At first, scientists thought that this might be a good thing because it leaves the last two million years pdf carbon dioxide in the air to warm the planet. But in the past decade, they’ve realized that this slowed warming has come at the cost of changing the ocean’s chemistry. Even though the ocean is immense, enough carbon dioxide can have a major impact. Scientists formerly didn’t worry about this process because they always assumed that rivers carried enough dissolved chemicals from rocks to the ocean to keep the ocean’s pH stable.
But so much carbon dioxide is dissolving into the ocean so quickly that this natural buffering hasn’t been able to keep up, resulting in relatively rapidly dropping pH in surface waters. Such a relatively quick change in ocean chemistry doesn’t give marine life, which evolved over millions of years in an ocean with a generally stable pH, much time to adapt. In fact, the shells of some animals are already dissolving in the more acidic seawater, and that’s just one way that acidification may affect ocean life. However, while the chemistry is predictable, the details of the biological impacts are not. Although scientists have been tracking ocean pH for more than 30 years, biological studies really only started in 2003, when the rapid shift caught their attention and the term “ocean acidification” was first coined. There are two important things to remember about what happens when carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater. CO2 levels in the ocean, and decreasing pH in the water off the coast of Hawaii.
Carbon dioxide is naturally in the air: plants need it to grow, and animals exhale it when they breathe. But, thanks to people burning fuels, there is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than anytime in the past 15 million years. Most of this CO2 collects in the atmosphere and, because it absorbs heat from the sun, creates a blanket around the planet, warming its temperature. Seawater that has more hydrogen ions is more acidic by definition, and it also has a lower pH. The lower the pH, the more acidic the solution. The ocean itself is not actually acidic in the sense of having a pH less than 7, and it won’t become acidic even with all the CO2 that is dissolving into the ocean.
But the changes in the direction of increasing acidity are still dramatic. So far, ocean pH has dropped from 8. 1 since the industrial revolution, and is expected by fall another 0. 4 pH units by the end of the century.
A drop in pH of 0. 1 might not seem like a lot, but the pH scale, like the Richter scale for measuring earthquakes, is logarithmic. The acidic waters from the CO2 seeps can dissolve shells and also make it harder for shells to grow in the first place. Many chemical reactions, including those that are essential for life, are sensitive to small changes in pH. In humans, for example, normal blood pH ranges between 7. A drop in blood pH of 0.
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3 can cause seizures, comas, and even death. Similarly, a small change in the pH of seawater can have harmful effects on marine life, impacting chemical communication, reproduction, and growth. The building of skeletons in marine creatures is particularly sensitive to acidity. Like calcium ions, hydrogen ions tend to bond with carbonate—but they have a greater attraction to carbonate than calcium. Shell-building organisms can’t extract the carbonate ion they need from bicarbonate, preventing them from using that carbonate to grow new shell. In this way, the hydrogen essentially binds up the carbonate ions, making it harder for shelled animals to build their homes. This is just one process that extra hydrogen ions—caused by dissolving carbon dioxide—may interfere with in the ocean.
Organisms in the water, thus, have to learn to survive as the water around them has an increasing concentration of carbonate-hogging hydrogen ions. Some marine species may be able to adapt to more extreme changes—but many will suffer, and there will likely be extinctions. Branching corals, because of their more fragile structure, struggle to live in acidified waters around natural carbon dioxide seeps, a model for a more acidic future ocean. Reef-building corals craft their own homes from calcium carbonate, forming complex reefs that house the coral animals themselves and provide habitat for many other organisms. Acidification may limit coral growth by corroding pre-existing coral skeletons while simultaneously slowing the growth of new ones, and the weaker reefs that result will be more vulnerable to erosion. Acidification may also impact corals before they even begin constructing their homes. The eggs and larvae of only a few coral species have been studied, and more acidic water didn’t hurt their development while they were still in the plankton.