The Other Carbon Problem

Kevin Hengehold May 27, 2013 0

In landlocked Arizona most don’t know or care about developments in the world’s oceans. Yet this is a story I cannot help but report because public awareness of the issue is so abysmal, and in the end it will affect all of us. It is the other carbon problem – ocean acidification.

Oceans have absorbed one quarter of the carbon dioxide humanity has released since the beginning of the industrial revolution. For years scientists thought this was a good thing. It meant a reduced greenhouse effect, slowing the projected calamities of a warming planet such as sea level rise and desertification. We now know, thanks to extensive work by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), that the absorption of carbon dioxide by the oceans is causing severe damage, with ramifications for humanity. An estimated 2.6 billion individuals rely on the oceans as their primary protein source.

As CO2 is absorbed, it reduces the pH of ocean water, making it more acidic. This is a big problem for species that rely on shells for survival such as crab, lobster, mussels, oysters, sea urchins, shrimp and pteropods. Acidic water impedes calcification and corrodes shells, causing near-certain death. Already, the acidity of the oceans has increased 30% relative to pre-industrial times. Acidic waters are being linked to the recent collapse of the Pacific Northwest Oyster harvest.

A pteropod shell in sea water
A pteropod shell in sea water with pH and carbonate levels projected for the year 2100.

This also means trouble for coral reefs, the “rainforests of the oceans”, which could be completely wiped out by ocean acidification. Already about 20% of global coral reefs have been lost in the past few decades. The real tragedy is this damage is essentially irreversible. We are heading down a road where children one day will only be able to experience coral reefs by looking at photographs.

This 20 minute documentary explains the issue well.

As elected officials at the Arizona Corporation Commission and elsewhere decide the energy future of our state and nation, we can only hope they find the foresight to understand the consequences of their decisions.