Ocean acidification, caused primarily by human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes, dramatically decreases the pH of the ocean by forming acidic compounds when carbon dioxide is absorbed into seawater. This process has far-reaching consequences for marine life and ecosystems, with organisms that produce shells and carbonate skeletons becoming particularly vulnerable. Acidification disrupts the balance of life-supporting processes for marine life, potentially leading to population declines and extinction of some species. It can also lead to food chain disruption and changes in marine habitats, and reduce phytoplankton’s potential carbon-dioxide-uptake role in the ocean. Addressing acidification requires significant reductions in carbon emissions.
Ocean Acidification Threatens Ecosystems and Marine Life
Ocean acidification is a process where carbon dioxide, a gas that dissolves in seawater, forms acidic compounds that dramatically decrease the pH of the ocean. This phenomenon is caused by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, primarily due to human activities such as burning fossil fuels, deforestation, and industrial processes. Although this chemical reaction takes place naturally, it is the speed and intensity of anthropogenic (human-caused) activities that have changed the ocean’s chemistry.
The ocean absorbs as much as a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans release into the air. As the carbon dioxide is absorbed into the ocean, it reacts with water molecules to form carbonic acid, increasing the acidity of seawater. This results in a decrease in pH levels, which impacts marine ecosystems, and has far-reaching consequences for marine life.
Marine organisms that produce shells and carbonate skeletons, such as corals, mollusks, and various types of plankton, are particularly vulnerable. The acidic conditions of the ocean strip the organisms of the materials they need to create their protective shells, causing them to become brittle and vulnerable to disease. Additionally, acidification can disrupt the balance of life-supporting processes for marine life, including the respiration and reproduction of various species. Acidification could disrupt the delicate balance of marine ecosystems, potentially leading to population declines and extinction for some species.
Effects of acidification on marine ecosystems:
– Food Chain disruption: Acidification directly impacts organisms that produce calcium carbonate skeletons, which form the base of the food chain in many marine ecosystems. This could lead to a decline in the populations of small species that will affect their predators all the way through to larger animals, such as sharks or whales.
– Changes in habitat: Acidification can also cause changes in the composition of underwater ecosystems. Shifts in pH levels and the decrease in carbonate ions can alter the population distribution of various species that rely heavily on a specific range of pH levels within the water. Coral reefs are particularly affected due to their limited tolerance to such fluctuations.
– Changes in carbon uptake: As phytoplankton, one of the essential components of marine ecosystems, are affected by acidification, it causes them to struggle to absorb carbon from the water. This limits their potential carbon-dioxide-uptake role in the ocean; their role in controlling the Earth’s climate.
While the effects of acidification on marine life can vary across different environments, the long-term implications for global ocean health are enormous.
Q. Can ocean acidification be prevented?
A. Since the water absorbs carbon dioxide, the only way to reduce acidification is to decrease atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. It will require a significant reduction in emissions made from burning fossil fuels.
Q. What can individuals do to reduce ocean acidification?
A. Individual action can have a significant impact. By reducing our carbon footprint, we can begin to make a difference. This can include simple actions like walking or biking instead of driving, using public transport, reducing energy usage, and choosing renewable energy sources.
Q. What is the current status of acidification in the ocean?
A. Ocean acidification is an ongoing issue, and the latest research suggests that the ocean’s pH level has decreased by 0.1 units since the start of the industrial era. Current projections estimate that by the end of the century, the pH of the ocean could decrease by as much as 0.4 to 0.5 pH units.