The Oceans on Acid

B. McPherson
NOAA's Explanation of Our Changing Oceans

Most of us are by now aware of the increase in carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. We have been told of the Greenhouse Effect on the air we breathe. A less well known effect of the increasing carbon dioxide in the air is an increase in acidity in the world’s oceans.

For most of the geological history of the Earth, slow change occurs with punctuations of extensive extinctions of life both on land and sea. Many natural phenomena can trigger a mass extinction.  Some scientists are concerned that humans may be about to inadvertently cause a collapse of systems in the oceans which will in turn, hit humanity like a tsunami.

Since the Industrial Revolution there has been increasing dependence on the burning of fossil fuels – oil, coal, gas – to power the machines that have transformed our lives. One of the bad side effects of this is the release of carbon dioxide gas. This is a normal cog in the Carbon Cycle.

The oceans act as a buffer to sop up carbon dioxide, keeping the atmosphere relatively stable. They continue to sop up the gas even as world industry has pumped more into the air. It’s only been in the past few years that alarms have been sounded over the effect of CO2 might be having on global climate.

The effect of increasing CO2 in the world’s seas changes its chemistry, making the water more acidic. If you remember your high school science classes, your teacher might have illustrated what happens to a chicken’s egg when placed in a beaker filled with Coke, Pepsi, or any other commercial soft drink that releases bubbles when uncapped. The bubbles are carbon dioxide and when dissolved in a water based solution form carbonic acid. The acid is weak but it will dissolve the eggshell.  A similar process takes place in ocean waters overburdened with CO2.

The change in the ocean chemistry is happening quite rapidly. Tiny changes in water chemistry translate to big changes on sea life. Any organism that uses calcium(calcium carbonate CaCO3) in its skeleton – crabs, lobsters for example will have more difficulty in growing a sturdy shell. Single celled organisms like the foramnifera  are even more vulnerable. Massive die offs of coral due to ocean acidification have already been noted.

“According to a statement in July 2012 by Jane Lubchenco, head of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "surface waters are changing much more rapidly than initial calculations have suggested. It's yet another reason to be very seriously concerned about the amount of carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere now and the additional amount we continue to put out."[36]”Wikipedia

It’s a truism of ecology that “everything is connected to everything else” and if we lose the foundation organisms in our oceans due to humanity’s ignoring the environmentalists’ exhortations of moderation, the whole ocean system that provides us with oxygen, clean air, modifying temperatures, rain, and food may collapse more rapidly than any of us can imagine.

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