The other carbon-dioxide problem

Acidification threatens the world’s oceans, but quantifying the risks is hard

In the waters of Kongsfjord, an inlet on the coast of Spitsbergen, sit nine contraptions that bring nothing to mind as much as monster condoms. Each is a transparent sheath of plastic 17-metres long, mostly underwater, held in place by a floating collar. The seawater sealed within them is being mixed with different levels of carbon dioxide to see what will happen to the ecology of the Arctic waters.

As carbon dioxide levels go up, pH levels come down. Acidity depends on the presence of hydrogen ions (the H in pH) and more hydrogen ions mean, counterintuitively, a lower pH. Expose the surface of the ocean to an atmosphere with ever more carbon dioxide, and the gas and waters will produce carbonic acid, lowering pH on a planetary scale. The declining pH does not actually make the waters acidic (they started off mildly alkaline). But it makes them more acidic, just as turning up the light makes a dark room brighter.

The Economist, 1 July 2010. Full article.

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