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Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification is sometimes called “climate change’s equally evil twin,” and for good reason: it’s a significant and harmful consequence of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we don’t see or feel because its effects are happening underwater. At least one-quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning coal, oil and gas doesn’t stay in the air, but instead dissolves into the ocean. Since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, presently around 22 million tons per day.

At first, scientists thought that this might be a good thing because it leaves less carbon dioxide in the air to warm the planet. But in the past decade, they’ve realized that this slowed warming has come at the cost of changing the ocean’s chemistry. When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, the water becomes more acidic and the ocean’s pH (a measure of how acidic or basic the ocean is) drops. Even though the ocean is immense, enough carbon dioxide can have a major impact. In the past 200 years alone, ocean water has become 30 percent more acidic—faster than any known change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years.

Scientists formerly didn’t worry about this process because they always assumed that rivers carried enough dissolved chemicals from rocks to the ocean to keep the ocean’s pH stable. (Scientists call this stabilizing effect “buffering.”) But so much carbon dioxide is dissolving into the ocean so quickly that this natural buffering hasn’t been able to keep up, resulting in relatively rapidly dropping pH in surface waters. As those surface layers gradually mix into deep water, the entire ocean is affected.

Such a relatively quick change in ocean chemistry doesn’t give marine life, which evolved over millions of years in an ocean with a generally stable pH, much time to adapt. In fact, the shells of some animals are already dissolving in the more acidic seawater, and that’s just one way that acidification may affect ocean life. Overall, it’s expected to have dramatic and mostly negative impacts on ocean ecosystems—although some species (especially those that live in estuaries) are finding ways to adapt to the changing conditions.

However, while the chemistry is predictable, the details of the biological impacts are not. Although scientists have been tracking ocean pH for more than 30 years, biological studies really only started in 2003, when the rapid shift caught their attention and the term “ocean acidification” was first coined. What we do know is that things are going to look different, and we can’t predict in any detail how they will look. Some organisms will survive or even thrive under the more acidic conditions while others will struggle to adapt, and may even go extinct. Beyond lost biodiversity, acidification will affect fisheries and aquaculture, threatening food security for millions of people, as well as tourism and other sea-related economies.

Acidification Chemistry

At its core, the issue of ocean acidification is simple chemistry. There are two important things to remember about what happens when carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater. First, the pH of seawater water gets lower as it becomes more acidic. Second, this process binds up carbonate ions and makes them less abundant—ions that corals, oysters, mussels, and many other shelled organisms need to build shells and skeletons.

Carbon dioxide is naturally in the air: plants need it to grow, and animals exhale it when they breathe. But, thanks to people burning fuels, there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than anytime in the past 15 million years. Most of this CO2 collects in the atmosphere and, because it absorbs heat from the sun, creates a blanket around the planet, warming its temperature. But some 30 percent of this CO2dissolves into seawater, where it doesn’t remain as floating CO2molecules. A series of chemical changes break down the CO2molecules and recombine them with others.

When water (H2O) and CO2 mix, they combine to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). Carbonic acid is weak compared to some of the well-known acids that break down solids, such as hydrochloric acid (the main ingredient in gastric acid, which digests food in your stomach) and sulfuric acid (the main ingredient in car batteries, which can burn your skin with just a drop). The weaker carbonic acid may not act as quickly, but it works the same way as all acids: it releases hydrogen ions (H+), which bond with other molecules in the area.

Seawater that has more hydrogen ions is more acidic by definition, and it also has a lower pH. In fact, the definitions of acidification terms—acidity, H+, pH —are interlinked: acidity describes how many H+ ions are in a solution; an acid is a substance that releases H+ ions; and pH is the scale used to measure the concentration of H+ ions.

The lower the pH, the more acidic the solution. The pH scale goes from extremely basic at 14 (lye has a pH of 13) to extremely acidic at 1 (lemon juice has a pH of 2), with a pH of 7 being neutral (neither acidic or basic). The ocean itself is not actually acidic in the sense of having a pH less than 7, and it won’t become acidic even with all the CO2 that is dissolving into the ocean. But the changes in the direction of increasing acidity are still dramatic.

So far, ocean pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1 since the industrial revolution, and is expected by fall another 0.3 to 0.4 pH units by the end of the century. A drop in pH of 0.1 might not seem like a lot, but the pH scale, like the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes, is logarithmic. For example, pH 4 is ten times more acidic than pH 5 and 100 times (10 times 10) more acidic than pH 6. If we continue to add carbon dioxide at current rates, seawater pH may drop another 120 percent by the end of this century, to 7.8 or 7.7, creating an ocean more acidic than any seen for the past 20 million years or more.

Why Acidity Matters

The acidic waters from the CO2 seeps can dissolve shells and also make it harder for shells to grow in the first place.

Many chemical reactions, including those that are essential for life, are sensitive to small changes in pH. In humans, for example, normal blood pH ranges between 7.35 and 7.45. A drop in blood pH of 0.2-0.3 can cause seizures, comas, and even death. Similarly, a small change in the pH of seawater can have harmful effects on marine life, impacting chemical communication, reproduction, and growth.

The building of skeletons in marine creatures is particularly sensitive to acidity. One of the molecules that hydrogen ions bond with is carbonate (CO3-2), a key component of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) shells. To make calcium carbonate, shell-building marine animals such as corals and oysters combine a calcium ion (Ca+2) with carbonate (CO3-2) from surrounding seawater, releasing carbon dioxide and water in the process.

Like calcium ions, hydrogen ions tend to bond with carbonate—but they have a greater attraction to carbonate than calcium. When two hydrogens bond with carbonate, a new molecule called bicarbonate (2HCO3-) is formed. Shell-building organisms can’t extract the carbonate ion they need from bicarbonate, preventing them from using that carbonate to grow new shell. In this way, the hydrogen essentially binds up the carbonate ions, making it harder for shelled animals to build their homes. Even if animals are able to build skeletons in more acidic water, they may have to spend more energy to do so, taking away resources from other activities like reproduction. If there are too many hydrogen ions around and not enough molecules for them to bond with, they can even begin breaking existing calcium carbonate molecules apart—dissolving shells that already exist.

This is just one process that extra hydrogen ions—caused by dissolving carbon dioxide—may interfere with in the ocean. Organisms in the water, thus, have to learn to survive as the water around them has an increasing concentration of carbonate-hogging hydrogen ions.

Additional Resources

NOAA Ocean Acidification Program

What is Ocean Acidification? – NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory (PMEL) Carbon Program

Impacts of Ocean Acidification (PDF) – European Science Foundation

Covering Ocean Acidification: Chemistry and Considerations – Yale Climate Media Forum

An Introduction to the Chemistry of Ocean Acidification (PDF) – Skeptical Science

Frequently Asked Questions about Ocean Acidification – BIOACID

Ocean Acidification at Point Reyes National Seashore (Video) – National Park Service

News Articles
Sea Change (Seattle Times)
Bad acid trip: A beach bum’s guide to ocean acidification (Grist)
What Does Ocean Acidification Mean for Sea Life? (Ensia)
10 Key Findings From a Rapidly Acidifying Arctic Ocean (Mother Jones)

Scientific Papers
Ocean Acidification and Its Potential Effects on Marine Ecosystems – John Guinotte & Victoria Fabry (PDF)
Impacts of ocean acidification on marine fauna and ecosystem processes – Victoria Fabry, Brad Seibel, Richard Feely, & James Orr

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