Acid Test: Can We Save Our Oceans From CO2?

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January, 2009

Climate change is now widely recognized as the most significant environmental challenge of our time. This does not just mean that the environment or ‘nature’ is in danger. We too will suffer the consequences. We are inherently inseparable from the environment around us and are reliant upon the services it provides, from the air we breathe and the climates we inhabit, to the fertilized crops we consume. We are exquisitely adapted to the Earth as we know it. Unfortunately, our activities are now altering the balance of gases in the atmosphere— the very gases that help regulate the temperature and climate.

Along with a disrupted climate system, our emissions of carbon dioxide are having a severe, but more insidious, impact on the oceans. The oceans absorb roughly 30 percent of global carbon emissions and 80 percent of the heat generated by increased levels of greenhouse gases, thereby mitigating some of the climate change that would otherwise occur. However, this relief comes at a great cost. Not only are the oceans warming and rising, but they are also becoming more acidic.

The increasing amount of carbon dioxide in the oceans results in reactions that are changing the chemistry of the oceans, through a process known as ocean acidification. This threatens marine organisms like hard corals, clams and crabs that create calcium carbonate shells and skeletons. The acid created by excess carbon dioxide in the oceans takes the materials these organisms would otherwise use to create shells and skeletons, and makes it unavailable. This makes it increasingly difficult for corals and other marine animals to strengthen existing structures and build new ones. If ocean acidification continues, the very water that these organisms live in could become so corrosive that it would dissolve their shells and skeletons directly.

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