Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification, the evil twin of global warming, is a result of the increasing release of green house gasses into the atmosphere.

While much focus is on the warming temperatures, the acidification of the ocean is another direct effect of the increased carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere. According to international marine scientists, the rise in human emissions of carbon dioxide is driving fundamental and hazardous changes in the chemistry and ecosystems of the world’s oceans.

Carbon dioxide pollution alters the chemistry of the ocean, by quickly making the water more acidic.

The oceans play an essential role in the Earth’s life support system by regulating climate and global biogeochemical cycles through their ability to absorb atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2). This carbon storage process is known as carbon sequestering. Oceans absorb about one-fourth of all carbon dioxide emissions and is crucial in the carbon cycle. Climate change would be a lot worse if not for the oceans.

As more and more carbon dioxide is released due to industrialization and increasing fossil fuel use (read about human causing global warming), more of the gas is taken up by the oceans. Once CO2 dissolves in seawater, it generates carbonic acid, which is acidic. When the quantity of carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean increases excessively, the pH (a measure of acidity) lowers substantially. This process is known as ocean acidification.

Surface ocean acidification is happening currently and will carry on as long as CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. Global data collected over several decades signify that the oceans have immersed no less than half of the anthropogenic CO2 emissions since 1750. This carbon dioxide has reacted with water to form carbonic acid, which, like every acid, releases hydrogen ions (H+) into solution, making ocean surface water 30 percent more acidic on average.

Considering the extent of future CO2 emissions and further factors, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) forecasts that ocean acidity could increase by 150 percent by 2100.

Ocean acidification results in the decline in availability of carbonate ions which these marine creatures require to make their shells. Hence, the calcification process whereby ocean organisms, like corals and calcareous phytoplankton, make their external skeleton or shells is affected. The marine animals need to work harder to build their shells, leaving less energy to get food, reproduce or even survive.

Once the acidity gets too high, shells break up. Coral reefs would be lost, such as through coral reef bleaching, which will in turn threaten the steadiness and existence of many other reef organisms.

The long term consequences of ocean acidification on marine organisms and their ecosystems are still hard to predict. Further research is essential to examine the impact on a wide range of polar, temperate and tropical sea bed and seawater ecosystems, processes and organisms.

Besides the marine creatures, the acidification of the ocean can also have substantial impact on the human population. With rising acidity of the ocean, marine food webs would be damaged, threatening food security for regions that are dependent on seafood protein, and threatening economic security for regions that are dependent on fishing. As coral reefs get wipe out, the crucial role that coral reefs play in protecting low-lying land would also be affected.

Reversing the ocean's pH could take thousands of years. Consequently, reducing carbon dioxide emissions is essential if we are to minimize further acidification of the ocean.

We need to act today, before it is too late.

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