The ocean is awe-inspiring. We were born of it, and it gives us life by producing much of the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink.
It is mysterious and vast. No wonder we speak of emptying oceans with teaspoons to describe impossible tasks.
Yet, unfathomably, we have accomplished the impossible. We have changed the basic chemistry of the oceans — drop by drop — in such a profound way that we may be destroying a web of life that we depend upon for our very existence. Those ocean creatures should be wary of us — not the other way around.
Scientists are concerned that we are changing the ocean’s chemistry so rapidly that we are outstripping the evolutionary pace of many organisms to adapt.
The change we’ve introduced is called ocean acidification.
HOW DOES THE SCIENCE WORK?
The basic science is pretty straightforward: Since the industrial revolution, humans have been pumping ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Some of that CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid.
The ocean today absorbs nearly a third of the carbon dioxide we produce, probably mitigating the impact of climate change. But the ocean has absorbed so much CO2 that overall acidity levels are rising, and at a much faster rate than previously thought.
More acidic water makes it harder — and ultimately impossible — for some creatures like oysters, corals, and mussels to form shells, which are made largely from the calcium carbonate, plain old chalk, that occurs naturally in seawater. That’s why acidification is sometimes referred to as “osteoporosis of the sea.”
WHICH OCEAN CREATURES ARE AFFECTED BY ACIDIFICATION?
This process affects creatures up and down the food chain — from the tiny organisms that build the planet’s coral reefs and the plankton drifting with the ocean currents, all the way to the whales that feed on the plankton.
Also affected are the lentil bean-sized pteropods, delicate, balletic creatures that nourish many of the fish we then consume. In other words, the ability of all ocean life to sustain itself is being compromised.
Scientists have been surprised at how sensitive plants and animals are to even small changes in CO2 levels. For many creatures, acid is deadly. Their shells disintegrate. And many scientists are concerned that we are changing the ocean’s chemistry faster than many organisms can adapt.
WHAT DOES THE FUTURE OF THE OCEANS LOOK LIKE?
Because the science is fairly new, we still do not fully understand the long-term effect of increasingly acidic oceans. The ocean is a complex, integrated, self-regulating system; how it will change is hard to predict.
As we conduct this uncontrolled experiment on two-thirds of the planet, scientists are racing to find ways to make the ocean more resilient.
The Obama administration signaled its commitment to acidification research. There is no controversy surrounding the science underlying the acidification of the ocean.
There is no question about where the CO2 is coming from. There is no question about how the chemistry works.
And there is only one known way to stop acidification: to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide.
The more we reduce now, the less severe, and costly, the future consequences.
WHAT CAN MOMS DO TO HELP?
BECOME AN ADVOCATE for fighting climate change with enormous reductions of our carbon emissions.
DEMAND comprehensive legislation that cuts carbon emissions.
And go ahead, take a swim. Bathe in those natal waters, and give thanks for the life they support. The ocean has the capacity to heal itself much faster than one teaspoon at a time.
We need to give it that chance. We would be doing ourselves a big favor — giving our grandchildren a chance to inhabit a livable planet.