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An experimental plume of carbon dioxide-enriched seawater and a dye tracer on a coral reef in Australia's Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Aaron Takeo Ninokawa/UC-Davis Bodega Marine Lab

Ocean acidification cut the growth of a coral reef on Australia's Great Barrier Reef by one-third, according to a study published Wednesday in Nature. By simulating a more acidic environment, researchers were able to look at the effect of carbon dioxide on multiple reef species in their natural habitat for the first time.

Why it matters: Hundreds of millions of people around the world rely on coral reefs — for food, income from tourism and protection from tsunamis and storms. The study suggests the combined impact of coral bleaching from increased water temperatures and ocean acidification from carbon dioxide emissions could impair a reef's ability to recover.

"They’ll be hit by two stressors simultaneously so the effects could be worse than what we expected from lab studies...The bleaching events we see today that look scary could be even worse when compounded by a falling pH."
— University of Miami's Chris Langdon, who wasn't involved in the study

How it works: Carbon dioxide from emissions dissolves in the ocean, lowering the pH of the water. More acidic water reduces the concentration of calcium carbonate that corals use to build reefs. Right now, the reduced rate of building is still fast enough to maintain a net gain despite loss from erosion and dissolution.

The big question, Andreas Andersson from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography says, is whether "a reef will cross the threshold and lose calcium carbonate. And if so, how fast? "

What they did: Rebecca Albright from the California Academy of Sciences and her colleagues used carbon dioxide to lower the pH of seawater. Then, for thirty days, they pumped it over a patch of a shallow coral reef in the southern Great Barrier Reef in order to mimic ocean acidification conditions scientists think could occur in the coming decades.

What they found: "We simulated conditions under a business-as-usual scenario that will probably happen in 2050–2060. And, we saw a 34% reduction in the growth rate of the reef," Albright says. That's a stronger response than what is seen in laboratory experiments — typically done on single species.

Study limitations: The current study took place over a relatively short amount of time (30 days versus decades) and in a shallow reef, with species and environmental factors that likely differ from deeper reefs or other sites.

What's next, per Albright, is a focus on these questions:

"What is the capacity of systems to acclimatize or adapt to changing conditions through time? Every laboratory study is done over a faster time scale. Do organisms have capacity to cope over time? Or, with prolonged exposure, does the reef wear down over time?"

"We need more of these studies to enhance our understanding of what the impact will be at ecologically meaningful scales," Albright adds.

Go deeper

Dominion sends cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell

Photo: Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

Dominion Voting Systems on Monday sent a cease and desist letter to My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell over his spread of misinformation related to the 2020 election.

Why it matters: Trump and several of his allies have pushed false conspiracy theories about the company, leading Dominion to take legal action. It's suing pro-Trump lawyer Sidney Powell for defamation and $1.3 billion in damages, and a Dominion employee has sued Trump himself, OANN and Newsmax.

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

Updated 6 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.