A new study estimates that within two decades, the Beaufort Sea could reach levels so corrosive that many shelled organisms, and even fish and whales — depended on by aboriginal people in the region — could be at risk.

"They are reaching a point where they are crossing a threshold to a point that we are really worried about," says Jeremy Mathis, an oceanographer at America's National Oceanic Atmospheric Association and lead author of the study, released this week.

Mathis and a team of scientists ventured into the Bering, Chukchi and Beaufort Seas for two month-long expeditions onboard United States Coast Guard Cutter Healy in 2011 and 2012.

Beaufort sea acidification Jeremy Mathis

Jeremy Mathis and his crew lowered sensors into the ocean that measure water temperature, salinity, and dissolved carbon. (Submitted by J. Cross/NOAA)

The Beaufort Sea is located in the Arctic Ocean, off Canada's northwest coast.

Their field tests confirmed computer modelling that showed levels of acid in arctic waters will reach levels that threaten the survival of shelled organisms by the year 2030 in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas, and 2044 in the Bering Sea. The findings show that already some areas of the Beaufort Sea have reached these levels of high acidification.

"Ocean acidification is happening faster in the Arctic than anywhere else on the planet," says Mathis. "The Beaufort Sea is out front in terms of how the water chemistry is changing.

"It's the location that will change the earliest. We really need to make sure that we are understanding what's going on with the organisms and the ecosystems to make sure ocean acidification isn't already having some kind of impact."

Change 'could ripple through the marine ecosystem'

Ocean acidification is caused by the release of carbon dioxide when fossil fuels are burned.

That carbon dioxide finds its way into oceans and reduces the amount calcium carbonate in the waters that shelled organisms, like a crab, need to create their shells. 

Scientists worry that many fish and whales in the Arctic Ocean will also be affected by ocean acidification because they eat many of the shelled creatures that are now or will soon be threatened.

"This change due to ocean acidification would not only affect shell-building animals but could ripple through the marine ecosystem," Mathis says.

Rashid Sumalia

Rashid Sumalia, one of the study's co-authors, says that the team saw 'significant potential impacts on indigenous people in the Arctic.' (Submitted by Rashid Sumalia)

A 2013 Arctic Council report warned that, "ocean acidification, poses challenges in economic, social, cultural and environmental terms," for the Arctic's indigenous peoples. 

This worries Rashid Sumaila, who is one of the report's authors, and the director of UBC's Fisheries Economics Research Centre.

"There's going to be less fish to be caught," said Sumalia. "And then that feeds into the whole economy — food for people, food security.

"So we really saw significant potential impacts on indigenous people in the Arctic."

Carbon dioxide, fisheries management needed

As ocean acidification becomes the new normal, experts like Mathis and Sumalia say governments and indigenous peoples in the Arctic have to adapt.

Both men say that countries must reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted.

"That's ultimately what's causing ocean acidification," Mathis says.

Mathis also says countries need to adopt regional fisheries management practices that help better manage fish populations that are in danger due to ocean acidification, "because it is just another stressor on the ecosystem."

Designating marine protected areas is another way that governments can protect fish and marine life in the Arctic Ocean, says Sumalia.

"Just to protect sensitive areas so that would make the system more resilient in the case of shocks like ocean acidification."

Sumalia also says that aboriginal peoples also need to adapt to a future where they might not be able to earn a living off the seas.

"I am big on education," he says, "because a well-trained mind is able to adapt more."