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New forecast method can predict ocean acidity years in advance

Experts at CU Boulder have developed a method that has the potential to predict ocean acidity years in advance. The forecast model could ultimately improve economic and food security by providing critical information to help fisheries and coastal communities prepare for upcoming challenges. 

Researchers have previously demonstrated the ability to predict ocean acidity a few months in advance, but this study is the first to confirm the feasibility of predicting ocean acidity years before the conditions develop. 

Stud lead author Riley Brady is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences.

“We’ve taken a climate model and run it like you would have a weather forecast, essentially – and the model included ocean chemistry, which is extremely novel,” said Brady.

The research was focused on the California Current System, which runs from Baja California up into Canada. This system supports a billion-dollar fisheries industry that is a critical component of the U.S. economy.

“Here, you’ve got physics, chemistry, and biology all connecting to create extremely profitable fisheries, from crabs all the way up to big fish,” said Brady.

“Making predictions of future environmental conditions one, two, or even three years out is remarkable, because this is the kind of information that fisheries managers could utilize.”

Due to the upwelling of naturally acidic waters, the California Current System is exceptionally vulnerable to ocean acidification. 

The ocean captures and stores a large portion of atmospheric carbon dioxide. As CO2 levels increase in the atmosphere, they are also increasing in the water and making the oceans more acidic. 

“Ocean acidification is proceeding at a rate 10 times faster today than any time in the last 55 million years,” said study co-author Professor Nicole Lovenduski.

Within decades, scientists predict that some parts of the ocean will be so acidic that the water will corrode the delicate carbonate shells or skeletons of corals, oysters, and other creatures. 

“We expect people in communities who rely on the ocean ecosystem for fisheries, for tourism and for food security to be affected by ocean acidification,” said Professor Lovenduski.

Considering that the California Current System contains naturally corrosive waters, additional acidification will hit this area particularly hard.

To get real-time measurements of ocean acidity, the CU Boulder researchers turned to historical forecasts from a climate model developed at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Instead of looking forward, the team generated forecasts of the past using the climate model to see how well their forecast system performed. The analysis revealed that the climate model forecasts were very accurate at predicting ocean acidity. 

While the potential is there to forecast acidity years in advance, this type of climate model forecast requires an enormous amount of computational power, manpower, and time. 

The new forecast method is also capable of informing smaller climate models to improve the accuracy and extent of local forecasts. This will provide critical insight for communities on when and where to harvest seafood, with the added benefit of predicting potential losses in advance.

“In the last decade, people have already found evidence of ocean acidification in the California current,” said Brady. “It’s here right now, and it’s going to be here and ever present in the next couple of decades.”

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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