Threat to Sea Life as Greenhouse Gases Drift Offshore

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Monterey Bay, California, September, 2018. (EVA HAMBACH/AFP/Getty Images)

Winds carrying greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide can travel up to 60 miles offshore, adding significantly more carbon dioxide into the ocean than previously estimated, according to new research from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

Emissions from tailpipes and factories could be adding roughly 25 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year into oceans worldwide

When carbon dioxide dissolves into seawater it makes oceans more acidic, and more uninhabitable for species like crabs and coral.

The extra carbon dioxide that the researchers measured means "more of a threat to some of the sea life that inhabits the ocean," says Francisco Chavez, the study's lead author.

It's been widely understood that ships are heavyweight polluters in bays and oceans. But until now, the impact that land-based pollution has on waterways hasn't been investigated.


That's in part because the way researchers tracked carbon dioxide emissions in the past was on boats -- Francisco Chavez said when researchers would document higher-than-expected carbon dioxide levels, it was assumed it was coming from the ships doing the measurements.

"Most of the measurements we make of carbon dioxide have been from ships," Chavez said, "The higher carbon dioxide levels are often discounted because of the fact that ships are actually producers of CO2 just like our automobiles are."

To solve that problem, Chavez and his team used robotic boats to track the amount of carbon dioxide blowing into the Monterey Bay and the Pacific, eliminating any stray emissions coming from boats.

They observed land-based carbon dioxide emissions drifting up to 100 kilometers, or 60 miles, off the coast.

"That's a brand new piece of information," says NOAA chemical oceanographer Richard Feely, who was not involved with the study. "That suggests we need to be monitoring the coastal region, not just in Monterey Bay but in other places as well."

Feely suspects wherever there are sprawling cities and industry close to the coast, greenhouse gases are blowing over far distances into the ocean.

What's more, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute team believes other pollutants such as heavy metals, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen gases might also be traveling out to sea.