The oceans are in trouble, which means we all are

As someone with a marine biology degree, I've been asked to help spread the word about the threat to ocean ecosystems from falling pH levels -- what everyone who doesn't have a marine biology degree calls ocean acidification. It's a worthy cause. Read the following letter, review this report and then go to this site and do something about it:

We are both lifelong boaters. What we have learned from sailing across the Pacific over the past 6 years, and especially from scientists focused on marine conservation, is startling. Whether you spend time on the water or not, Ocean Acidification affects all of us and is something we believe you will want to know about.

What would you do if you knew that many species of fish and other marine life in the ocean will be gone within 30 years if levels of C02 continue increasing at their present rate? We believe you would take action to stop this from happening, because informed people make informed choices. This letter is about what we can and must do together now to help solve a very serious but little-known problem, Ocean Acidification.

Ocean Acidification is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels. When carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ends up in the ocean it changes the pH, making the sea acidic and less hospitable to life. Over time, C02 reduces calcium carbonate, which prevents creatures from forming shells and building reefs. In fact, existing shells will start to dissolve. Oysters and mussels will not be able to build shells. Crabs and lobsters? Your great-grandchildren may wonder what they tasted like.

Carbon dioxide concentrated in the oceans is making seawater acidic. Many of the zooplankton, small animals at the base of the food web, have skeletons that won't form in these conditions, and sea-life further up the food chain - fish, mammals and seabirds that rely on zooplankton for food will also perish. No food - no life. One billion people rely on seafood for their primary source of protein. Many scientific reports document that worldwide, humans are already consuming more food than is being produced. The implications are obvious.

The issue of Ocean Acidification is causing irreversible loss to species and habitats, and acidification trends are happening up to ten times faster than projected. We want you to know what this means, how it affects all of us, and what we can do about it.

Today, the atmospheric concentration of C02 is about 387 parts per million (ppm) and increasing at 2 ppm per year. If left unaddressed, by 2040 it is projected to be over 450 ppm, and marine scientists believe the collapse of many ocean ecosystems will be irreversible. Acidification has other physiological effects on marine life as well, including changes in reproduction, growth rates, and even respiration in fish.

Tropical and coldwater corals are among the oldest and largest living structures on earth; the richest in terms of biodiversity, they provide spawning areas, nursery habitat and feeding grounds for a quarter of all species in the sea. Coral reefs are at risk! As C02 concentrations increase, corals, shellfish and other species that make shells will not be able to build their skeletons and will likely become extinct.

The good news is we can fix this problem. But, as you guessed, it will be difficult. Ocean Acidification is caused by increased C02 in the atmosphere. Solving one will solve the other. The House of Representatives has acted, passing HR 2454, the Waxman-Markey "American Clean Energy and Security Act", but it was severely weakened. Now the Senate has announced that it will move similar legislation this fall. We need the Senate to join the House in its leadership, but to demand far greater emissions reductions than were able to pass the House.

"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that in order to stabilize C02 in the atmosphere at 350 ppm by 2050, global carbon emissions need to be cut 85% below 2000 levels."That's a very tall order! And the way our political system works (or doesn't) makes its tougher. It will take all of us to step up and take responsibility to make this happen.

Here is what you can do: Contact your Senator now using ont of these techniques listed in order of effectiveness.

  1. Visit your Senator at their local office. It is easy to make an appointment. Tell them your concerns about C02 and the oceans, and to move strong climate legislation immediately that will reduce our greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that will not threaten our oceans. The experience is rewarding. (Alternatively, drop a letter off at their local office.)
  2. Call your Senator and leave a message urging action be taken to reduce C02 , address Ocean Acidification, and move strong climate legislation immediately that will reduce our greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that will not threaten our oceans.
  3. Click on this link to send an email, which will go directly to your Senator based on your address

You may use the letter provided, but it is more effective to edit it, and in your own words urge them to move strong climate legislation immediately that will reduce our greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that will not threaten our oceans.

Ocean Acidification is an issue we can do something about. We need a groundswell of informed citizens to get Congress to have the backbone to stand up to the entrenched interests of coal, oil, and gas and not compromise on the reduction of C02. We also need real leadership to aggressively create jobs using sustainable technologies. The choice is ours. We can solve this or not. What we do know is that the future facing our children, grandchildren and indeed all of humankind depends on our decision.

Please join us in sharing this letter with others. We appreciate your taking the time to contact your Senators; it is easy to do and effective.

Thank you for your support.

Randy Repass
West Marine

Sally-Christine Rodgers
Board Member


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The problem with this whole post is that its wrong. As the oceans warm the amount of dissolved CO2 in them will actually decrease even with increased concentrations of atmosphereic CO2. Simple chemistry people. The partial pressure in the atmosphere is not changing, the CO2 content in the atmosphere is rising. Climate change and global warming predict the oceans should be warming. CO2 follows a reverse solubility curve, i.e. as water warms it cannot hold as much dissolved CO2, as such it either precipitates it or off gases. Its a naturally stabilizing system.

By Phyllograptus (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

@Phyllograptus: The probelem with your post is it's wrong. Falling pH is a real phenomenon in the oceans. It is both predicted as a result of basic chemistry and observed.

Sorry, Phyllograptus; the original post is correct, you are mistaken.

The amount of CO2 that will dissolve in water is dependent on two things: the temperature (warmer water dissolves less CO2--you were correct here) AND the concentration of CO2 in the air. We are adding so much CO2 to the air, that it is forcing even warmer water to dissolve more CO2.

CO2 + H20 <---> H+ + HCO3-. The temperature definitely affects the equilibrium, but regardless of temperature, adding CO2 to the left side forces the reaction to the right.

Okay, as I see lots of other posters use this comment. Show me the Proof. Not comment that the pH is dropping. Can someone provide a link to peer reviewed papers documneting the data behind this. All I have been ever able to see is the comments its happening no one ever actually gives the data.
With regards to increased CO2 in the atmosphere causing increased dissolved CO2 in the ocean water driving the equation to the right. You miss the point about partial pressures. Yes the equation is correct, however small changes in concentrations without corresponding changes pressure just will not drive the equation very far. The solubility of CO2 in water is low and mostly controlled by pressure changes not by concentration of CO2 available. Not to mention the overall size of the CO2 reservoir (i.e oceans)that is being impacted. In addition any increase in temperature is going to buffer in increase in atmosphereic CO2 increase by reducing the solubility of CO2 in the ocean waters

By Phyllograptus (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

@Phyllograptus: it's not hard to find. The first reference on the Wikipedia entry on the subject.

Caldeira, K.; Wickett, M.E. (2003). "Anthropogenic carbon and ocean pH". Nature 425 (6956): 365â365

Here's the opening paragraph:

Most carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the burning of fossil fuels will eventually be absorbed by the ocean, with potentially
adverse consequences for marine biota.... We find that oceanic absorption of CO2 from fossil fuels may result in larger pH changes over the next several centuries than any inferred from the geological record of the past 300 million years....

Or how about this, from the second reference, Orr, James C.; et al. (2005). Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms. Nature 437 (7059): 681â686

Ocean uptake of CO2 will help moderate future climate change, but the associated chemistry, namely hydrolysis of CO2 in seawater, increases the hydrogen ion concentration [Hþ]. Surface ocean pH is already 0.1 unit lower than preindustrial values. By the end of the century, it will become another 0.3â0.4 units lower.

I think where you're going wrong is the science does lead to the conclusion that the oceans' ability to absord CO2 will eventually reach a maximum. There is even evidence that its ability to serve as a CO2 sink is already declining in some parts, particularly the Southern Ocean. Which is, of course, very bad news. First, because by that time, the organisms that depend on current pH levels will be stressed beyond their ability to cope, and second because that means the rate at which the atmospheric CO2 level is rising will increase significantly.

Thanks for the links. I've tried the link to the Caldeira paper both through your link and from the reference list on Wikipedia, and cannot access it in either fashion. I will try from another machine, or if you have a copy would it be possible to get a copy.

By Phyllograptus (not verified) on 16 Jul 2009 #permalink

For Phyllograptus:
(Our Dying Oceans: Acidification Threatens the Entire Marine Ecosystem

The striking first figure in this article is from:

Brewer, P.G. 1997. Ocean chemistry of the fossil fuel CO2 signal: the haline signal of âbusiness as usualâ. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24: 1367 â 1369.

And if you don't know who Peter Brewer is and why he knows a bit about the subject:
(Peter Brewer, Senior Scientist, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute)

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One veteran researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, John Boon, said he suspects the trend could be the beginning of ...

'Sohpet' and 'sohbet' is probably linkspamming; it's been associated with malware sources in the past.

Thanks for the pointers. Good to see West Marine's smart about this issue.

By Hank Roberts (not verified) on 18 Aug 2009 #permalink