The oceans’ acid test: can our reefs be saved?

The climate change dialogue has picked up steam in recent months, but it has largely ignored the oceans, in spite of the tremendous service they provide, by absorbing millions of tons of atmospheric CO2 to buffer climate change. Frontiers and other journals have highlighted the impacts of the resulting ocean acidification, but its consequences demand a lot more attention – not just for the sake of marine ecosystems, but for our own sake as well.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Richard Feely aptly called ocean acidification global warming’s “evil twin”, likely because of the disturbing trend of decreased pH that has begun to occur throughout the world’s oceans. His analogy conjures up a vision of a superhero gone bad, threatening our oceans while society innocently sleeps, which is not so far off.

This “evil twin” has the power to cause a far-reaching extinction of corals, both the tropical and deepwater varieties, along with other calcifying marine organisms, which could lead to an epic disruption of ocean ecosystems in this century. The impacts on society would be widespread, ranging from commercial losses in fisheries and tourism, to lost potential for new, life-saving pharmaceuticals that could be derived from marine species. Over time, the storm protection services provided by reefs would disappear – possibly just when they’re needed most, as global warming increases storm intensity. Ripple effects will be felt throughout the marine ecosystems, as well as among seabirds and even many terrestrial species – not to mention the aesthetic loss of the vast array of intricate, ornate, colorful reef organisms that inspire awe and wonder, and which we bear an ethical responsibility to preserve for future generations.

Savitz J., Harrould-Kolieb E., 2008. The oceans’ acid test: can our reefs be saved. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6(10):515-515. Full article (Subscription required).

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