The catch of climate change: what is ocean acidification?

The Catch of Climate Change is an exclusive Talking Fish series that will look at the potential impacts of ocean acidification from climate change on New England’s oceans and fisheries. This post, the first in the series, will provide an introduction to the concept of ocean acidification and its potential ramifications.

Although many people are aware of climate change, the specifics concerning how it affects our oceans are complicated and often poorly understood. We have all heard about sea level rise from receding glaciers, and the threat they present to low-lying coastal communities and beautiful species like polar bears. In addition, the influx of melted glacial freshwater into our oceans could disrupt crucial ocean circulation that provides nutrients to organisms and regulates world climate, a process primarily driven by ocean temperatures and salinity. Another consequence that could have drastic effects on marine ecosystems and the economy is ocean acidification (OA).

What is ocean acidification, and how does it happen? Oceans act as a sink for carbon dioxide, absorbing 30% of the CO2 released into the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels.[1] Through a series of chemical reactions, an overabundance of CO2 can result in a lower pH, creating a more acidic oceanic environment (the lower the pH of a substance, the more acidic it is). In the last century alone, pH has already decreased by 0.1 units, a notable change in acidity, accompanied by an approximate 1°C increase in ocean temperature.[2] It is no coincidence that the onset of such rapid changes became visible after the Industrial Revolution, considering it initiated the monumental increase in greenhouse gas emissions that continues today.

Nancy Shrodes, Talking Fish blog, 29 June 2011. Article.


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