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Mar Pollut Bull. 2002 Feb;44(2):142-8.

The inhibition of marine nitrification by ocean disposal of carbon dioxide.

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Marine Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Sequim, WA 98382, USA.


In an attempt to reduce the threat of global warming, it has been proposed that the rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations be reduced by the ocean disposal of CO2 from the flue gases of fossil fuel-fired power plants. The release of large amounts of CO2 into mid or deep ocean waters will result in large plumes of acidified seawater with pH values ranging from 6 to 8. In an effort to determine whether these CO2-induced pH changes have any effect on marine nitrification processes, surficial (euphotic zone) and deep (aphotic zone) seawater samples were sparged with CO2 for varying time durations to achieve a specified pH reduction, and the rate of microbial ammonia oxidation was measured spectrophotometrically as a function of pH using an inhibitor technique. For both seawater samples taken from either the euphotic or aphotic zone, the nitrification rates dropped drastically with decreasing pH. Relative to nitrification rates in the original seawater at pH 8, nitrification rates were reduced by ca. 50% at pH 7 and more than 90% at pH 6.5. Nitrification was essentially completely inhibited at pH 6. These findings suggest that the disposal of CO2 into mid or deep oceans will most likely result in a drastic reduction of ammonia oxidation rates within the pH plume and the concomitant accumulation of ammonia instead of nitrate. It is unlikely that ammonia will reach the high concentration levels at which marine aquatic organisms are known to be negatively affected. However, if the ammonia-rich seawater from inside the pH plume is upwelled into the euphotic zone, it is likely that changes in phytoplankton abundance and community structure will occur. Finally, the large-scale inhibition of nitrification and the subsequent reduction of nitrite and nitrate concentrations could also result in a decrease of denitrification rates which, in turn, could lead to the buildup of nitrogen and unpredictable eutrophication phenomena. Clearly, more research on the environmental effects of ocean disposal of CO2 is needed to determine whether the potential costs related to marine ecosystem disturbance and disruption can be justified in terms of the perceived benefits that may be achieved by temporarily delaying global warming.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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