Sunday, February 10, 2013

Sea Urchins, Acidification and BioMimicry

There is an awesome development in the world of climate change and ocean acidification news and it comes in the form of a tiny, globular marine animal.

Ocean acidification is a term that refers to the changing pH balance in the ocean as a result of CO2 absorption. The ocean naturally takes in carbon dioxide from our atmosphere, as part of the carbon cycle (see 5th grade science) and is expected to slow down as a result of there being far too much pollution to cope with.

While the concept of acidification is relatively new to the public (according to the almighty Google) it has actually been a fear for a number of years that ocean absorption would fail to keep up with our pollution and been part of the international discourse for a while. Though it seems that the ocean is still guzzling up about 50% of our carbon pollution, the effects have been showing their ugly head.

As more and more CO2 is introduced into the ocean, the very chemistry of the ocean changes putting sea-life at risk. We have been recognizing that the increase in the pH in the ocean makes the habitat inhospitable for many animals, even causing shells to erode or alter drastically,  for years and the effects don't seem to be improving. There is even the fear that the coral reefs may be extinct by 2050.

One animal in particular has recently risen to the national discourse, both for it's surprising resilience to acidification and for a recent discovery of how these spiny creatures convert CO2 from ocean water. Researchers were specifically "looking at how organisms absorb CO2 into their skeletons and in particular the sea urchin which converts the CO2 to calcium carbonate" when the discovery was made and a good thing too as "near-future" CO2 levels may retard the urchin's reproductive cycle and possibly cause them to die out.

This process of looking at nature for scientific innovation is called "Biomimicry" which has affected design in everything from textiles, to social organization, to solar power to many different ways of adapting to the changing climate. The applications of biomimicry seem endless and it would be only fitting if the way we solved our CO2 problem was with the help of the modest and prickly sea urchin.

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