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Ocean Acidification: The Untold Destructor - July 23, 2017

              Did you know that the ocean is responsible for absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide that is continuously released into the Earth’s atmosphere? Many believe that this is a positive statement; less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, more in the water, no big deal! However, more carbon dioxide in the water leads to ocean acidification. Research has shown that the increase in the ocean’s acidity is detrimental to the ocean’s health and the marine life that inhabit it.

                Ocean acidification is produced by the addition of carbon dioxide into the ocean, which reacts with the water and causes a decrease in the water’s pH level. pH is a measure of ambient hydrogen ions (H+) in a solution: more H+ gives a lower pH, less H+ gives a higher pH. The pH level is graded on a scale with most pH values falling in the 0 to 14 range, where zero is very acidic and fourteen is very basic. A pH of seven is neutral, being neither an acid or a base.

                Since the industrial revolution the ocean’s pH level has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1. While 8.1 is still basic, the problem arises that the pH level is dropping rather than staying constant. This decrease may not sound significant; however, pH is graded on a logarithmic scale, so this “small” decrease of 0.1 amounts to a thirty percent increase in acidity.

                This increase in acidity is caused by ocean water and carbon dioxide mixing together. When these two mix they cause a chemical reaction, creating a new compound called carbonic acid. Carbonic acid releases hydrogen atoms into the water which then increases acidity. This process also binds up free-floating carbonate ions that many marine organisms need to make their shells.

                Many organisms that inhabit the ocean are negatively affected by the deprivation of available carbonates. For example, some corals are beginning to weaken which causes them to be more susceptible to wearing away. This weakening is caused by corrosion occurring to their skeletons due to the increase in acidity. This increase is also slowing the overall growth of corals.

                Oysters, mussels, sea stars, and sea urchins are also being impacted by ocean acidification. The main difficulty for these creatures is the building of their shells. Due to the effects of ocean acidification, these organisms’ shells are beginning to dissolve. Having a weaker shell hinders the creature’s ability to protect itself, resulting in a higher chance of being crushed or eaten. Additionally, expending too much energy on any given issue prevents other normal day-to-day actions from being completed correctly. A dissolving shell means that the creature is constantly under siege, putting more energy into fixing its weakening shell instead of other operations such as communication, reproduction, and growth.

                Even the smallest organisms, such as zooplankton, are being impacted by this increase in acidity. The acidity is causing their shells to dissolve, and since these creatures are so small it will not take long for them to dissolve completely. If the zooplankton are altered in any way, a major distortion to the ocean’s food web can occur. Research in 2013 has shown that ocean acidification may cause some types of tropical zooplankton to go extinct by the end of the century. However, the fast reproduction rates of these small organisms means they may be able to more successfully adapt to changing ocean acidity.

                Shelled organisms are not the only sea creature being affected by ocean acidification, fish are also being negatively impacted. The cells of a fish operate by creating a balance between the cell and the surrounding water. If the surrounding water has an increased acidity level, the cells will then increase their acidity level in response. This leads to an issue within the fish body known as acidosis. The fish’s body will begin to realize that its cells are too acidic and begin to exert extra energy to remove the excess acid. This compromises other areas where energy is needed such as digestion and reproduction. Acidosis can also affect the behavior of the fish; making it difficult for the fish to detect and avoid predators. 

                So, what can we do to decrease the acidity levels of the ocean and help protect our wonderful marine life? Ultimately, we need to decrease the amount of carbon emissions being output into the atmosphere. Some simple ways to do this include: biking instead of using a car, carpooling instead of riding alone, recycling, turning off the lights, and checking your tire pressure.

                The installation of carbon sinks could also be a major help in this push to decrease ocean acidity. Carbon sinks are natural ecosystems such as mangroves and marshes that help absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere without the detrimental effects caused by ocean carbon absorption.

                The ocean is responsible for absorbing about 22 million tons of ocean-acidifying carbon dioxide per day. This captured carbon dioxide can stay in the oceans for hundreds of years! So let’s do our part and educate others about ocean acidification and lower our emissions!

               

LeCompte is a ShoreCorps/PALS Americorps Volunteer with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program.



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