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Scientists from the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba met to start combating acidification in the Gulf of Mexico

Colorful map of gulf waters between the U.S., Mexico and Cuba. The water is blue and the the land is green.
Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System
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Courtesy
A team of international scientists from along the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba recently met to start addressing the socioeconomic impacts of ocean acidification - that’s when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere changes the pH balance of a water body.

Acidification is “not terribly bad right now” in the Gulf, but due to climate change, the water will likely become more acidic in the future. This threatens the estimated $2.04 trillion annual marine economy.

A team of international scientists from along the Gulf of Mexico in the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba recently met to start addressing the socioeconomic impacts of ocean acidification — that’s when carbon dioxide from the atmosphere changes the pH balance of a water body.

Jorge Brenner, the executive director of the Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System, said that the more acidic water becomes, the more difficult it is for some marine organisms to produce hardened structures.

"In the case of [an] oyster, well, that's the shell. In the case of a shrimp, that's the exoskeleton. The case of a coral is the whole organism that depends on the structure that they create. So, as water becomes more acidic, those structures might be more brittle and not able to be as hard as they typically are in more neutral waters," Brenner said.

He said acidification is “not terribly bad right now” in the Gulf, but due to climate change, the water will likely become more acidic in the future. Brenner added that the water moves and is continuous, so it’s not going to be the same everywhere along the Gulf.

“Different shallow areas, or deeper areas, or areas where there is more current and water masses move more might have a better way to cope with acidification,” Brenner said.

The U.S., Mexico, and Cuba will each be impacted differently during each season, he said.

“As the was the warm waters come into the Gulf of Mexico — early in the summer, for example — Mexico might be affected sooner than the United States, but eventually that will potentially revert as we get into the fall and the winter … It's a highly dynamic medium that allows for all of our coastal regions to be impacted,” Brenner said.

Ocean acidification poses a threat to the Gulf’s marine economy, which is estimated to have a combined value of $2.04 trillion per year across the U.S., Mexico, and Cuba.

So, over 30 representatives from government agencies, universities, research institutes, non-governmental organizations and students of these countries met for the inaugural Gulf of Mexico International Ocean Acidification Summit, which took place Oct. 18-19 in Mérida, Yucatan, Mexico.

Ten people standing side-by-side with lanyards around their necks posing for the camera with a red painted wall as their backdrop.
Gulf of Mexico Coastal Ocean Observing System
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Courtesy
Organizers of the Gulf of Mexico International Ocean Acidification Summit.

It was sponsored by the Furgason Fellowship of the Harte Research Institute for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.

The group plans to release a document, called a “white paper,” in the next couple months meant for decision makers in these countries with suggestions on how to monitor and help.

Brenner calls ocean acidification a "hidden thread" of climate change because it's not visually obvious how the water is being directly impacted.

“There is no discoloration. There is no change in many other parameters, as well. People might not realize that the water is changing dramatically, in some cases. We thought that it was important for us to start putting this in the minds of decision makers by producing an initial summary of the meeting,” he said.

Brenner said this first meeting has set the stage for collaborations throughout the Gulf of Mexico and plans for them to meet regularly, although researchers need a couple seasons to make progress in their experiments, so it will likely take place every few years or so.

In an email, they outlined longer-term actions that will need to take place to support the multi-national collaborations:

  • Identifying shared data and information platforms.
  • Standardizing chemical and biological sampling methodologies.
  • Coordinating communications with regulatory agencies and resource managers.
  • Coordinating monitoring activities, collaborative research experiments, and tri-national comparison of results.
Since 2012, I’ve been a voice on public radio stations across Florida - in Miami, Fort Myers, and now Tampa.