Gases fast destroying oceans’ pH

Human-produced carbon dioxide is acidifying the world’s oceans, which is just one more reason to reduce emission levels now.

That “greenhouse gases” are responsible for the current rise in global mean temperature is both widely accepted and scientifically validated. However, the absorption of billions of tons of carbon dioxide by the world’s oceans remains absent from public discussion.

The same greenhouse gases responsible for heating the earth, melting the ice caps and raising sea levels are simultaneously converting the oceans covering 71 percent of the earth’s surface to acid. The influx of carbon dioxide has caused a disturbing drop in oceanic pH that threatens both fragile marine ecosystems and our own chances of reversing global warming.

The big blue acts as a massive buffer against the potentially devastating effects of climate change; 90 percent of human-produced carbon dioxide will eventually reside in the oceans. While the function of seawater as a CO2 sink may seem a blessing to humanity, the resulting alteration of ocean chemistry is proving irrevocably harmful to marine life. The average pH of surface seawater, currently estimated at 8.1, is already 0.1 units lower than the pre-industrial value of 8.2 and is projected to drop another 0.5 units by the end of the century.

Many marine creatures rely on an abundance of calcium and carbonate ions to give structural integrity to their shells and skeletons. The pH change leaves these organisms forming
frail and stunted shells doomed to dissolution. The peril facing snails and plankton may seem unimportant, but creating gaps in marine food chains would prove disastrous for already strained fisheries. Furthermore, acidification may result in the destruction of coral reefs already stressed by climate change.

Even the largest marine organisms will be affected as sound travels farther in acidic waters, disorienting marine mammals navigating by sonar. A world with barren and acidic oceans will be as inhospitable to us as one whose surface is seared by solar heat.

As we continue burning fossil fuels, we face an ethical dilemma. We can choose short-term sacrifice to preserve our oceans or allow present recklessness to destroy them in the not-too-distant future. The gradual transition preferred by business interests will fail; because of the inertial nature of ocean processes, we must act quickly.

Emission regulation must be aggressive and government is the entity best equipped to enforce compliance. Such responsibility ought to be straightforward, but instead, human preservation has become muddled in rhetoric. Perhaps the conflict between political gain and common good would not exist if the public better understood the urgent need to halt greenhouse gas emissions.

Over 90 percent of the carbon dioxide that humanity releases into the atmosphere eventually integrates with the oceans and the acidifying consequences of this process must not be forgotten in the climate change debate. Curbing emissions ought to be a mandate that elects politicians, not a taboo topic that defeats them.

James Caress is valedictorian for the Monterey High School class of 2009, a National Merit Scholar and an Eagle Scout. He was one of the Monterey County high school seniors honored last week by The Herald.

James Caress, Monterey County Herald, 20 April 2009. Article.

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