The Pacific Ocean is dying. Regardless of whether you agree with global warming or climate change, it is scientifically indisputable that carbon dioxide emitted into the air is polluting oceans around the world. In the past 200 years, oceans have absorbed over 118 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide, with 43% of that absorption occurring in the last 20 years. This rate of CO2 absorption is increasing exponentially with each passing year, and it will only have dire consequences for the vitality of our oceans in the future.
The Pacific Ocean, in particular, has undergone significant change in its chemistry since the industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The CO2 absorbed by the Pacific has lowered its pH level, thereby increasing its acidity and corrosive power. This has contributed to and caused the erosion of animals’ shells and skeletons, and has started to weaken the species at the bottom of the Pacific’s oceanic food chain. Should these species, such as pteropods, fail to survive due to increasing acidity levels, there would be devastating consequences for the ecosystem in the Pacific and in every other ocean throughout the world. For without the survival of pteropods and other species at the bottom of the food chain, food would cease to exist for those species at the top.
Pteropods are tiny organisms about the size of a small pea, and serve as the primary food source for sea creatures ranging in size from tiny krill to giant whales. They are also a main staple in the diet for North Pacific salmon. At current rates, it will take approximately 45 days of exposure to the pH and carbonate levels in ocean by 2100 for their shells to almost completely deteriorate. Their calcium carbonate shells cannot withstand acidic pH levels and excessive CO2. Without shells for protection
And pteropods are not alone. Shellfish, such as oysters, have proven to experience reproductive failure when exposed to low pH levels. Studies have also shown that corals experience a significant reduction in their ability to produce their skeletons due to ocean acidification. This could have a drastic impact on the millions of species call coral reefs home. If coral starts to erode at a faster rate than the rate at which it can repair itself, not only will numerous species lose their habitat, but the earth will lose a natural wonder of the biosphere.
Those species further up the food chain are not free from the effects of acidification either. Studies have shown that elevated levels of CO2 in oceans can detrimentally alter brain functioning in fish, causing them to lose their ability to sense predators, maneuver quickly, and ultimately survive in an already harsh environment. One of the fish species affected by this increase of CO2 is the walleye pollack, a fish indigenous to the waters of the North Pacific and the areas around Seattle, WA. U.S. commercial fisheries are valued at almost $30 billion per annum. The pollack catch alone generates $1 billion in profit for seafood companies each year, and is one of the largest industries in the Pacific Northwest and on the West Coast. And pollack are found literally everywhere – from your McDonalds filet-o-fish sandwich to the frozen fish sticks consumers buy at the grocery store. Thus, not only does ocean acidification threaten to destroy sea life, it also could have devastating consequences for the national economy, not to mention the coastal regions that depend on the ocean for economic livelihood.
The good news is that evidence suggests the changes to the Pacific and other oceans around the world is not irreversible. However, the longer we wait, the more corrosive the seas will get and the detrimental effects could be permanent. With current federal funding levels sitting at a mere $30 million per year, we will need to make more of a commitment to preserving and safeguarding our oceans if we ever want to enjoy its wonders, resources, and sea life in the future. With every ocean throughout the world in danger of succumbing to the imminent threat posed by ocean acidification, the U.S. must not only act, but tackle the problem with the multilateral support of the global community. For by the end of the century some scientists predict that acidity could increase in the world’s oceans by 150 percent of the levels it was at during the 18th century.
The next post will discuss and expound on potential solutions, some of which include more funding for research in this area, and an increased promotion and use of renewable energy. If we do not slow or stop the effects of ocean acidification, not only may the oceans die, but the human race may too.