The societal challenge of ocean acidification

The carbonate chemistry of the world’s oceans, including their pH, has been remarkably constant for hundreds of thousands of years (Pearson and Palmer, 2000), with typical surface ocean variations between ice ages and warm phases of no more than 0.2 pH units ([Sanyal et al., 1995], [Hönisch and Hemming, 2005] and [Foster, 2008]). However, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the oceans have taken up approximately 30% of the CO2 produced from fossil fuel burning, cement manufacture and land use changes (Sabine et al., 2004). While the invasion of CO2 into the ocean removes this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and thereby dampens global warming, it forms carbonic acid in seawater and lowers ambient surface ocean pH (Broecker and Peng, 1982). Ocean acidification is the direct consequence of the excessive addition of CO2 to seawater (Broecker and Takahashi, 1977) and is therefore inherently more predictable than temperature and precipitation changes due to rising CO2 in the atmosphere. Changes are already measurable today ([Bates, 2001], [Bates et al., 2002], [Takahashi et al., 2003], [Keeling et al., 2004] and [Santana-Casiano et al., 2007]) and will become more pronounced as humankind emits more CO2 into the atmosphere, with surface ocean pH expected to decline by a further 0.3 pH units by the end of the century, corresponding to an approximately 100% increase in ocean acidity (hydrogen ion concentration [H+]), on top of the 0.1 pH unit decline to date ([Caldeira and Wickett, 2003], [Orr et al., 2005] and [Solomon et al., 2007]). Such a rapid change in ocean pH has very likely not happened since the time the dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago ([van der Burgh et al., 1993], [Pearson and Palmer, 2000] and [Pagani et al., 2005]). While the dissolution of carbonate sediments on the bottom of the ocean and the weathering of rocks on land coupled with mixing of surface and deeper waters will eventually restore ocean pH to its pre-industrial state, this process will take up to a million years to complete ([Archer, 2005] and [Ridgwell and Zeebe, 2005]).

Turley, C., Eby, M., Ridgwell, A. J., Schmidt, D. N., Findlay, H. S., Brownlee, C., Riebesell, U., Fabry, V. J., Feely, R. A., & Gattuso, J.-P., 2010. The societal challenge of ocean acidification. Marine Pollution Bulletin 60(6): 787-792. Article (subscription required).

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