When it comes to climate change, the invisible elephant in the room is ocean acidification. Climate scientists have long considered it a legitimate concern, but only recently has it been found that the rate increase and ecological influence of acidification has exceeded our previous estimates.
500 of the worlds leading experts came together in 2012 for the Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World, with many presenting research on our known scientific knowledge of ocean acidification. What resulted was a sobering Summary for Policymakers which highlighted the major issues involved with higher acidity levels.
In short, the scientists noted that the worlds oceans are becoming acidic at an “unprecedented rated” and may be souring more rapidly than at any other time in the past 300 million years.
Following current trends, they say that acidification could also increase 170% by 2100, and that some 30% of ocean species are unlikely to survive such conditions.
According to scientists this is a man-made issue, and the consensus stated “with very high confidence” that increasing acidification is caused by human activities (which are adding 24 million tonnes of CO2 to oceans every day).
In fact, they found that since the start of the industrial revolution, the oceans have become 26% more acidic. Amplifying the levels of carbon to these bodies of water has essentially altered their basic chemistry, turning them into what scientists unscientifically call “pickled waters.”
Professor Jean-Pierr Gattuso of CNRS (the French National Research Agency) acknowledged the speed of this distressing phenomena by mentioning, “my colleagues have not found in the geological record, rates of change that are faster than the ones we see today.”
So what effects do an increasingly acidic ocean have on our world? The most glaring and immediate problem comes with biodiversity. When pH levels hit certain points, coral and other ocean species will be unable to survive through natural means. In fact, the majority of mollusk simply cannot survive the acidity concentrations expected by 2100.
The most profound effects of increased acidity are already being felt in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans. These icy waters naturally hold more CO2, so steadily increasing levels of the gas are turning them acidic more rapidly than the rest of the world. And the more acidic these bodies of water become, the more damaging they are to the shells and skeletons of essential marine organisms.
The researchers state that by the year 2020, 10% of the Arctic will be inhospitable to species that build their shells from calcium carbonate, and by 2100 the entire Arctic will be a hostile environment.
But we don’t have to wait decades in order to see the effects. Prof. Gattuso noted that “in the Southern Ocean, we already see corrosion of pteropods which are like sea snails, in the ocean we see corrosion of the shell.
It would not be uncommon to assume that many at this point would say, “well, it’s JUST a snail!” But this thinking is dangerous, considering that the greater ecosystem has delicately evolved around such creatures.
“They are a key component in the food chain, they are eaten by fish, birds and whales, so if one element is going, then there is a cascading impact on the whole food chain.”
One thing leads to another. This is something EVERYONE must understand before looking at climate science and the importance of biodiversity on our way of life.
Unfortunately, this is not just an biological issue. It is also an overwhelmingly economic one. The authors of the summary warn that the economic impact of the losses from aquaculture could be massive – the global cost of the decline in mollusks could be $130 billion by 2100 if emissions of CO2 continue on their current trajectory.
Some stop-gap solutions have been discussed, including adding alkaline substances such as crushed limestone to the waters as a potential way of mitigating the worst impacts of acidification, But Prof Gattuso says it would only have a limited effect.”The latest research is showing that it is not really practical at a global scale. It is very expensive and very energy intensive.”
The commonly discussed Marine protection zones could also offer a short-term reprieve, but when it comes down to it, ONLY significant cuts in greenhouse emissions will effectively slow the progress of acidification.
It is essential for the general population to understand that the effects of climate change are not limited to the atmosphere, and that much of the emissions from our fossil fuel use go straight into the ocean, increasing acidification, and aiding in further termperature increases.
In fact, the oceans have absorbed about 90 percent of the heat added to the climate system during the last 50 years, according to a study published in May in Geophysical Research Letters.
Warmer oceans alter weather patterns, stir up more powerful storms, and, as we are currently observing, threaten all sorts of sea life.
And acidification, coupled with CO2, is a major catalyst.