The importance of understanding climate change’s evil twin: ocean acidification

The ocean absorbs about 30% of airborne carbon dioxide which results in a reduction in airborne carbon. This sounds good in theory, but it has a drawback; the oceans are becoming more acidic at unprecedented rates. As such, ocean acidification (OA) deserves more attention than it currently receives. Continuous OA could potentially end in the large-scale collapse of coastal communities and marine ecosystems.

The process itself is rather simple: airborne carbon dioxide regularly mixes with ocean water, resulting in the ocean absorbing about 22 million tons of carbon dioxide every day. That carbon dioxide then reacts with the water to form bicarbonate and hydrogen ions, both of which contribute to the decrease in oceanic pH. For the past hundreds of years, the ocean’s pH was 8.2, which is a consistently weak alkalinity; today, it is 30% more acidic. The conditions for marine life are such that even a slight shift to acidity could be detrimental to the entire ecosystem.

The OA problem emerges when marine animals are unable to function as a result of these compounds. Shelled and structure-building marine animals such as oysters, barnacles and corals have shown a decrease in the thickness of their shells. In fact, OA, alongside warming ocean temperatures, has been proven to be instrumental in the collapse of 29% of coral reef systems. Likewise, populations of shell-forming phytoplankton and zooplankton have been on the decline.

Living in Riverside, one may be tempted to assume OA does not affect us but that is not the case. Phytoplankton alone are responsible for about 50-85% of the oxygen in the Earth’s atmosphere, while zooplankton are the base for most marine food webs. The effects that OA has on humanity are lower concentrations of available atmospheric oxygen and a decrease in the global food supply. The effects of OA are so dire that coastal communities in the Pacific Northwest have already recorded multimillion-dollar losses due to the decline of fish and shellfish populations, while several west coast fisheries have been forced to shut down completely.

Thankfully, OA has the same root cause as climate change: high concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As such, the solution to OA is to reduce carbon emissions and, hopefully, to reduce the total amount of atmospheric carbon. A number of hypothetical solutions have arisen in the wake of this climate emergency, such as fertilizing the ocean with iron to cause a controlled explosion of phytoplankton activity. Another recommends cultivating kelp and seagrass in controlled environments. Of course, the switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy would be exceptionally helpful as well. In any case, the problem of ocean acidification is extremely important and must be treated as such. These fixes require humanity to understand and accept the scientific consensus that climate change is real, man-made and currently taking place.

Cyrus Tosco, The Highlander, 8 October 2019. Article.

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OA-ICC HIGHLIGHTS

Ocean acidification in the IPCC AR5 WG II

OUP book