What Is Ocean Acidification?

Ocean acidification is global warming’s evil twin — and it could be disastrous for marine life, coastal communities, and our atmosphere.

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In US news and current events today, global warming has an evil twin you might not have heard of: ocean acidification. And today’s rates of ocean acidification, resulting from human activities, have major consequences for marine life, coastal communities, and the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere.

Remember the pH scale? It measures the acidity of a substance on a scale of 0 to 14. The lower the number, the more acidic; the higher the number, the more basic, or alkaline. Generally, ocean water is a little alkaline.

But our present day oceans are getting more acidic. This isn’t a phenomenon that humans can feel or see, but it’s literally changing the chemistry of the ocean, and animals are not used to that.

Here’s how it works: The ocean is kind of like a sponge. It absorbs nearly 30% of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is the ocean doing us a big favor, especially as the concentration of CO2 is the highest it’s been in 800,000 years.

When carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean, a chain of chemical reactions takes place. One result of these chemical reactions is that carbonate ions become less available in the ocean.

The most direct effect of ocean acidification is on marine calcifiers — organisms like oysters, mussels, shellfish, and coral. Marine calcifiers use carbonate ions to build strong shells, skeletons, and hard parts. Emily Osborne, a scientist who studies ocean acidification, explains in this interview.

As the ocean becomes more acidic, fewer carbonate ions are available, making the shells of these animals weak, brittle, and deformed.

Ocean acidification is an emerging problem that’s already impacting the seafood industry. Animals like oysters are struggling to build their shells and survive because their habitats are becoming corrosive.

Chefs and seafood purveyors are particularly concerned because of acidification’s effects on the marine food chain.

Watch this explainer to learn more about ocean acidification and its relation to this climate crisis.

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