The acidifying oceans
As I scan the wires for the latest science news, especially as it relates to climate change, something ominous has increasingly been catching my attention. And that is how complicated, entwined and linked are the oceans and the atmosphere of our planet. If you tweak one the other, in some way or another, also gets tweaked.
My focus has always been, as I look for the latest research, news and facts, on the major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Its a the major constituent of our societies drive to create energy out of fossil fuels and over the past century has fueled most of the climate change that we have increasingly witnessed. And its rise has proven to be a direct cause in resetting the planetary thermostat to ever higher levels, so my focus has been all about temperature-related issues.
And when I do look at ocean trends, I tended to focus on phenomena like El Nino, Hurricane frequency, rising levels and ice melt. Rarely did I consider the impact that increased CO2 had on the chemistry of the oceans nor the did I give the ramifications this change might have on ocean life much thought.
That, too, sadly, now is changing. The rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also means that oceans levels are rising too. The atmosphere is in direct contact with the surface of the ocean and the interface is 70 per cent of the entire surface of the Earth. As the carbon dioxide has risen in the air it has also risen in the oceans. But the effects on life in the oceans is one that is dramatically different. CO2 in the atmosphere is inert and doesn’t really react chemically with most of the gases. That is part of the problem on CO2. It stays around for a long time, once you create it.
In the oceans it also sticks around, but it first reacts chemically with the water to create carbonic acid and therein lies the rub. This acid has a profound and deadly effect on life in the oceans, just the way that sulphur dioxide did in the atmosphere when combined with rain to make acid rain, which killed fish, maple trees and frogs. Carbonic acid wreaks havoc on shell fish, mollusks and reefs. And the effect is now being found around the world. We have known for years that shell fish of all sorts are highly dependent on their surroundings. Now we are finding first hand evidence that tells us the effects are probably ten times higher that was projected even a few years ago. Reefs and mollusks are dying and dying rapidly. And before you dismiss this there are a couple of factors that need to be noted. All life comes from the oceans. It began there first and then branched out to the land. And all life is linked. Its one vast chain. And by undermining the lowly shell fish and their ilk we also, in unknown and unseen ways pave the way for our own instability. Secondly, all of the major mass extinctions of past 545 million years, called the Phanerozoic, showed that when marine life was affected, so to were the land creatures. Just because we don’t yet understand the exact mechanism, doesn’t mean we should not be concerned.
Its yet another brick in the wall of our continued self absorption and blindness to what impact our industry is having on the ecosystem that ultimately support us.
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