Ocean Acidification: The Other CO2 Problem

Increased carbon dioxide is changing the chemistry of the earth’s oceans, threatening marine life Earth’s atmosphere isn’t the only victim of burning fossil fuels. About a quarter of all carbon dioxide emissions are absorbed by the earth’s oceans, where they’re having an impact that’s just starting to be understood.
Over the last decade, scientists have discovered that this excess CO2 is actually changing the chemistry of the sea and proving harmful for many forms of marine life. This process is known as ocean acidification. A more acidic ocean could wipe out species, disrupt the food web and impact fishing, tourism and any other human endeavor that relies on the sea. The change is happening fast -- and it will take fast action to slow or stop it. Over the last 250 years, oceans have absorbed 530 billion tons of CO2, triggering a 30 percent increase in ocean acidity. Before people started burning coal and oil, ocean pH had been relatively stable for the previous 20 million years. But researchers predict that if carbon emissions continue at their current rate, ocean acidity will more than double by 2100. The polar regions will be the first to experience changes. Projections show that the Southern Ocean around Antarctica will actually become corrosive by 2050.

Click the photo above to view a slideshow of corals and learn more about the impact of ocean acidification.

Corrosive Impacts on Sealife
The new chemical composition of our oceans is expected to harm a wide range of ocean life -particularly creatures with shells. The resulting disruption to the ocean ecosystem could have a widespread ripple effect and further deplete already struggling fisheries worldwide.

Ultimately. Evidence suggests that coral reefs in protected ocean reserves are less affected by global threats such as global warming and ocean acidification. The ―tipping point‖ for coral reefs could happen as soon as 2050. The same strategies needed to fight global warming on land can also help in the seas.the mineral used to form the shells and skeletons of many shellfish and corals. Disappearing Coral Reefs Delicate corals may face an even greater risk than shellfish because they require very high levels of carbonate to build their skeletons. Coral reefs serve as the home for many other forms of ocean life. the larger animals that feed on them could suffer. If pH levels drop enough.Increased acidity reduces carbonate -. Their disappearance would be akin to rainforests being wiped out worldwide. but will also injure some species of smaller marine organisms -. though. as well. Acidity slows reef-building. the shells will literally dissolve. The effect is similar to osteoporosis.especially on the fishing and tourism industries. Creating marine protected areas (essentially national parks for the sea) and stopping destructive fishing practices would increase the resiliency of marine ecosystems and help them withstand acidification. What Can We Do About It? Combating acidification requires reducing CO2 emissions and improving the health of the oceans. which could lower the resiliency of corals and lead to their erosion and eventual extinction.things such as pteropods and coccolithophores. slowing growth and making shells weaker. Such losses would reverberate throughout the marine environment and have profound social impacts. The loss of coral reefs would also reduce the protection that they offer coastal communities against storms surges and hurricanes -. You’ve probably never heard of them. reducing the amount of carbon dioxide absorbed into the oceans may be the only way to halt acidification. demonstrating the power of ecosystem protection. as well -. This process will not only harm some of our favorite seafood.which might become more severe with warmer air and sea surface temperatures due to global warming. such as lobster and mussels. but they form a vital part of the food web. If those smaller organisms are wiped out. .

[9] The carbon cycle involves both organic compounds as well as inorganic carbon compounds such as carbon dioxide and the carbonates.[2] representing an increase of almost 30% in "acidity" (H+ ion concentration) in the world's oceans. says Lisa Suatoni.[1] About a quarter of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere goes into the oceans.[10] When CO2 dissolves.[8] with some also taken up by terrestrial plants. where it forms carbonic acid. Human activities such as the combustion of fossil fuels and land use changes have led to a new flux of CO2 into the atmosphere. As the amount of carbon has risen in the atmosphere there has been a corresponding rise of carbon going into the ocean. and only reinforces that we need to make changes in how we fuel our world -. lithosphere. About 45% has remained in the atmosphere. it reacts with water to form a balance of ionic and non-ionic chemical species: dissolved free carbon dioxide (CO(aq) 2).25 to 8.[7] and the atmosphere. terrestrial biosphere. Between 1751 and 1994 surface ocean pH is estimated to have decreased from approximately 8.14. Ocean acidification is the name given to the ongoing decrease in the pH and increase in acidity of the Earth's oceans. [edit] Acidification . The ratio of these species depends on factors such as seawater temperature and alkalinity (see the article on the ocean's solubility pump for more detail).The acidification of our oceans is the hidden side of the world’s carbon crisis. The inorganic compounds are particularly relevant when discussing ocean acidification for it includes the many forms of dissolved CO2 present in the Earth's oceans. bicarbonate (HCO− 3) and carbonate (CO2− 3). caused by the uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.[6] The carbon cycle describes the fluxes of carbon dioxide (CO2) between the oceans. an NRDC ocean scientist.and we need to do it quickly.[3][4][5] This ongoing acidification of the oceans poses a threat to the food chains connected with the oceans. most of the rest has been taken up by the oceans. carbonic acid (H2CO3).

Although the largest changes are expected in the future.179 0. it is estimated that surface ocean pH has dropped by slightly more than 0. its pH is still greater than 7 (that of neutral water).5 pH units (an additional doubling to tripling of today's post-industrial acid concentrations) by 2100 as the oceans absorb more anthropogenic CO2. and thus decreases ocean pH.9% Present levels ~8. The degree of change to ocean chemistry.000 analysed field[12][not in citation given] 0% Recent past (1990s) 8. so the ocean could also be described as becoming less basic. Average surface ocean pH[11] Time pH pH change Source H+ concentration change relative to preindustrial Pre-industrial (18th century) 8. including ocean pH.8% 2050 (2×CO2 = 560 ppm) 7.355 model[11] + 126. Caldeira and Wickett (2003)[1] placed the rate and magnitude of modern ocean acidification changes in the context of probable historical changes during the last 300 million years. and it is estimated that it will drop by a further 0.949 −0.[17] Even though the ocean is acidifying.5% Since the industrial revolution began.11 field[3][4][5][13] + 28.8% 2100 (IS92a)[14] 7.1 units on the logarithmic scale of pH.[11] a report from NOAA scientists found large quantities of water undersaturated in aragonite are already upwelling close to the Pacific .075 field[12] + 18.Carbonate system of seawater Dissolving CO2 in seawater increases the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the ocean.230 model[11] + 69.104 −0.3 to 0. will depend on the mitigation and emissions pathways[16] society takes.069 −0. representing an approximately 29% increase in H+.[1][11][15] These changes are predicted to continue rapidly as the oceans take up more anthropogenic CO2 from the atmosphere.824 −0.

"[21] Current rates of ocean acidification have been compared with the greenhouse event at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (about 55 million years ago) when surface ocean temperatures rose by 5–6 degrees Celsius. and so the acid spike will be more intense than the earth has seen in at least 800. acidity has increased 6 percent in the upper 100 meters of the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Alaska. The [present] fossil fuel acidification is much faster than natural changes. and though the study only dealt with the area from Vancouver to northern California. making it unlikely that marine life can somehow adapt to the changes. No catastrophe was seen in surface ecosystems.." In the 15-year period 1995–2010 alone. the authors suggest that other shelf areas may be experiencing similar effects.The point of bringing it up again is to note that if the CO2 concentration of the atmosphere changes more slowly than this.[22] and the rate of increase is about ten times the rate that preceded the Paleocene-Eocene mass extinction."[24][25] A 2012 paper in the journal Science examined the geological record in an attempt to find a historical analog for current global conditions as well as those of the future. former chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank. with consequences for near-shore benthic ecosystems.[18] [edit] Rate Similarly. The current and projected acidification has been described as an almost unprecedented geological event.continental shelf area of North America. writing:[28] "The natural pH of the ocean is determined by a need to balance the deposition and burial of CaCO3 on the sea floor against the influx of Ca2+ and CO2− 3 into the ocean from dissolving rocks on land.000 years. by a mechanism called CaCO3 compensation.[26][27] A review by climate scientists at the RealClimate blog. The researchers determined that the current rate of ocean acidification is faster than at any time in the past 300 million years. called weathering. of a 2005 report by the Royal Society of the UK similarly highlighted the centrality of the rates of change in the present anthropogenic acidification process. one of the first detailed datasets examining temporal variations in pH at a temperate coastal location found that acidification was occurring at a rate much higher than previously predicted. The current acidification is on a path to reach levels higher than any seen in the last 65 million years. the pH of the ocean will be relatively unaffected because CaCO3 compensation can keep up. yet bottom-dwelling organisms in the deep ocean experienced a major extinction.[18] Continental shelves play an important role in marine ecosystems since most marine organisms live or are spawned there.[29] [edit] Calcification ..[23] A National Research Council study released in April 2010 likewise concluded that "the level of acid in the oceans is increasing at an unprecedented rate.[19][20] Thomas Lovejoy. has suggested that "the acidity of the oceans will more than double in the next 40 years. as it always has throughout the Vostok record. This rate is 100 times faster than any changes in ocean acidity in the last 20 million years. These processes stabilize the pH of the ocean.

and is described by the following equation: Here Ω is the product of the concentrations (or activities) of the reacting ions that form the mineral (Ca2+ and CO2− 3). calcite and aragonite are stable in surface waters since the carbonate ion is at supersaturating concentrations. foraminifera. One of the most important repercussions of increasing ocean acidity relates to the production of shells and plates out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). under normal conditions. Most calcifying organisms live in such waters.[15] This process is called calcification and is important to the biology and survival of a wide range of marine organisms. The carbonate compensation depth occurs at the depth in the ocean where production is exceeded by dissolution.[31] Calcium carbonate occurs in two common polymorphs: aragonite and calcite. The saturation state of seawater for a mineral (known as Ω) is a measure of the thermodynamic potential for the mineral to form or to dissolve. such structures are vulnerable to dissolution unless the surrounding seawater contains saturating concentrations of carbonate ions. divided by the product of the concentrations of those ions when the mineral is at equilibrium (Ksp). and depth. it is believed that the resulting decrease in pH will have negative consequences. Ω has a value greater than 1.[15] This also means that those organisms that produce aragonite may possibly be more vulnerable to changes in ocean acidity than those that produce calcite. and CaCO3 does not readily dissolve.[15] Above this saturation horizon. and is known as the saturation horizon. a natural horizontal boundary is formed as a result of temperature. with the result that the aragonite saturation horizon is always nearer to the surface than the calcite saturation horizon. or lysocline. CaCO3 can still occur where Ω is less than 1.[30] In seawater. However. Calcification involves the precipitation of dissolved ions into solid CaCO3 structures. These span the food chain from autotrophs to heterotrophs and include organisms such as coccolithophores. structures made of calcium carbonate are .[15] Below this depth.[11] Increasing CO2 levels and the resulting lower pH of seawater decreases the saturation state of CaCO3 and raises the saturation horizons of both forms closer to the surface. crustaceans and molluscs. Ω has a value less than 1. such as coccoliths. As described above.Changes in ocean chemistry can have extensive direct and indirect effects on organisms and their habitats. and when carbonate becomes undersaturated. primarily for oceanic calcifying organisms. However. so does the concentration of this ion. and CaCO3 will dissolve. pressure. After they are formed.[33] [edit] Possible impacts Although the natural absorption of CO2 by the world's oceans helps mitigate the climatic effects of anthropogenic emissions of CO2. corals. Aragonite is much more soluble than calcite. that is. when the mineral is neither forming nor dissolving. if its production rate is high enough to offset dissolution. as it has been found that the inorganic precipitation of CaCO3 is directly proportional to its saturation state. echinoderms.[32] This decrease in saturation state is believed to be one of the main factors leading to decreased calcification in marine organisms. as ocean pH falls.

leading to the enhancement of the ocean as a reservoir for CO2 with moderate (and potentially beneficial) implications for climate change as more CO2 leaves the atmosphere for the ocean. the calcification of coccoliths has increased by up to 40% during the same time. CO2-induced acidification of body fluids. or CO2. too — absorbed to the tune of about 22 million tons per day.[55] This will cause an elevation of ocean alkalinity. contributing to global warming by decreasing the Earth's albedo via their effects on oceanic cloud cover. it appears likely that many calcifying species will be adversely affected.vulnerable to dissolution.[42] foraminifera.[15] Ocean acidification may also force some organisms to reallocate resources away from productive endpoints such as growth in order to maintain calcification. increasing ocean noise and impacting animals that use sound for echolocation or communication.[34] Research has already found that corals.[50] Recent work examining a sediment core from the North Atlantic found that while the species composition of coccolithophorids has remained unchanged for the industrial period 1780 to 2004. a relative of the common sea star. either directly as reproductive or physiological effects (e. in June 2005.1 percent survived more than eight days. Even if there is no change in the rate of calcification.[29] There is also a suggestion that a decline in the coccolithophores may have secondary effects on climate.[51] Aside from calcification. and even the dissolution of existing carbonate sediments. fewer than 0.[48] While the full ecological consequences of these changes in calcification are still uncertain.[43] shellfish[44] and pteropods[11][45] experience reduced calcification or enhanced dissolution when exposed to elevated CO2. the rate of dissolution of calcareous material increases.[46][47][48] an equal decline in primary production and calcification in response to elevated CO2[49] or the direction of the response varying between species. seawater chemistry changes and the water becomes . it is expected that ocean acidification in the future will lead to a significant decrease in the burial of carbonate sediments for several centuries. As oceans absorb carbon dioxide. with coccolithophore calcification and photosynthesis both increasing under elevated atmospheric pCO2.[56] When we spew carbon dioxide into our air.g.[38][39][40][41] coralline algae. and its potential consequences. known as hypercapnia).[15] However. organisms may suffer other adverse effects.[54] Leaving aside direct biological effects.[53] However. allowing sound to propagate further. The Royal Society published a comprehensive overview of ocean acidification. This results in global warming’s evil twin: ocean acidification. some studies have found different response to ocean acidification. as with calcification. When exposed in experiments to pH reduced by 0. it eventually ends up in our oceans. larvae of a temperate brittlestar.2 to 0. or indirectly through negative impacts on food resources. as yet there is not a full understanding of these processes in marine organisms or ecosystems.[35][36][37] coccolithophore algae. therefore.4.[52] It has even been suggested that ocean acidification will alter the acoustic properties of seawater.

In the last century. The Clean Water Act is the nation’s strongest law protecting water quality. We also advocate for the protection of species affected by ocean acidification. the oceans have become about 30 percent more acidic due to human CO2 emissions — and this spells trouble for ocean life. this mild acid is neutralized by fossilized carbonate shells on the sea floor. atmospheric CO₂ has risen about 30 percent. Ocean acidification could disrupt the entire marine ecosystem. and we’re using the tools provided by this law to stop pollution causing ocean acidification as well as to improve waterquality standards and monitoring for pH. mollusks and some plankton in the seafood chain need for reef and shell-building. they unfortunately won’t be the last. seastars. sea urchins. The excess CO₂ from the atmosphere reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid. and in September 2007. Once dissolved in the ocean. which make up much of the rapidly declining coral reefs of Florida and the Caribbean. Thanks to our landmark lawsuit.S. The same year. Fish are common ocean prey. plankton and other marine creatures to build the protective armor they need to survive. Finally.more acidic. we also petitioned the U. These corals were listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 2006 as a result of a Center petition. so when these animals suffer. and plankton are at the base of the ocean food chain. the next year the EPA recommended that coastal states begin addressing ocean acidification under the Clean Water Act. To make matters worse. helping to reduce the devastating effects of ocean acidification. fish and other ocean organisms may be adversely affected from the rise in acidity in their ocean habitat. the agency for the first time invoked the Clean Water Act to address the acidification crisis. But if CO₂ goes into the oceans too quickly. the Center is tackling it head on. ocean acidification depletes seawater of the compounds that organisms need to build shells and skeletons. Since ocean acidification is one of the gravest threats to marine biodiversity. calling for data to use for evaluating water-quality criteria under the Act. we sued the National Marine Fisheries Service to speed designation of critical habitat. waters from acidification. which would require those states to limit CO2 pollution entering waters under their jurisdiction. and has launched an initiative to protect our oceans from CO2 pollution. in spring 2009. as it is now. In 2007. so do the countless animals that eat them. First of all. crabs. According to scientists.S. we petitioned eight coastal states to declare ocean waters impaired under the Clean Water Act due to ocean acidification. which cover some 70 percent of Earth's surface. impairing the ability of corals. But when it failed to take action against ocean acidification in Washington state waters — which are in violation of the state’s already lax water-quality standard for pH — we were forced to sue the agency in spring 2009. humans are releasing vast amounts of CO₂ into the atmosphere. While elkhorn and staghorn corals are the first species to be listed because of vulnerability to global warming. a carbon atom will stay there on average more than 500 years. Over time. most notably elkhorn coral and staghorn coral. industry and cities in ever greater extent. to 393 parts per million. Environmental Protection Agency to impose stricter pH standards for ocean water quality and publish guidance to help states protect U. Approximately one quarter of the excess CO₂ is absorbed by land plants and another quarter by the oceans. The Center will contBy burning fossil fuels and clearing forests for agriculture. . it can deplete the carbonate ions that corals.

inue to defend our ocean’s life and fight to curb the pollution that threatens it. Because seawater chemistry is partly controlled by temperature. sediments and fossil shells retain a signature of the ambient temperatures under which they formed. They found a layer of mud from the PETM period wedged between thick deposits of white plankton fossils.In the early 1990s. . scientists used a deep-drilling ship to extract sediment cores from deep in the seabed off Antarctica.