As Oceans Grow More Acidic, a Tiny Plant Thrives

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As more carbon dioxide gets pumped into the air, oceans are becoming more acidic. Scientists say that is damaging coral and other marine life that make shell or other skeletal material. But researchers have discovered a hugely abundant plankton that actually likes the ocean more acidic.

LYNN NEARY, host:

Oceans are becoming more acidic. That's because they're absorbing a lot of the extra carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere. Scientists worry that acidic oceans could kill off delicate plants and animals there, but NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that some of the organisms aren't behaving as predicted.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: An acidic ocean is supposed to be bad news, especially for creatures that make shells or external skeletons, so called calcifiers, coral reefs for example.

But coral is just a fraction of all the shell-makers in the ocean. There are also zillions of tiny, one-celled plants called coccolithophores, and that's the only time I'll say that word in this story.

They're weird because they're basically plants that grow shells, kind of like rows of hubcaps, and they're important, says oceanographer Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez. They pull a lot of carbon out of the atmosphere and sink it to the ocean bottom when they die.

Ms. DEBORA IGLESIAS-RODRIGUEZ (Oceanographer, National Oceanography Center, Southampton, England): It is the down-flux of carbon from the surface to the deep ocean, what is really controlling the earth's carbon-sink.

JOYCE: Acid seawater should be bad for them, but Rodriguez, from the National Oceanography Center in Southampton, England, found that some of these creatures actually like a more acidic ocean. They grow even better, and that seems to have been going on for a couple of hundred years.

And that's just the opposite of what most ocean scientists expected, says oceanographer Victoria Fabry at the University of California, San Marcos.

Ms. VICTORIA FABRY (Oceanographer, University of California, San Marcos): What this shows is that calcifying organisms in fact do not have a uniform response to elevated carbon dioxide and that there will be ecological winners and losers in the future.

JOYCE: In short, a warming planet is creating a lot of surprises. The research appears in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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