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Here's What Burning Fossil Fuels Is Doing to the World's Oceans

New satellite imagery will help scientists better analyze the world's acidifying oceans, which are absorbing about 25 percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by fossil fuel burning.
Image via Ifremer/ESA/CNES

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Burning fossil fuels doesn't only impact the atmosphere; it is also changing the world's oceans. About a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted by humans ends up in the seas, which causes them to become more acidic, killing off coral reefs and some types of shellfish.

Scientists trying to monitor changes in the ocean's acidity are usually stuck measuring small portions of the vast ocean with instruments deployed from expensive research boats. But in a paper published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, an international team of researchers describes a new technique for measuring ocean acidification from space.


Five years of global sea-surface salinity from space. (Image by European Space Agency)

The technique uses data from existing satellites, one measuring ocean temperatures with thermal cameras and another operated by the European Space Agency's Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite.

The pH at the ocean's surface become 30 percent more acidic since the start of the Industrial Revolution, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Some models indicate that the oceans could become 150 percent more acidic, compared to pre-industrial levels, by the end of the century.

Increased acidity can be deadly for oysters, clams, and other shellfish that rely on calcium carbonate to build their protective shells. It's also been shown to inhibit the growth and reproduction of coral reefs, which provide a foundation for entire aquatic ecosystems.

"Satellites are likely to become increasingly important for monitoring ocean acidification, especially in remote waters," Jamie Shutler, an oceanographer at University of Exeter and head of the research team, said in a release. "We are pioneering this data fusion approach so that we can observe large areas of Earth's oceans, allowing us to quickly and easily identify those areas most at risk from the increasing acidification."

Animation shows alarming trend in the Arctic Ocean. Watch it here.