Oceans hold the solution to Earth’s woes

Name the problem, and for the United States, the oceans have been a great and generous solution.

Early-warning system

And still the oceans serve us. In fact, they’re performing double service. First, they are giving us early warning, telling us in plain language, the certain consequences of continuing to consume as we are. Second, they’re offering us a solution to the problem that has brought us to this dangerous moment, namely humanity’s vast appetite for energy. So what happens to the carbon dioxide absorbed by the seas? It combines with seawater to create carbonic acid, changing the acidity of that vast solution and reducing the amount of available carbonate. And that is serious mischief for all kinds of sea life, from corals and pteropods, continuing on through shellfish, clams, oysters, lobsters, mussels and so on, that need carbonate to make the structures that support them.

A chain reaction begins. Even those creatures whose own structural parts might better survive a decrease in available carbonate in sea water depend to one degree or another on critters with higher sensitivity. Whales and salmon eat pteropods for dinner. The very tasty and much-prized Alaskan pink salmon makes pteropods 45 percent of its diet. Many kinds of fish need corals for habitat. And corals aren’t just tropical — the colder the water they live in, the more vulnerable they are to changes in the availability of carbonate.

The current acidification level hasn’t been seen for 800,000 years, and acidification is coming on at least one hundred times faster than ever before. The levels are alarming; the rate of change makes them even scarier because it so restricts the ability of sea creatures to adapt.

In contrast to the debate that continues about the causal relationship between this or that weather event and human activity — there is no debate about ocean acidification. The rise in carbon-dioxide content is a man-made event, plain and simple, and the consequences of it continuing uncontrolled will belong squarely to us.

Sam Waterston, The Miami Herald, 16 June 2009. Full article.

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