What does “ocean acidification” mean? (audio)

Is the ocean really turning to acid? Will it burn our skin off? What do scientists mean when they talk about “ocean acidification”?

Well, the oceans won’t turn into one large vat of acid, like the one that the Joker fell into in the movie Batman. However, on a scale of zero to fourteen, with zero being acidic, and fourteen being most basic, ocean pH is dropping from its historic level of eight and quickly approaching seven. That won’t be a lucky number in this scenario.

What is the phenomenon behind this?

It turns out that a large quantity of carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning ends up dissolving in ocean water. This process creates carbonic acid in the ocean which in turn decreases the amount of carbonate ions. Guess what, these carbonate ions are used by marine organisms to build the beautiful, life supporting coral reefs.

Coral reefs not only serve as a home for marine life, but they help protect humans from natural disasters like tsunamis. They also support tourism and fisheries; industries which provide livelihood to millions of humans.

Coral reefs and acid

Just like acid rain can dissolve the walls of a limestone house, ocean acidification is dissolving the coral reefs. We can rebuild with other materials, but the marine organisms do not have other raw materials to rebuild the coral reefs from.

So, the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is changing oceanic chemical dynamics, at a pace much faster than we can provide solutions for.

Swati Garg & Jill Minor, Moment of Science, 18 October 2012. Podcast.

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