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Biological Impact of Elevated Ocean CO2 Concentrations: Lessons from Animal Physiology and Earth History

Abstract

CO2 currently accumulating in the atmosphere permeates into ocean surface layers, where it may impact on marine animals in addition to effects caused by global warming. At the same time, several countries are developing scenarios for the disposal of anthropogenic CO2 in the worlds' oceans, especially the deep sea. Elevated CO2 partial pressures (hypercapnia) will affect the physiology of water breathing animals, a phenomenon also considered in recent discussions of a role for CO2 in mass extinction events in earth history. Our current knowledge of CO2 effects ranges from effects of hypercapnia on acid-base regulation, calcification and growth to influences on respiration, energy turnover and mode of metabolism. The present paper attempts to evaluate critical processes and the thresholds beyond which these effects may become detrimental. CO2 elicits acidosis not only in the water, but also in tissues and body fluids. Despite compensatory accumulation of bicarbonate, acid-base parameters (pH, bicarbonate and CO2 levels) and ion levels reach new steady-state values, with specific, long-term effects on metabolic functions. Even though such processes may not be detrimental, they are expected to affect long-term growth and reproduction and may thus be harmful at population and species levels. Sensitivity is maximal in ommastrephid squid, which are characterized by a high metabolic rate and extremely pH-sensitive blood oxygen transport. Acute sensitivity is interpreted to be less in fish with intracellular blood pigments and higher capacities to compensate for CO2 induced acid-base disturbances than invertebrates. Virtually nothing is known about the degree to which deep-sea fishes are affected by short or long term hypercapnia. Sensitivity to CO2 is hypothesized to be related to the organizational level of an animal, its energy requirements and mode of life. Long-term effects expected at population and species levels are in line with recent considerations of a detrimental role of CO2 during mass extinctions in the earth's history. Future research is needed in this area to evaluate critical effects of the various CO2 disposal scenarios.

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Pörtner, H.O., Langenbuch, M. & Reipschläger, A. Biological Impact of Elevated Ocean CO2 Concentrations: Lessons from Animal Physiology and Earth History. Journal of Oceanography 60, 705–718 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10872-004-5763-0

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  • Rising tropospheric CO2 concentrations
  • ocean disposal of CO2
  • critical CO2 thresholds in marine animals
  • physiological effects of hypercapnia
  • acid-base disturbances
  • CO2 in marine ecosystems
  • mass extinction events