Nature and Biodiversity

The ocean's chemistry isn't the same everywhere - this is what it means for marine life

Ocean chemistry has been re-imagined.

Scientists thought ion ratios held relatively constant over space and time. Image: Unsplash

Harrison Tasoff
Writer, Futurity
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Beyond the ocean

  • Contrary to beliefs that date over 130 years, a new study has found that the chemical composition of the ocean differs a great deal around the world.
  • Calcium, magnesium, and strontium (Ca, Mg, and Sr) are all important elements found in the ocean, involved in a number of biologic and geologic processes and vary in thousands of samples taken.
  • This discovery would force scientists to re-evaluate models that can predict things like ocean temperature.

Ocean chemistry is a complex mixture of particles, ions, and nutrients. And for over a century, scientists believed that certain ion ratios held relatively constant over space and time.

The findings, however, refute that long-held belief.

The researchers discovered that the seawater ratios of three key elements vary across the ocean, which means scientists will have to re-examine many of their hypotheses and models.

Calcium, magnesium, and strontium (Ca, Mg, and Sr) are important elements in ocean chemistry, involved in a number of biologic and geologic processes. For instance, a host of different animals and microbes use calcium to build their skeletons and shells.

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These elements enter the ocean via rivers and tectonic features, such as hydrothermal vents. They’re taken up by organisms like coral and plankton, as well as by ocean sediment.

The first approximation of modern seawater composition took place over 130 years ago. The scientists who conducted the study concluded that, despite minor variations from place to place, the ratios between the major ions in the waters of the open ocean are nearly constant.

Researchers have generally accepted this idea from then on, and it made a lot of sense. Based on the slow turnover of these ocean elements—on the order of millions of years—scientists long thought the ratios of these ions would remain relatively stable over extended periods of time.

“The main message of this paper is that we have to revisit these ratios,” says Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, professor and vice chair of the ecology, evolution, and marine biology department at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “We cannot just continue to make the assumptions we have made in the past essentially based on the residency time of these elements.”

Back in 2010, Iglesias-Rodriguez participated in a research expedition over the Porcupine Abyssal Plain, a region of North Atlantic seafloor west of Europe. She had invited Mario Lebrato, a former student who was pursuing his doctorate at the time and lead author of the current paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The Ocean Beyond the ocean Restoring ocean life
The chemical composition of the ocean differs a great deal around the world. Image: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Their study analyzed the chemical composition of water at various depths. Lebrato found that the Ca, Mg,5, and Sr ratios from their samples deviated significantly from what they had expected. The finding was intriguing, but the data was from only one location.

Over the next nine years, Lebrato put together a global survey of these element ratios. Scientists, including Iglesias-Rodriguez, collected over 1,100 water samples on 79 cruises ranging from the ocean’s surface to 6,000 meters (19685 feet) down. The data came from 14 ecosystems across 10 countries. And to maintain consistency, all the samples were processed by a single person in one lab.

The project’s results overturned the field’s 130-year old assumption about seawater chemistry, revealing that the ratio of these ions varies considerably across the ocean. Scientists have long used these ratios to reconstruct past ocean conditions, like temperature.

“The main implication is that the paleo-reconstructions we have been conducting have to be revisited,” Iglesias-Rodriguez says, “because environmental conditions have a substantial impact on these ratios, which have been overlooked.”

Oceanographers can no longer assume that data they have on past ocean chemistry represent the whole ocean. It has become clear they can extrapolate only regional conditions from this information.

This revelation also has implications for modern marine science. Seawater ratios of Mg to Ca affect the composition of animal shells. For example, a higher magnesium content tends to make shells more vulnerable to dissolution, which is an ongoing issue as increasing carbon dioxide levels gradually make the ocean more acidic.

“Biologically speaking, it is important to figure out these ratios with some degree of certainty,” says Iglesias-Rodriguez.

Iglesias-Rodriguez’s latest project focuses on the application of rock dissolution as a method to fight ocean acidification. She’s looking at lowering the acidity of seawater using pulverized stones like olivine and carbonate rock.

This intervention will likely change the balance of ions in the water, which is something worth considering. As climate change continues unabated, this intervention could help keep acidity in check in small areas, like coral reefs.

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