Protecting the Ocean, One Drop at a Time: IAEA Commemorates World Oceans Day

Researchers use various scientific techniques, including nuclear, to explore how ocean acidification and climate change influence the chemical and biological processes affecting our oceans. (Photo: J. L. Teyssie) 

With just a drop of ocean water, a scientist can explore how ocean acidification and climate change is influencing the chemical and biological processes affecting our oceans. Using various scientific techniques, including nuclear, is an important step towards protecting the world’s oceans.

“To understand how the ocean is reacting to increasing acidification, we have to understand how the ocean is changing at a molecular scale,” said David Osborn, Director of the IAEA Environment Laboratories in Monaco. “The isotopic tools developed and advanced by the IAEA are key to this understanding.” The mandate of the Monaco Laboratories includes support to IAEA Member States in their use of the latest isotopic techniques to increase their understanding of the marine carbon cycle and the effects of ocean acidification on marine organisms. Watch this video to find out more about the IAEA's laboratories, Understanding and Protecting the Environment.

Alongside its contribution to rising global temperatures, carbon dioxide (CO2), a key driver of anthropogenic climate change, released into the atmosphere is also being absorbed by the world’s oceans. It is estimated that the oceans have absorbed 30% of all CO2 released into the atmosphere. This makes oceans more acidic, and the acidity of ocean surface waters is estimated to triple by the end of this century, Osborn said.

The double CO2 consequence — ocean acidification and warming — is affecting the ocean’s capacity to provide key ecological functions, including the absorption and storage of carbon.

Molecular-scale studies of ocean water and marine life, like this coral, can help scientists understand how oceans are changing. (Photo: J. L. Teyssie)

Nuclear techniques track changing ocean patterns

The nuclear and isotopic techniques developed by the IAEA assist Member States to better understand the physical and chemical processes in the ocean. For example, a natural radionuclide of thorium can be used to study the flux of carbon from the surface water to far below. Such understanding of the marine carbon cycle is crucial to improving the accuracy of climate change models and project future effects.

Isotopic techniques can also be used to understand changes in ocean acidity over time and its effects on marine life, which can impact economies, as well as global food security. The seawater pH levels from earlier periods are ‘recorded’ in fossilized marine organisms and long-lived corals, which can be assessed by using these techniques to measure certain isotopes. Similarly, these techniques can be used to study the biological response of marine species to ocean acidification, such as rates of primary production, growth and calcification.

Collaborating with international partners

The IAEA Environment Laboratories are also home to the Ocean Acidification International Coordination Centre (OA-ICC), launched at the United Nations Rio+20 Conference in 2012 in response to recommendations from the scientific community and the increasing concern of its Members States. The OA-ICC works to communicate, promote and facilitate global activities on ocean acidification in three major areas: science; training and knowledge transfer as well as communication; to serve both a scientific and general audience.

In an effort to address these challenges, the OA-ICC, in collaboration with the Monaco Scientific Centre (CSM), is releasing a series of outcomes and recommendations for policy makers related to the consequences of ocean acidification on coastal communities and suggested strategies for adaptation and mitigation.

Last update: 10 March 2016