So global climate change is basically talked about everywhere, right? As far as effects of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) due to human behavior go, that one grabs a lot of headlines. With climate change being responsible for everything from increasingly frequent and severe droughts in some areas to rising sea levels, there’s no surprise that it’s getting a lot of attention; it should get a lot of attention. But global climate change has an equally insidious and disruptive twin, ocean acidification, and that twin is starting to get a lot of press.
Ocean acidification is the increase in acidity of the world’s oceans due to their uptake of CO2 from the atmosphere. As our atmosphere gets more jam-packed with CO2, our oceans are going to get more and more acidic. And thanks to global climate change, the oceans are and will continue to see rising temperatures, which further compounds the problem of ocean acidification.
The full effects of ocean acidification are still being explored and studied; however, scientists are already finding that ocean acidification is having a negative effect on calcifying organisms, like corals, mollusks, and sea stars, which build shells and plates out of calcium carbonate. You might recognize calcium carbonate by its other name, chalk, and, if you remember elementary school science class, you might be familiar with what happens when you throw chalk into an acidic liquid, like vinegar (spoiler alert: it weakens and dissolves). As the oceans get more acidic, this process starts happening to the coral skeletons, the mollusks shells, and the sea star’s limbs. And in such acidic waters, making new shells or skeletons to replace what was lost becomes harder and harder.
So why is it starting to get some press now? Well, there is an ongoing debate in some scientific circles over whether or not corals and coral reefs are totally and completely doomed. The debate is starting to reach more people: the New York Times published an Op-Ed calling them “zombie ecosystems” (lord I love that phrase) and a blog post that responds to that Op-Ed with a well-placed citation of Jurassic Park (the “life finds a way” line, which I adore so much).
Personally, I’m not one for doom-and-gloom about the loss of ecosystems. Ecosystems shift and adapt in the face of changing conditions, and instead of clinging to an ecological relic of the past, I encourage working our asses of to ensure that we save what we can and give them the best habitat we can. Most of the time, once we notice a significant change in our ecosystems, it’s too late to revert them back to how they were. It’s not too late to implement good conservation practices, and it’s not a hopeless situation. Our corals are going to look different in fifty years, but I sincerely doubt that they will be all-together gone.
All of this isn’t to say that I am OK with people treating the environment without thought, or that I don’t care about the goals of conservation, or that I don’t find value (economic, aesthetic, cultural, etc) in preserved and conserved land. I definitely do and I know I am not alone in that. But I am over the hopeless cry of “this time, we’ve gone too far!” Instead, assess the situation, see what can be salvaged, and do the best from there. In the case of ocean acidification, some of the pH and subsequent organism changes cannot be reserved. However, by reducing carbon dioxide emissions, setting aside areas to be protected or preserved, and tracking the changes in the ocean and the organisms, the impact of ocean acidification can be lessened.