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The Pteropod Project: Sea Butterflies, Climate Change, and Art

Artist Cornelia Kavanagh visited WHOI biologist Gareth Lawson’s lab in November 2011 to show him some of the pteropod sculptures on which she was working.
Tom Kleindinst
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

You've no doubt heard of the butterfly effect. Well, Gareth Lawson of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution has his own version: the sea butterfly effect.

As carbon dioxide emissions build up in the atmosphere, some of it is absorbed by the ocean, where it turns to acid - a phenomenon known as ocean acidification. Over the past two hundred years, the ocean’s pH has dropped by a third. That has profound repercussions for a variety of marine life, including tiny marine snails known as pteropods (commonly called sea butterflies and sea angels). Most people have never seen a pteropod, but they're important. Very important. They form the base of many oceanic food chains, so their demise could reverberate through entire ecosystems to impact iconic species like Pacific salmon or North Atlantic right whales. Thus, the sea butterfly effect. And thus, Lawson's efforts to bring pteropods and the problem of ocean acidification to a broader audience through art.