Kathleen McAuliffe—Discover Magazine July 2008
It all seemed so convenient: As our smokestacks and automobile tailpipes spewed ever more carbon dioxide
into the air, the oceans absorbed the excess. Like a vast global vacuum cleaner, the world‘s seas sucked CO2
right out of the atmosphere, mitigating the dire consequences of global warming and forestalling the melting of glaciers, the submergence of coastlines, and extremes of weather from floods to droughts. So confident were we
in the seas‘ seemingly limitless capacity to absorb our gaseous waste that, by the turn of the millennium, the
United States, Germany, and Japan were actually proposing to compress CO2 from power plants into a gooey
liquid and pipe it directly into the abyss.
The first tests of the plan were an eye-opener. When the compressed material was introduced into laboratory
tanks, the spines of sea urchins and the shells of mollusks dissolved. Surprised, researchers launched studies to
see how marine animals in laboratory tanks and in the wild would fare with CO2 concentrations much lower
than those in the original tests. They were stunned. ―We found that mere absorption of CO2 from the
atmosphere into the ocean was enough to harm marine creatures,‖ says Ken Caldeira, a chemical oceanographer
now at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in Stanford, California.
The problem was that, having swallowed hundreds of billions of tons of greenhouse gases since the start of the
Industrial Revolution, the oceans were becoming more acidic. And not just in a few spots. Now the chemistry of
the entire ocean was shifting, imperiling coral reefs, marine creatures at the bottom of the food chain, and
ultimately the planet‘s fisheries. In 2003 Caldeira reported these findings in the journal Nature, coining the term ―ocean acidification.‖ One
might think the news would spread around the world with the speed and force of a tsunami. But scientific
discoveries take time to be digested and disseminated. Only recently have the far-flung implications of this
development begun to register beyond the rarefied sphere of marine biologists.
―It‘s the most profound environmental change I‘ve seen in my entire career, and nobody saw it coming,‖ says
Thomas E. Lovejoy, a biologist and president of the H. J. Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the
Environment in Washington, D.C.
Lovejoy is not the only one alarmed by the development. ―It‘s just been an absolute time bomb that‘s gone off
both in the scientific community and, ultimately, in our public policymaking,‖ Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) told
The Washington Post when first briefed on the matter in the spring of 2006. Congress is now scrambling to get up to speed by holding hearings on the issue and discussing federal legislation that could allocate roughly $100
million to study the impact of industrial emissions on marine ecosystems.
Even the fishing industry has been caught off guard. Fisheries are ―the ultimate canary in the coal mine of ocean
acidification,‖ says Brad Warren, the former editor and publisher of Pacific Fishing magazine, who recently
launched the nonprofit Sustainable Fisheries Partnership to encourage seafood enterprises to confront the
problem through policy initiatives.
While the existence of global warming was fiercely debated for decades, ocean acidification has been rapidly
accepted by the scientific community as a real and imminent hazard. ―It is very complicated to pin the heating
of the planet on a single gas, but ocean acidification involves straightforward chemistry,‖ says Robert B.
Dunbar, professor of geological and environmental sciences at Stanford University. Since it is easy to chart the
step-by-step progression of the problem, there is widespread consensus that we are marching toward disaster at
a pace that is impossible to ignore.
An analysis of CO2 preserved in ice cores shows that for more than 600,000 years the ocean had a pH of
approximately 8.2 (pH is the acidity of a solution measured on a 14-point scale, with a pH below 7 being acidic
and above 7, basic). But since 1800, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of the ocean has dropped
by 0.1 unit. That may not sound like much, but pH is a logarithmic scale, so the decline in fact represents a
whopping 30 percent increase in acidity. With the oceans now absorbing man-made CO2 at a rate of 22 million
tons a day and climbing, the situation is certain to worsen rapidly. More than a dozen projections by the
International Panel on Climate Change indicate that ocean pH by the end of the century could drop as low as 7.8,
which would correspond to a 150 percent increase in acidity since preindustrial times. ―A drop of that
magnitude is more than we‘ve seen in 20 million years,‖ says Richard A. Feely, supervisory oceanographer at
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in
Seattle. ―That‘s going to profoundly change the ecology of the sea as we now know it, in ways that could
potentially be devastating.‖
Osteoporosis Under the Sea
Most vulnerable to the assault of higher acidity, scientists say, is any creature that makes a calcium carbonate
shell. A look at the chemistry of ocean acidification explains why. When CO2 from the atmosphere combines
with water, it produces carbonic acid (the ingredient that gives soft drinks their fizz) and decreases carbonate
ions, a key building block of marine animals‘ shells. As the oceans become more acidic, this material will
become increasingly scarce, hindering the ability of shelled organisms to make and maintain their homes. Like
human bones whittled by osteoporosis, their exoskeletons will grow thin and brittle or—mirroring what
happened to the test animals at CO2 injection sites—dissolve. The range of creatures in imminent danger from this hazard includes mollusks and crustaceans such as clams,
oysters, lobsters, and crabs; large sea creatures for which shellfish is a dietary staple, notably seals, otters, and
walruses; and most worrisome of all, plankton and other microscopic organisms that sustain mighty whales and
fish big and small.
To make matters worse, German and Japanese researchers recently increased CO2 levels in seawater and found
that the greenhouse gas can damage some marine organisms directly: Squid slowly asphyxiated as the excess
CO2 crowded out oxygen in their blood, and fish embryos and larvae were abnormally small and less likely to
Dissolving the Coral Reefs
Also endangered by rising acidity are coral reefs, home to an astonishingly diverse range of aquatic life. Though reef resembles rock, it is actually made up of a teeming city of anemone-like creatures known as polyps. These
tiny organisms wave their tentacles in the currents to snatch tidbits of food, all the while secreting shells to
anchor their trunks. After the animals die, layer upon layer of their skeletons create the exotic structures we call
coral reefs, but according to scientists, they will begin to crumble as corrosive waters undo the work of
countless generations of polyps.
―Today‘s reefs are as much as 5,000 years old, and they will start to fall apart within a decade or so if we don‘t
radically change how we do business,‖ contends Christopher Langdon, a biological oceanographer at the
University of Miami‘s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.
The first hint that this might happen emerged more than a decade ago, when Langdon, working in Biosphere 2,
grew corals in a swimming pool–size tank. The corals thrived when calcium carbonate was added to the water
but did poorly without it. Ocean acidification wasn‘t a recognized threat at the time, so Langdon‘s findings just
sat there. But today, pulled up from the void, they are sounding alarms. Working from his Biosphere data,
Langdon calculates that the rise in CO2 pollution since 1850 is stunting the growth of today‘s tropical corals by
10 to 15 percent.
Meanwhile, warming seas, human poaching, agricultural runoff, and other forms of pollution have also been
taking a toll on coral, as documented by just-published measurements of Australia‘s Great Barrier Reef between
1988 and 2003. In that time frame—a mere 15 years—the world‘s oldest and largest reef showed an alarming 21 percent decline in growth. This steep downward trend is far greater than even Langdon expected and makes
him wonder whether ocean acidification may be acting synergistically with the other destructive forces to
greatly compound the damage.
With so many environmental stresses clouding the future of our fragile reefs, the emergence of yet another
threat has marine biologists badly shaken. ―When I first realized that ocean acidification was happening and the
scale of the problem, I was sick about it,‖ admits Joan Kleypas, a coral expert at the National Center for
Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado. The insidious, creeping nature of the threat has her
particularly concerned. ―Bleaching, caused when rising temperatures lead corals to expel the algae that give them their color, often kills corals outright,‖ she says. ―It‘s shocking. But ocean acidification is an invisible,
chronic stress that‘s hard for people to believe. It‘s like hypertension in a person, slowly getting worse and
worse without any visible symptoms.‖ Lest there be any doubt about the fate that awaits coral in a corrosive world, a recent paper published in the
journal Science provides a stark warning. The authors of the report, marine biologists Maoz Fine and Dan
Tchernov, raised coral specimens in tanks of water with a pH of 7.3, roughly as acidic as the oceans are
expected to become sometime in the next century. In response, the hard coral did a vanishing act, and the polyps
that once resided in it reverted to a naked existence. ―If seeing is believing,‖ Kleypas observes, ―that picture
says it all.‖
Should the reefs vanish, the vast populations of aquatic life they support will not be the only casualties. Islands
that are atolls, with foundations of coral sediment, could crumble into more acidic seas, experts say. Reefs also
form a barrier between land and ocean, preventing beach erosion and creating sheltered sanctuaries for
mangroves, birds, and other wildlife. And coral may have still other important functions, as yet unrecognized.
Just two decades ago, scientists discovered that colorful tropical reefs have ghostly counterparts in deep, cold
waters throughout the world‘s oceans. White as bone, they live as much as three miles down where no light
penetrates, feeding off dead marine matter that sinks from above. These corals grow in dense thickets, some of
them 30 feet tall, off the coasts of Scotland, Norway, Alaska‘s Aleutian Islands, and many other places. Indeed, cold-water reefs turn out to be 10 times as abundant as their much better-known tropical cousins. Yet for all
their prevalence, these cold-water varieties have barely been explored because of their inaccessibility. Should
corrosive waters soon claim them, we may realize their value only in hindsight.
Peril at the Poles
Coral may be the poster child in the effort to rouse public concern about ocean acidification, yet many scientists
worry even more about how the sea‘s smallest and least familiar denizens will adapt to the change. Biological
oceanographer Victoria Fabry of California State University at San Marcos has spent years studying pteropods, thumbnail-size creatures that flutter through frigid polar and subpolar waters using flaplike wings. When
startled they retract into shells that are normally smooth and translucent. But Fabry found that in water as
corrosive as their aquatic habitat may be in 2100, the shell of at least one pteropod species turns opaque and
begins to dissolve. To Fabry this suggests that pteropods may become vulnerable to predation in a more acidic
world and dwindle in number or, in some regions, even die out. Indeed, she says, they may already be suffering
adverse consequences, a possibility she is currently investigating.
Image courtesy of NOAA
―Pteropods in Peril‖ is not the stuff of headlines, nor have Fabry‘s findings grabbed our attention like the plight
of the polar bears. Yet the loss of pteropods would impact our lives much more directly. Puny though they are,
pteropods are a major food source of some of the biggest cash cows in the sea—salmon, herring, cod, and
pollack. A significant decline in their population, Fabry says, could have grave economic consequences.
What do pteropods eat? Put a drop of seawater on a slide under a microscope and you will see: amoebas, tiny
crustaceans, and plankton, many of which also sport shells. A major thrust of current research is to understand
how creatures like these at the bottom of the food chain respond to ocean acidification. Toward that goal,
scientists have scooped samples of seawater from a variety of latitudes and studied the rich broth of
microorganisms they contain in simulator tanks built into the decks of ships. ―The idea is to keep the specimens as fresh as possible in their natural habitat,‖ explains David Hutchins, a biological oceanographer at the
University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Then the simulation trials begin: The temperature, pH, and
CO2 levels of the tank are adjusted to mimic conditions expected a century from now.
What can Hutchins discern about the future from these simulations? There will be winners and losers, but the
overall picture is, he says, ―frightening.‖ As the temperature and acidity of a test tank climb, diatoms that dominate the cold northern oceans fall off
steeply in number—an ominous sign, given that they currently support by far the richest fisheries in the world.
The Bering Sea alone generates about 30 percent of the global harvest of seafood. In the frigid southern oceans,
plankton species are different, but some have shells, and the trend is the same: Their populations rapidly decline.
At both poles, organisms in decline are being replaced by plankton called flagellates. According to Hutchins,
flagellates are not nearly as good at passing their stored energy up the food chain to fish and other higher life
forms. ―That‘s going to disrupt food chains that sustain the kinds of creatures we‘re used to seeing at the
poles—sea lions, penguins, and whales—and instead promote a microbe-dominated community,‖ he says. The Great Belch of Destruction
The anticipated impact on wildlife resembles a game of dominoes: After acidification has destabilized one
species or ecosystem, the damage could ripple up and down the food chain. Especially worrisome is the fact that
the shelled plankton under threat are efficient at storing CO2. When the creatures that eat the plankton die, their
shells and organic remains fall to the ocean floor, sequestering carbon in the deep water and sediments. ―Cold-
water planktons are powerful allies in preventing atmospheric CO2 from climbing higher than it already is,‖
Therefore, their rapid decline could quickly turn the planet hotter. ―Currently the ocean is a sink for CO2—that is, it takes in more CO2 from the atmosphere than it releases,‖ Hutchins explains. ―But a warming and
acidifying ocean could become a net source of CO2.‖ In other words, the world‘s seas could begin belching the gas into the atmosphere, just as our cars and factories do. In his opinion, that could unfold within a few
centuries. ―It‘s hard not to be negative about this,‖ Hutchins says. ―Frankly, ocean acidification is apocalyptic in
Robert Cowen, chairman of the division of marine biology and fisheries at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and
Atmospheric Science, agrees, but for a different reason. His chief concern is fish populations, which were in steep decline even before ocean acidification was recognized. In just the past 40 years, overfishing, destructive
trawling, and poor management of the seas have depleted 75 percent of our commercially important fish stocks,
with almost one-third of them—including tuna, marlin, and shark—under particular threat. ―We‘re hammering
fish from the top down and now from the bottom up as more acidic oceans erode the base of the food chain,‖
It was at a conference two years ago, Cowen adds, that the scale of the disaster unfolding at sea really hit him.
Deeply disturbed, he and his wife, Su Sponaugle, also a marine biologist at Rosenstiel, soon realized they would
have to tone down how they talked about the research in front of their adolescent twins. ―They overheard one of
our conversations and started asking questions like ‗What‘s going to happen?‘?‖ Sponaugle recalls. ―We could
see their distress and hear the agitation in their voices, and then they wanted to know, ‗Is it too late?‘ and we‘re
What Sponaugle and Cowen didn‘t want to say—or couldn‘t find the way to say—was yes, it might be too late.
You can‘t turn an ocean liner on a dime, and in their view, it will take a complete about-face in society‘s profligate use of fossil fuels to avert a catastrophe. Nor are they alone in that opinion. ―If we were to begin to reduce man-made emissions this year,‖ NOAA‘s Feely says, ―it would take decades before we‘d see CO2 levels
and acidity start to go down instead of up and hundreds or thousands of years to return to preindustrial levels.‖
Very simply, the process by which the ocean normally maintains its chemical equilibrium is glacially slow,
severely limiting its capacity to adjust to an extreme shock. And make no mistake: The massive influx of
industrial emissions is just that.
Over the history of the planet, there have been many sudden peaks in CO2 related to volcanic eruptions,
releases from hydrothermal vents, and other natural events. When the pH of the ocean dips as a result of
absorbing this excess gas, bottom sediments rich in calcium carbonate begin to dissolve, countering the increase
in acidity. This buffering process occurs over 20,000 years, roughly the time it takes for water to circulate along
the bottom from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back up to the surface several times. Currently, however, we are
pouring man-made CO2 into the atmosphere at 50 times the natural rate. ―That overwhelms the natural
buffering system for maintaining balance in ocean chemistry,‖ the Carnegie Institution‘s Caldeira says. ―To find
any parallel in the earth‘s history you would have to look to a sudden violent shock to the system far in the
One such event occurred 55 million years ago at the so-called Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), when 4.5 million tons of greenhouse gases were released into the atmosphere. Just what triggered this enormous
emission is not known, but scientists suspect volcanic activity may have begun the process. That may in turn
have caused the planet to heat up enough to melt deposits of methane frozen in sediments on the ocean floor
(something, incidentally, that could happen again), discharging even more potent greenhouse gases into the
atmosphere and further heating the planet in an escalating feedback loop.
Whatever the exact cause of the CO2 release at the PETM, the earth warmed faster than at almost any other
time in its history. The average temperature soared 9 degrees Fahrenheit, entire ecosystems shifted to higher
latitudes, and massive extinctions occurred on land and, most telling, at sea. The abrupt rise of CO2 acidified
the oceans. James Zachos, a paleo-oceanographer from the University of California at Santa Cruz, analyzed sediment cores obtained from deep drilling in the ocean and discovered that bottom-dwelling creatures with
shells disappeared from the fossil record for a period of more than 40,000 years corresponding to the PETM.
And once the oceans turned more acidic, Zachos says, they did not recover quickly: It took another 60,000 years
before sediments again began to show a thick white streak indicative of fossilized shells.
Drastic as the PETM was, the event is tame compared with acidification today. ―Back then,‖ Zachos says, ―4.5
million tons of CO2 were released over a period of 1,000 to 10,000 years. Industrial activities will release the
same amount in a mere 300 years—so quickly that the ocean‘s buffering system doesn‘t even come into play.‖
This is not to imply that current CO2 emissions are likely to kill off all life in the sea. Microbes, with their rapid
generation times, should evolve and ultimately persist in altered seas. But slower-to-reproduce creatures such as
fish and other higher organisms will struggle to survive. ―The marine ecosystem will adapt,‖ USC‘s Hutchins believes. Life may be different, but it will go on.
Kleypas of NCAR stands out among marine biologists in her optimism that we will be able to stop the output of
man-made CO2 in time to prevent irreparable harm to the marine ecosystem. To do that, she acknowledges, will
take incredible sacrifice and an overhaul of infrastructure on an unprecedented scale. ―I know people think I‘m
crazy,‖ she says, ―but we‘re the only species that can change our behavior overnight.‖
Species evolve alongside each other in intricate relationships, so when one group is disrupted, another may
flourish. Should ocean acidification proceed unfettered, we will be left with winners, losers, and a pile of rubble
• Coral: the species. Unable to cope with the decrease in available calcium carbonate, these creatures will start
• Coral reefs: the ecosystems. The demise of coral spells trouble for a million other species that feed near, live in, or derive protection from the reef environment: microalgae, also known as diatoms, sea urchins and other
echinoderms, grazing fish, and foraminifera.
• Shelled sea creatures. Anything with a calcium carbonate shell, from microscopic plankton to clams and
oysters to pteropods.
• Cyanobacteria. These nitrogen-fixing, photosynthetic bacteria, also known as blue-green algae, are found in
numerous habitats—in soil and lakes as well as the oceans. Unlike calcifying ocean species, they will very likely benefit from an increase in marine C02, which provides them with more raw material for manufacturing
• Dinoflagellates. Like cyanobacteria, these generally single-celled organisms draw energy through
photosynthesis, with many living as symbionts inside coral. Temperature-stressed corals will discharge their
dinoflagellate partners, resulting in coral ―bleaching,‖ but the organisms can also live independently and may do
so more easily in an ocean where CO2 is becoming more readily available.
• Seaweed. Otherwise known as macroalgae, seaweed competes with coral for light and space. Since most
seaweed grows much more rapidly than coral, once the balance is tipped, any chance of coral recovery is all but
completely choked off.
The Cost on The Street
The oceans will pay a devastating price for acidification, but we will be pummeled on land as well. Sectors at
Tourism. In Australia, almost 2 million visitors a year flock to the Great Barrier Reef, spending $4.8 billion, a significant percentage of the country‘s tourism income. Worldwide, so-called reef tourism is increasing at a rate of 20 percent a year, providing up to 25 percent of total gross domestic product for numerous island nations,
particularly in the Caribbean.
Coastal communities. Studies have shown that reefs shield people, infrastructure, and lagoon ecosystems from
wave and storm surges. With the disappearance of the reefs, hurricanes and other tropical storms will result in
even greater loss of life and resources than is the case today.
Pharmaceuticals. Acidification‘s assault on marine biodiversity means fewer chances to derive drugs like AZT,
which came from the sea. Today dozens of ocean-derived drugs are in the research and development pipeline,
including at least 30 for the treatment of cancer. If acidification proceeds, ―we may never get a chance to develop the next wonder drug,‖ Canadian coastal economist Jack Ruitenbeek says. Fisheries. Globally, 38 million people are directly employed by fisheries or fish-related industries, and more than a billion people—mostly in the developing world—rely on fish as their main source of protein. Within the next two decades, marine biologist Robert Cowen says, the continued loss of fish from poor management and
overexploitation ―could translate into the starvation of 100 million or 200 million people—and that‘s without
ocean acidification.‖ The added insult of more corrosive waters on already-depleted fish stocks, he says, could have reverberations for poor coastal inhabitants that are frankly alarming.
Three Bold Plans to Save the Seas
The bleak prognosis for marine species—and ultimately humans—in an environment of unchecked ocean acidification has prompted scientists to suggest a number of mitigation strategies.
1 One proposal, first suggested in the late 1980s by oceanographer John Martin of the Moss Landing Marine
Laboratories in California, involves seeding ocean surfaces with iron to promote phytoplankton blooms that will soak up carbon dioxide, eventually exporting it into the deep ocean. The plan has the added theoretical benefit
of reducing atmospheric carbon. The first part of the process, the phytoplankton bloom, has already been
demonstrated in small-scale tests in the South Pacific and the equatorial Pacific Ocean. But no one has ever
shown that a carbon drawdown will persist over time, making many scientists fear that the effort could send the
ocean‘s biochemical systems careering in unforeseen directions. 2 A second tactic under consideration at places like the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the University
of California at Santa Cruz is to neutralize the seas—possibly with limestone from, say, the White Cliffs of
Dover. But there are problems here as well: The scale of the mining and transportation effort to harvest these
minerals would be enormous and extremely expensive. Moreover, it would itself involve the expenditure of
large amounts of energy and thus the emission of additional carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
3 Last year a team of scientists led by Kurt Zenz House, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University, proposed something they call engineered weathering, inspired by a natural process in which slightly acidic freshwater is
neutralized by exposure to alkalizing minerals. Under House‘s proposal, hydrochloric acid would be harvested
from the ocean by a specialized electrochemical treatment and then exposed to silicates, resulting in a net
When it comes to saving the seas, of course, the kind of technological fixes suggested here would be measures
of last resort. Bärbel Hönisch, a marine biologist and geochemist at Columbia University‘s Lamont-Doherty
Earth Observatory, points out that ―none of these strategies has been tested over the long term, and the potential effects on the ecosystem are uncertain.‖ In the end, she adds, the best solution might be the most obvious one:
Dramatically reduce our carbon emissions.
Rescuing the Reefs!
With reefs so endangered, you might think there is little you can personally do to help. But according to reef
specialist Meaghan Johnson of the Nature Conservancy, individuals can make a difference here. ―Anything we
can do to reduce stress on coral reefs is a step in the right direction, and there is definitely a role for the public,‖
she says. To that end, the conservancy and other groups suggest that you:
• Reduce your personal carbon footprint. The less fossil fuel you use, the less carbon you release into the
atmosphere and the less you contribute to the twin threats of global warming and ocean acidification. Take
public transportation instead of a car, and, if possible, opt for green power like solar or wind at home.
• Eat low on the food chain (we use less energy producing a salad than a steak). • Conserve water, creating less runoff and wastewater to pollute the ocean. • Use organic fertilizers in your garden. The chemicals from commercial fertilizers will eventually find their
way into the ocean, further harming the reefs.
• Plant trees. They absorb carbon dioxide and reduce runoff. • Visit a reef, but don‘t consume it. If you vacation at a reef resort, patronize businesses that manage the reefs
responsibly (ask about the groups‘ eco policies), and don‘t buy souvenirs plundered from the reef ecosystem.
Also, practice responsible diving and snorkeling: Don‘t touch the reef or anchor your boat on the reef, acts that can damage or even kill these ecosystems.
While you are doing your part, scientists like Johnson, a participant in the Florida Reef Resilience Program,
hope the reefs can be restored through careful monitoring and protection of reef nurseries. Another effort, called
Biorock, comes from the late architect Wolf Hilbertz and coral scientist Tom Goreau. To restore the reefs,
latticed steel structures are lowered into flagging reef habitats like the one at right and exposed to electric
current. The current promotes the crystallization of dissolved minerals, forming limestone deposits that cling to
the structure. Natural reef fragments are transplanted onto the lattice, and coral larvae flock to the limestone.
They are quickly followed by the rest of the usual reef denizens—urchins, crabs, fish, and lobsters. The technique has so far been successfully deployed in Panama, Thailand, Indonesia, French Polynesia, and the
? The oceans have absorbed carbon dioxide and mitigated the consequences of global warming for
many years. Carbon dioxide dissolved in water produces carbonic acid (the ingredient that gives soft
drinks their fizz)
? The oceans are becoming more acidic—The pH has dropped becoming 30% more acidic since 1800
and projected to show a 150% acid increase by 2100.
? Any creature with a calcium carbonate shell (mollusks, clams, oysters, lobsters, crabs …) will have
great difficulty finding carbonate to form their shells. Like humans with osteoporosis the shells will be
thin and brittle.
? Coral reefs, home to a wide range of aquatic life, will also suffer—some that are over 5000 years old
will fall apart within a decade if we do not radically change what we are doing. (there are cold water
reefs in the deep cold waters also)
? The oceans smallest and least familiar species at the bottom of the food chain are also in peril from
acidification of the oceans. These small creatures are the basis of the food for the larger creatures we
are familiar with. So we are hammering the fish by over fishing and by taking their food sources away
? The process by which the ocean normally maintains its chemical equilibrium is glacially slow. It can
not react quickly to an extreme shock, and the massive influx of industrial emissions is an extreme
shock. We are currently pouring man-made carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at 50 times the natural
rate. This is greater than the release of carbon dioxide 55 million years ago when the earth warmed
faster than at almost any other time in its history.
? This won‘t kill off all marine life, but it will drastically change the ecosystem
? Especially worrisome is the fact that the shelled plakton under treat are efficient at storing carbon
dioxide. They are powerful allies against climate change. Their rapid decline could quickly turn the
planet hotter. Currently the ocean is a sink for carbon dioxide—taking more in than it releases. But a
warming and acidifying ocean could become a net source of carbon dioxide.