Ocean acidification and calcareous plankton

Changes in temperature have direct consequences on many physiological processes (e.g. oxygen metabolism, adult mortality, reproduction, respiration, reproductive development) and control virtually all life-processes from the molecular to the cellular and from the regional ecosystem level to biogeographical provinces. Temperature also modulates species interactions (e.g. competition, prey-predator interactions and foodweb structures) both directly and indirectly; ultimately, changes in temperatures caused by climate change can lead to impacts on the biodiversity, size structure, carrying capacity and functioning of the whole pelagic ecosystem. While temperature has direct consequences on many biological and ecological traits it also modifies the marine environment by influencing oceanic circulation and by enhancing the stability of the water column and hence nutrient availability. Under many climate change scenarios, oceanic primary production is predicted to decline due to nutrient limitation.

While temperature, light and nutrients are probably the most important physical variables structuring marine ecosystems, the pelagic realm will also have to contend with, apart from global climate warming, the impact of anthropogenic CO2 directly influencing the pH of the oceans. Evidence collected and modelled to date indicates that rising CO2 has led to chemical changes in the ocean which has led to the oceans becoming more acidic. Ocean acidification has the potential to affect the process of calcification and therefore certain planktonic organisms (e.g. coccolithophores, foraminifera, pelagic molluscs) may be particularly vulnerable to future CO2 emissions. Apart from climate warming, potential chemical changes to the oceans and their effect on the biology of the oceans could further reduce the ocean's ability to absorb additional CO2 from the atmosphere, which in turn could affect the rate and scale of climate warming.

Presently in the North Atlantic certain calcareous taxa are actually increasing in terms of abundance, a trend associated with climate shifts in the Northern Hemisphere temperature (see below figure of foraminifera frequency). However, there is some observed evidence from the Southern Ocean that modern shell weights of foraminifera have decreased compared with much older sediment core records with acidification being implicated (Nature Geoscience (2009) doi:10.1038/ngeo460). It is not yet known how much of an effect acidification will have on the biology of the oceans in the 21st century, whether rapid climate warming will override the acidification problem, and whether or not species can buffer the effects of acidification through adaptation. The CPR survey is providing a critical baseline (both in space and time) and is currently monitoring these vulnerable organisms in case in the future these organisms begin to show negative effects due to acidification.

Read more:


McQuatters-Gollop, A., Burkill, P., Beaugrand, G., Edwards, M., Gattuso, J.-P. and Johns, D.G., 2010. Atlas of Calcifying Plankton: Results from the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey. SAHFOS, Plymouth, UK, 20.

Contact at SAHFOS: Abigail McQuatters-Gollop



The percent frequency of foraminifera (top) and coccolithophores (bottom) recorded on CPR samples.