While the unprecedented effects of climate change have widely been known to cause devastating weather patterns and rises in sea levels, there is another emerging environmental phenomenon that has been largely overlooked by the general public.
Over the last decade, much of the scientific community has begun to focus on “ocean acidification,” a significant environmental problem caused by climate change for which humans are almost solely responsible.
Since the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s, the Earth’s temperature has risen significantly. This rise in temperature is due to the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases we pour into the air by burning fossil fuels. About 70 percent of these gases are trapped in our atmosphere, which has led to a recent change in weather patterns worldwide.
The remaining 30 percent of emitted greenhouse gases fall to the earth and are absorbed by our oceans. They act like tremendous sponges, soaking up the carbon dioxide. A chemical reaction then takes place that increases the acidity of the water, which further warms the seas. In sum, the increase in greenhouse gas emissions has been literally changing the chemistry of our seas.
At the current rate of worldwide carbon emission, it is possible that the ocean’s acidity could double by the year 2100. Human-imposed acidification is happening at least 10 times faster than any geological changes affecting the seas. In fact, the inadvertent heating and poisoning of our oceans is wielding devastating effects upon our oceanic environments.
Although ocean acidification has been the subject of much attention within the scientific community, it has barely received any coverage in our media outlets or public discourse. This is largely because the negative effects of ocean acidification are not obvious, even though they have already escalated to an alarming degree.
Today, more than one billion people rely upon the oceans for their main source of food — and their economies depend upon sea productivity. When the water becomes more acidic, the growth of the marine ecosystem is stunted and the way creatures interact and develop within it fundamentally changes. Acidity is one of the main causes of habitat loss for oceanic species. In the future, that loss of habitat will seriously disrupt the ocean’s food web, and in turn, our own food supply.
Northern California is an example of an economy that is being impacted right now by ocean acidification. Its coastal waters, home to some of the largest oyster farms in the world, experienced a boom in the past 30 years. Recently, however, oyster farmers have seen an alarming decline in the shellfish population that has been directly linked to ocean acidification. The more acidic the ocean, the less materials shellfish have to draw upon to build their shells. This has led to a shortage of shellfish, and suppliers may no longer be able meet consumer demand for their product.
Since sustained efforts to research how ocean acidification affects our seas have only just begun, it is difficult to predict how much long-term damage this problem will inflict. But with the pace of acidification accelerating throughout marine ecosystems, it is crucial that scientists and policy makers give this issue as much attention as they would any other impending environmental disaster.