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Ocean Acidification

Houston, TX
Coral Reef

The general public often overlooks the issue of ocean acidification in the discussion of climate change. Jennifer Bennett, a member of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Ocean Acidification Program, says it is equally harmful as climate change. Ocean acidification involves excess carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from burning fossil fuels dissolving into the ocean. It harms ecosystems containing marine and terrestrial life.


The ocean absorbs approximately 30 percent of all greenhouse gasses emitted. Thus, there is a linear relationship between greenhouse gas emissions and ocean acidification. When carbon dioxide is absorbed into the ocean, water and carbon dioxide molecules combine to form carbonic acid. This acid releases hydrogen ions, causing seawater to become more acidic (more hydrogen ions result in lower pH) and have a lesser concentration of carbonate ions. Carbonate ions are crucial to marine life for sea shells and coral skeletons. A decrease in carbonate ions would impact species such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton. Fishs’ abilities to detect predators and return to nests are also decreased in acidified waters. Thus, oceanic food webs are at risk due to ocean acidification.


Although animal populations decline in acidic waters, seagrasses thrive. Seagrasses, like terrestrial plants, utilize carbon dioxide and sunlight to create glucose for energy. Subsequently, seagrass will grow taller and produce deeper roots in acidified waters. However, due to seawater pollution, ocean acidification is unlikely to boost seagrass populations overall. Another example of a species that benefits from ocean acidification is coralline algae. Although coralline algae are at first weakened due to their reliance on carbonate to build carbonate skeletons, they build up resistance over generations and adapt.


To decrease the amount of carbon dioxide dissolving into oceans, cutting carbon emissions poses a compelling option. In 2013, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was recorded to be 400 parts per million (ppm), surpassing the “safe” level of carbon dioxide of 350 ppm. Without oceans, the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere would be approximately 475 ppm. Thus, action is needed. One can reduce their consumption of beef and other poultry products , since manure from animals such as cows and chickens produce greenhouse gasses, or utilize more public transportation to lessen carbon dioxide emissions from cars. A more elaborate and complicated solution is geoengineering. Geoengineering involves releasing particles into the atmosphere to deflect excess heat from the sun back into space. One drawback is that it does not directly reduce carbon dioxide/greenhouse gas emissions. Another aspect of geoengineering is removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere by growing more phytoplankton in the ocean. This, however, can come with unpredictable ecological consequences. All in all, ocean acidification is a long-standing environmental issue, and only with the cooperation of everyone across the world can it be alleviated.


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