisms. The project employs both single-species and multi-species level approaches to evaluating the impacts of rising ocean acidification and seawater temperature at the organismal and ecosystem levels.

PI: Baerbel Hoenisch; Institution: Columbia University, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
Title: Calibration and application of the boron isotope seawater-pH indicator in deep-water corals
Summary: Carbon dioxide enters the ocean at high latitudes and spreads into the deep ocean interior. Because carbonate saturation is generally reduced in the deep ocean, deep-sea corals may be particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification. This project will examine the history of pH-variations experienced by these corals and provide new insights into the effect of changing seawater carbonate chemistry and ocean acidification on deep-sea coral reefs.

PI: Jeremy Mathis; Institution: University of Alaska-Fairbanks
Title: Observation and Prediction of Ocean Acidification in the Western Arctic Ocean - Impacts of Physical and Biogeochemical Processes on Carbonate Mineral States
Summary: The investigators will assess ocean acidification in the western Arctic Ocean, particularly the key physical, chemical, and biogeochemical processes influencing the saturation of aragonite and calcite. The study will develop algorithms for determining saturation state, and set the stage for assessing the potential effects of ocean acidification on benthic and pelagic communities.  

PI: Taro Takahashi; Institution: Columbia University, Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory
Title: Climatological Mean Distribution of pH in Surface Waters in the Unified pH Scale and Mean Rate of changes in Selected Areas
Summary: Researchers will construct the global distribution of surface ocean pH in a single unified scale based on observations of pCO2 (partial pressure of carbon dioxide), total alkalinity and total carbon dioxide ion concentration in surface waters. Their efforts will allow for the development of a global ocean pH and carbonate concentration baseline that is anchored to international carbon dioxide standards common to these atmospheric and oceanic carbon dioxide measurements.

PI: Lisa Levin; Institution: University of California-San Diego Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Title: Development of geochemical proxies to evaluate larval pH-exposure history
Summary: This project is a partnership among connectivity ecology, metal isotope geochemistry, and paleoclimatology experts to identify new proxies for ocean acidification that can be used to assess pH exposures in living organisms--and potentially to interpret the geologic record. The investigators will determine if the isotopic composition of larval calcium carbonates reflects changes in seawater chemistry driven by ocean acidification and, in some instances, with associated decline in oxygen levels.

PI: Adina Paytan; Institution: University of California-Santa Cruz
Title: Calcification in low saturation seawater: What can we learn from organisms in the proximity of low pH, undersaturated submarine springs?
Summary: In this study, researchers will assess the utility of low pH submarine springs as field study sites for investigating calcification at low aragonite saturation. Many reef-building corals cease calcification at saturation as high as 2.0; around these springs, calcifying corals inhabit waters well below this value. Work will take place at a series of springs in Mexico, which can provide a natural laboratory to study controls on coral calcification.

PI: Edward Urban; Institution: Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR)
Title: Third Symposium on "The Ocean in a High-CO2 World"
Summary: The Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) of UNESCO, and International Geosphere - Biosphere Programme (IGBP) have formed a committee to plan the third symposium on The Ocean in a High-CO2 World. This symposium will provide a forum for the global community of scientists studying ocean acidification to share their research results through oral and poster presentations; identify priority research topics and approaches for international collaboration through discussion groups; create a summary of the latest research results for policymakers; and create a special issue of a peer-reviewed journal. The symposium will be hosted by a consortium of institutions in Monterey, California in autumn 2012.

PI: Bruce Menge; Institution: Oregon State University
Title: Acclimation and adaptation to ocean acidification of key ecosystem components in the California Current System
Summary: This large collaborative project will investigate the impacts of ocean acidification on two ecologically important marine species in relation to variation in carbonate chemistry in the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem. The seven-institution team comprises investigators with expertise in physical and chemical oceanography, marine ecology, biochemistry, molecular physiology, and molecular genetics. They will carry out an integrated lab and field multi-site investigation of the ecological, physiological, and evolutionary responses of sea urchins and mussels to spatial and temporal variations in ocean acidification. This effort will augment and complement other studies focused on ocean acidification in the northern California and Oregon region.

PI: Gareth Lawson; Institution: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Title: Horizontal and Vertical Distribution of Thecosome Pteropods in Relation to Carbonate Chemistry in the Northwest Atlantic and Northeast Pacific
Summary: Pteropods are a group of calcareous planktonic molluscs in coastal and open ocean pelagic ecosystems of the world's oceans. These animals secrete an aragonite shell, and thus are highly sensitive to ocean acidification. In many regions, however, relatively little is known about the abundance, distribution, vertical migratory behavior, and ecological importance of pteropods. The primary objective of this project is to quantify the distribution, abundance, species composition, shell condition, and vertical migratory behavior of pteropods in the northwest Atlantic and northeast Pacific, and relate these to hydrography and measurements of carbonate chemistry, including vertical and horizontal distributions of aragonite saturation.

PI: Robert Thunell; Institution: University of South Carolina-Columbia
Title: Real-time assessment of ocean acidification proxies and their incorporation in the marine sediment record
Summary: The change in atmospheric carbon dioxide during the last 200 years and its effect on seawater chemistry are not unique but have occurred frequently throughout geologic history. Quantifying the response of the oceans to such naturally occurring changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide provides valuable insights for modeling and predicting future changes in ocean chemistry associated with anthropogenic increases in carbon dioxide. This work will further develop and calibrate three carbonate ion and pH proxies using data from a 15-year time series of sediment trap samples and water column chemistry measurements as part of the Cariaco Basin ocean time series.

PI: Sean Place; Institution: University of South Carolina-Columbia
Title: Identifying adaptive responses of polar fishes in a vulnerable ecosystem
Summary: Notothenoids, the dominant fish of Antarctic marine ecosystems, are exquisitely adapted to cold environments and have narrow physiological tolerances. This research will investigate the interacting and potentially synergistic influence of two climate-related oceanographic features--ocean acidification and the projected rise in mean sea surface temperatures--on the physiological performance of this unique group of fishes that are prominent components of Antarctic food webs.

PI: Jeffrey Runge; Institution: University of Maine
Title: Impact of ocean acidification on survival of early life stages of planktonic copepods in the genus Calanus in the northern oceans
Summary: While attention on impacts of predicted acidification of the world's oceans has focused on calcifying organisms, non-calcifying plankton may also be vulnerable. In this project, the investigator will evaluate the potential for impacts of ocean acidification on the reproductive success of three species of planktonic copepods in the genus Calanus that are prominent in high latitude oceans and play an important role in marine food webs.

PI: Andrea Grottoli; Institution: Ohio State University
Title: Interactive Effects of Temperature, Nutrients, and Ocean Acidification on Coral Physiology and Calcification
Summary: This project will investigate the possible synergistic and antagonistic effects of elevated temperature, carbon dioxide, and nutrients on the physiology and internal calcifying chemistry of several species of corals in a laboratory setting. Research tools include the assessment of coral energy reserves and metabolic demand, symbiotic algal physiology and molecular diversity, coral calcification, and direct measurement of the internal coral pH and carbonate concentration via microprobes.

PI: Anne Cohen; Institution: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Title: An Investigation of the Role of Nutrition in the Coral Calcification Response to Ocean Acidification
Summary: It's predicted that coral calcification rates could decline by up to 80 percent of modern values by the end of this century. The investigators will examine corals' energetic status, tightly coupled to the availability of inorganic nutrients and/or food availability, as determinants of the calcification response to ocean acidification. Their hypothesis, if confirmed, suggests that predicted changes in coastal and open ocean nutrient concentrations over the course of this century could play a critical role in coral reef response to ocean acidification.

PI: Jorge Sarmiento; Institution: Princeton University
Title: Does the strength of the carbonate pump change with ocean stratification and acidification and how?
Summary: This project will improve the ability to predict the response of the carbonate pump to ocean acidification and stratification through enhanced understanding of the controlling factors of the export of calcium carbonate from the surface, and cycling through the water column and sediments. Key questions to be addressed are: Does the strength of the carbonate pump change in response to ocean acidification and stratification? Is the calcium carbonate export more closely associated with picoplankton and nanoplankton ecosystems than with blooming microplankton? How do organic particle fluxes and the saturation state of seawater affect the dissolution of calcium carbonate in the water column and sediments?

This program is part of NSF's investment in Science, Engineering, and Education for Sustainability (SEES). The overall SEES portfolio addresses challenges in climate and energy research and education using a systems-based approach to understanding, predicting, and reacting to change in the natural, social, and built environments.

For FY 2010, new solicitations were released that aligned with key aspects of NSF's SEES portfolio. These solicitations (Water Sustainability and Climate; Dimensions of Biodiversity; Ocean Acidification; Regional and Decadal Earth Systems Modeling; and the Climate Change Education Program) resulted in 70 awards totaling $66 million.


Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF, (703) 292-7734, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2023 budget of $9.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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