Summer means beach season. We all love the peace, serenity and blue skies of the ocean, but we all also know that ocean acidification is a very real global problem. Do you truly understand what ocean acidification is and how, over time, it’s changed the entire chemical makeup of the world’s ocean waters? Today, we’ll explain the process.

Ocean Acidification Is About Greenhouse Gasses

Like most of the effects associated with global climate change, the changes in ocean acidity can almost directly be linked to the impact of greenhouse gasses. You may recall from your environmental education (which you almost certainly had to handle on your own since it’s not typically taught in schools), that greenhouse gasses are the result of the increased human habit of releasing excess CO2 into the air as a result of industrial and agricultural activities. What you may not know is that the ocean actually absorbs about twenty-five percent of all of the CO2 that goes into the atmosphere.

And, believe it or not, for a long time, it was considered a good thing that the ocean absorbed all of this CO2. After all, if the ocean absorbed the CO2, then it was keeping the harmful greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere and slowing down the process of heating up the planet.

But, like most things that appear too good to be true, simply dumping excess CO2 into the water instead of the air wasn’t really a solution to the problem. In fact, it may have caused a greater problem. The CO2 is fundamentally changing the chemical makeup of the ocean’s waters in a way that is referred to as Ocean Acidification.

When the CO2 that’s absorbed into the ocean combines with the H2O that’s already in the ocean, it creates a chemical reaction that produces carbonic acid. If this sounds like an experiment that you did in high school science lab, that’s entirely possible. What you need to keep in mind is that, when carbonic acid is formed, it lowers the overall pH balance of the ocean and makes it have a higher acid property. While it’s unlikely (though not impossible) that the ocean would ever become purely acidic (it would need a pH level lower than 7.0), the increased acidity of the world’s ocean waters definitely has consequences.

The Effects of Increased Ocean Acidification

The impact of increased ocean acidification is primarily felt by corals, shellfish and any other sea life that needs to create calcium carbonate shells. That may not seem like it should actually impact the overall eco system of the ocean at first glance. After all, coral reefs are beautiful, but are they essential? And shellfish are delicious and high in nutrients, but they can be grown in farms as well. However, as with all things in nature, if you pull one thread, others unravel.

Coral reefs and organisms with calcium carbonate shells are the basis of the entire ocean ecosystem. They provide the foundation where small plankton and other animals that serve as the bottom of the food chain in the ocean thrive and replicate. As those smaller organisms are no longer able to survive, the organisms that eat these small organisms will die off with their food source. This pattern will continue up the chain until there is no food for ocean animals to survive on at all.

The bottom line? The ocean was not designed to have more than a minor change in its acid properties happen over a rapid period of time. The rapid increase in acidity that has happened did not allow for ecosystem and life forms to adapt and evolve. However, since the industrial revolution of the 1700s, the ocean has been increasing in acidification at faster and faster rates each year.

Can We Put the Genie Back in the Bottle?

The big question, of course, is “What can we do?” It’s easy to get into the mindset that the damage is done and that you’re not powerful enough to help combat the huge impacts of industry and industrial agriculture. But the reality is far different. Every single individual who makes better choices about what companies they support, what their consumer habits are and where and how they get their food is another individual who can slow down the acidification of the ocean and help to preserve the precious eco-system surrounding us.

Think about that ocean vacation that you’re taking this summer and all of the amazing marine life you’ll see when you do. Then make choices that will help to preserve it for centuries to come!

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Photo Credit: Stephen Edgar via Flickr