Under the Sea

by Matt Hutaff

Branwen Williams scuba diving

Driving to work in the morning, you might not realize your car is harming the Earth’s oceans. Yet compelling research co-authored by Branwen Williams, assistant professor of environmental analysis, reveals we’re not only poisoning our water supply with carbon dioxide emissions, we’re doing so on a scale unseen for 300 million years.

The study, “The Geological Record of Ocean Acidification,” was published by Science in March and has since garnered the attention of environmentalists around the globe.

Research analyzed present-day seawater chemistry conditions against those seen over many epochs. Today’s acidification, according to Williams, has no basis of comparison; the only event similar to what we’re experiencing today was also marked by the extinction of thousands of ocean species millions of years ago.

“What’s happening is unprecedented in the past 300 million years,” she says, “It’s a lot more difficult for marine organisms to live, and this is going to have severe implications for what our oceans look like in terms of biodiversity in the future.

“The rate of change is dramatic; the ocean acidification from burning fossil fuels puts large amounts of CO 2 into the atmosphere, and some is dissolving into the water.”

According to the data, the acidification has increased substantially in the past 100-150 years. Williams hopes her research helps people understand the severe problem of air pollution to our oceans and that this understanding influences people’s everyday resource consumption.

“I think as a society we assume the ocean can indefinitely absorb any anthropogenic [caused by humans] influence,” Williams says, “but this is not true.”

Her advice: “Reduce your carbon footprint. Stay local. Let your local politicians know this is an important issue. If everyone makes small changes in their lifestyle, that’s going to have a big impact in what’s happening on a global scale.”

Above: Professor Branwen Williams, top right, and Jordan Watson sample coral cores along Flint Island.


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