Ocean acidification could actually be helping foraminifera and other shelled microorganisms, but at what cost?

An illustration of various foraminifera

Although we’ve only been talking about ocean acidification for a relatively short period of time, the acidity of the ocean has increased by 30 percent since 1750. Many creatures are having difficulty adapting to increased ocean acidification, especially coral and shellfish because they use lime to build their shells. In more acidic water, lime dissolves more easily, which is making those creatures weaker.

However, according to new research from the Royal Dutch Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ) and the Japanese Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), single-celled shellfish called foraminifera are actually making better shells in more acidic water.

The findings came as a shock to the researchers, but after a while they began to understand what is going on. Apparently the foraminifera are able to maintain low acidity inside their cell walls, which allows them to continue producing lime even in more acidic water. The researchers say that such an active biochemical regulation mechanism has never before been found.

However, while this sounds like good news for the foraminifera, it could have some larger implications for the global climate, especially if this ability is found in other single-celled creatures.

If more of these creatures can regulate the chemistry around them in the same way the foraminifera can, by putting carbon dioxide back into the oceans as part of their biochemical process, it could potentially decrease the ocean’s carbon sequestration ability.

“Over time, the concentration of dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans may start to increase. Consequently, the ability of the oceans to take up a large part of the carbon dioxide in the air may start to decrease,” wrote study co-author Professor Gert-Jan Reichart of NIOZ. “This would mean that more carbon dioxide would remain in the air, leading to a more rapid warming of our planet.”