Acid oceans: the ‘evil twin’ of climate change

MONTEREY BAY NATIONAL MARINE SANCTUARY, Calif. — Far from Copenhagen’s turbulent climate talks, the sea lions, harbor seals and sea otters reposing along the shoreline and kelp forests of this protected marine area stand to gain from any global deal to cut greenhouse gases.

These foragers of the sanctuary’s frigid waters, flipping in and out of sight of California’s coastal kayakers, may not seem like obvious beneficiaries of a climate treaty crafted in the Danish capital. But reducing carbon emissions worldwide also would help mend a lesser-known environmental problem: ocean acidification.



“We’re having a change in water chemistry, so 20 years from now the system we’re looking at could be affected dramatically but we’re not really sure how. So we see a train wreck coming,” said Andrew DeVogelaere, the sanctuary’s research director, while out kayaking this fall with a reporter in the cold waters.

Nothing in the treaty negotiations specifically addresses the effects of carbon absorption in the oceans on marine life, which studies show is damaging key creatures’ hard shells or skeletons.

Oceans absorb about 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere from human activities each year, says a new U.N. report released at the Copenhagen talks this week. That helps slow global warming in the atmosphere, the focus of the Copenhagen talks.

But carbon dissolving in oceans also forms carbonic acid, raising waters’ acidity that damages all manner of hard-shelled creatures, and setting off a chain reaction that threatens the food chain supporting marine life, including the lumbering sea mammals along the 276-mile coast of the California sanctuary and the rest of the U.S. West Coast.

By 2100, the report said, some 70 percent of cold water corals — a key refuge and feeding ground for commercially popular fish that also are food for the seals and otters — will be exposed to the harmful effects.

Ocean acidity could increase 150 percent just by mid-century, according to the report by the Secretariat of the U.N. Convention on Biological Diversity.

“This dramatic increase is 100 times faster than any change in acidity experienced in the marine environment over the last 20 million years, giving little time for evolutionary adaptation within biological systems,” it said.

The average acidity of oceans’ surface water is estimated to increase measurably by the end of the century and will affect marine life, according to Peter Brewer, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute.

“The total quantity of carbon dioxide that we’ve put into the oceans today is around 530 billion tons,” Brewer told journalists on a fall fellowship program with the Honolulu-based East-West Center. “Now, it’s going up at about 1 million tons an hour. You can’t keep doing that without it having some impact.”

John Heilprin, Associated Press, 18 December 2009. Article.

2 Responses to “Acid oceans: the ‘evil twin’ of climate change”


  1. 1 Gary Martin 19 December 2009 at 05:45

    Just a comment. Recent discoveries of undersea volcanic activity have shown that shelled sea creatures have adapted very well and are actually thriving in the toxic and highly acidic atmosphere around volcanic activity. These underwater volcanoes differ from above ground volcanoes in the fact that they seem to be going continuously… spewing toxic sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, CO2 etc continuously into the ocean. We have only viewed a few but I would expect that their presence would mirror the Pacific Ring of volcanic activity and every where else on the planet where there is observed volcanic activity. There is new DNA research that suggests that organisms don’t evolve by natural selection but by DNA switches that trigger adaptations. None of this has to do with anything man-made just the natural order of our planet and its relation to our solar system.

  2. 2 Jean-Pierre Gattuso 19 December 2009 at 11:08

    The title of this article is unfortunate because, despite the process of ocean acidification, the oceans are alkaline and will not become acidic (pH lower than 7) even in the distant future.


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