The carbon cycle is simply unable to balance quickly enough, resulting in a dim future for marine organisms
We are all too aware of the devastating impact of increasing carbon dioxide levels on climate change, but for the past six years marine scientists at Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) have been quietly studying the lesser-known but nonetheless potentially destructive ‘other CO2 problem' of ocean acidification.
Coined as such by Dr Carol Turley, a Microbial Ecologist at PML, the other CO2 problem could exceed the limits of the oceans' natural carbonate buffering system, responsible for maintaining a pH of around 8.2 for the past 25 million years. As the oceans mop up more and more CO2 from the atmosphere, carbonic acid is produced, causing major problems for marine life such as sea snails, corals, barnacles and plankton, which rely on calcium carbonate for their development. Plankton supports most of the oceans' food chains and produces half of our oxygen, so the consequences could be disastrous.
'We think that calcifiers (shelled organisms) will be at most at risk but others may be impacted too. Indirect effects could ripple through the foodweb too but these are harder to predict because marine foodwebs are very complex, explains Dr Turley.
Research teams predict a drop in ocean pH of half a unit, equivalent to 150 percent increase in ocean acidity, from pre-industrial levels by 2100. And that's if we stop all CO2 emissions today. A 30 percent increase has already been observed, so we're well on the way towards this frightening figure. The problem is not the increase in concentration of atmospheric CO2 so much as the rate at which this increase is occurring - a whopping 100 times greater than the natural fluctuations observed in recent millennia. The carbon cycle is simply unable to balance quickly enough, resulting in a dim future for marine organisms.
Lights, camera, action
In search of an inspiring, attention-grabbing way to communicate the other CO2 problem to politicians, policy-makers and the public, Dr Turley approached Ridgeway School in Plymouth and asked pupils to create an animated film. The 11- to 15-year-olds, some of whom had already made the EUR-OCEANS award-winning film ‘Our Coast, Our Sea, OUR PLANET!', jumped at the opportunity. Funded by the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), the pupils pulled out all the stops to complete the project in a week.
'They were hugely enthusiastic, there were 17 children from different classes so they had to learn to work in a team and value each others' input. After a lecture from me at the school, they researched the topic with their teachers, spent a day at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth researching and drawing the animals and then spent five days making the animation, writing and recording the script,' says Dr Turley.
Stuart Moore and Kayla Parker from local filmmakers Sundog Media worked with the children on the production and animation of the project. 'It's a credit to the kids that they were able to work in such a productive and focused way on what is fairly complex subject matter,' says Stuart.
Amusingly portrayed by colourful plasticine models, the seven-and-a-half-minute animation features King Poseidon and his advisory team. Using the children's voices, the film opens with scientist Doctorpus rushing in to break the news to King Poseidon that the ocean is becoming more acidic. A worried Doctorpus explains the chemistry behind the problem and outlines how the shellfish and oceanic food chains are likely to be affected.
King Poseidon investigates the problem by turning to his agents Britney Star and Michelle Mussel. In a particularly amusing scene he witnesses a discussion between a sea lion and seal about their fate. Using Derek the diatom as a producer in his example of a food chain, the seal explains to a horrified sea lion why his beloved clams will no longer be on the menu as the ocean increases in acidity.
Doctorpus informs King Poseidon that the solution is to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the sea, but Squid Marley intercepts to point out that they can't do anything - it's the humans that need to change before it's too late. The trio use King Poseidon's trident to broadcast a satellite message to the humans, warning them about the dangers and asking them to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions. 'Act now!' is the final plea from King Poseidon. How very apt.
It's not a perfectly polished production; in fact it's exactly what you'd expect from a group of eager school children given a week to share their message with the world. But it sends a clear, uncomplicated message in an endearing format and I would recommend taking a few minutes to view this film and show your support.
The film has received a positive verdict from scientists at several international gatherings including the Copenhagen Climate Change Congress and a meeting of the Royal Institution in London. It has also been awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry Bill Bryson Prize for Science Communication, reflecting its impressive impact. So is this the way forward for informing the public about environmental concerns and making politicians stand up and take notice?
Dr Turley certainly thinks so. 'This is the chance for the younger generation to learn about the issue and to have a voice that might be heard by policy-makers that are making decisions about the future of the planet,' she says. 'We have made a DVD to distribute to policy-makers and the European Geosciences Union liked it so much they have ordered 10,000 copies for all their members and it will be part of their education web site. People all over the world are using it for educational purposes and also as a means of communicating the issue to other stakeholders.'
Kayla Parker from Sundog Media is also optimistic. 'I think we need to raise awareness of the issues facing our planet in different ways and across a range of media, so that the messages are reinforced and more people are switched on to what's happening. Work that describes things from a child's perspective is really valuable because they will be trying to deal with these potential future environmental catastrophes when they are grown up,' she says. She also explains that clay animation in particular allows children to express their thoughts in a visual form which is very powerful and immediate.
Kayla is now working on another environmental animation project called ‘Future City' with students and colleagues at the University of Plymouth, as well as children from Stuart Road Primary School in Plymouth. The project is looking at what Plymouth's local environment will look like in the future and exploring options for recycling and sustainable living. It will be interesting to see whether further projects enjoy the same success and publicity as ‘The Other CO2 Problem' and help to pave the way for a new wave of science communication.
'The Other CO2 Problem' on YouTube
Research at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory