Ocean Acidification: Climate Change’s Evil Twin

Most people are aware that burning fossil fuels is changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere and causing climate change.  People might be surprised to learn that greenhouse gases (and in particular, carbon dioxide) are also altering the ocean and pose an independent and equally serious threat to marine life.  In fact this change, making the oceans more acidic, is a direct threat to the survival of lobsters, oysters and other marine animals that are an essential element in the life and culture of New England.

Wellfleet Oysters will have trouble growing their shell (let alone half shell) by the end of the 21st century

Wellfleet oysters will likely have trouble growing their shell (let alone half shell) by the end of the 21st century (Image Source: New York Times)

The concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide has skyrocketed from 280 parts per million (ppm) in the mid 18th century to 385 ppm at the beginning of the 21st century.  As a result of a simple chemical reaction, the ocean has absorbed approximately one third of the carbon emissions that were released into the atmosphere.  While scientists believe this has shielded the upper atmosphere from the full effects of our carbon dioxide emissions, they are also cautioning that the chemistry of the ocean has and will continue to change, having long-term, serious consequences for marine life.

When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, it forms carbonic acid.  According to the UN, the ocean has become 30% more acidic since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.  Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that an acidic ocean is the “equally evil twin” of climate change. Scott Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution noted in a public presentation that “New England is the most vulnerable region in the country to ocean acidification.”

Some impacts of the acidification of New England’s ocean waters include:

  1. Reduced Calcification:  Maine lobster and Wellfleet oysters are just two examples of animals expected to suffer from an acidic ocean.  Sadly they won’t be alone.  Many marine species have skeletons and shells made of calcium carbonate, a substance that is harder to produce (and easier to dissolve) in an acidic ocean.
  2. Threat to Whales and Commercial and Recreational Fisheries:  Reduced calcification will have a huge impact on plankton, an assortment of drifting plants and juvenile animals which form the base of the food chain in the ocean.  If plankton populations plummet, this would have an unpredictable cascading set of catastrophic impacts up the food web to commercial and recreational species and even whales that depend on plankton for food.

So what can be done to prevent ocean acidification?

  1. Reduce our personal fossil fuel consumption;
  2. Adopt strong climate change policies at the state, regional and federal level;
  3. Increase funding to research ocean acidification and the impact of climate change on the ocean; and
  4. Support healthy, resilient oceans by promoting habitat protection and ecosystem based management.

Confronting and solving this problem is essential if we want to preserve our oceans — otherwise we will be facing a very different marine world, one that looks a lot more like “the ancient pre-Cambrian stew” dominated by jellyfish.

For more information:

  1. Article from Daily Green on Ocean Acidification Documentary
  2. New England Aquarium’s Climate Change and the Ocean Website
  3. New England Climate Coalition Website

Focus Areas

Climate ChangeOceans



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