You may be full aware that rises in atmospheric CO2 levels can cause glacial melt, increased ocean temperatures, and rising sea levels. And you might even know about the positive feedback loop created by melting permafrost and the CO2 it releases. But, of course, there is another oceanic effect of climate change that seems to get swept under the rug- the rapidly increasing pH of ocean waters.
When CO2 is absorbed in ocean waters, it goes through a chemical reaction forming carbonic acid. As atmospheric CO2 levels continue to increase, oceans are absorbing greater levels of carbon. As a result, carbonic acid accumulates in the oceans, causing detrimental effects to marine ecosystems. We are well informed about the injurious effects of acids on the ocean’s precious coral reefs. Acid breaks down carbonate- the primary compound in most corals. Additionally, marine ecosystems are extraordinarily delicate, with each organism occupying a specific and integral niche. Like ecosystems affected by invasive species, novel acidic waters can destroy entire ecosystems by wiping out a single key species. Because of the frailty of oceanic ecosystems, we are largely ignorant of the effects acidic oceans may cause. In Norway, scientists are performing experiments in a remote fjord to observe some of the potential effects of pH declines (Read about it in Discover’s article found here).
As the quintessential evolutionary quote goes, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.” Whereas this maxim held true with natural fluctuations, anthropogenic CO2 emissions are exceeding the rates at which adaptation can occur- by millennia. Ocean ecosystems may entirely disappear in the advent of wide-spread marine acidity. Researchers continue to investigate these effects to better understand how to prevent them.