Opinion: The ocean is acidifying — what you need to know

Discussions about rising carbon dioxide levels typically evolve into conversations concerning global temperatures and melting polar ice caps. While these are causes of concern, there is another niche to anthropogenic climate change that is rarely considered. 

Ocean acidification — the perpetual decrease in the pH of Earth’s oceans — is an unfortunate externality to excess CO? in the atmosphere. 

There is a complex scientific jargon that explains how OA occurs, but — for the sake of simplicity — it can be described as a chemical reaction between seawater and CO?. As a result of this reaction, carbonic acid forms which then reduces the overall water source pH. 

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, the ocean absorbs 26 percent of CO? added to the atmosphere as a result of human activity. UNESCO further explained how this annual increase will — unfortunately — negatively impact coral reefs, plankton, and shelled organisms.

For instance, the shells of certain marine organisms disintegrate from a lower pH, and calcium carbonate — a necessary shell-building component — becomes unsaturated amongst the carbonic acid. Without these materials, shelled organisms are prone to failure and premature death.

The failure for shellfish to develop may seem like an “ocean-only” problem, but the reality is that these organisms heavily impact us land-dwellers, as well.

Specifically, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association produced the findings of a nationwide study regarding the impact of OA on the U.S. shellfish industry. The results displayed a series of OA hotspots — including the Pacific Northwest. 

NOAA further explained how more than a billion individuals rely on fish and shellfish — including fishermen in Puget Sound. Approximately 10 years ago, local Tacoma fisheries struggled with declining oyster populations — since young oysters are unable to thrive against OA, the shellfish industry nearly collapsed.

Whether it be a career choice, for food supply, or both, a large portion of the earth’s population relies on a healthy oceanic ecosystem. Not only are marine animals suffering, but we are, as well. 

Fortunately, the Washington State Department of Ecology is conducting research on OA effects in local waters. This research includes the Salish Sea Model — a computer tool that simulates the water quality of the Salish Sea — which has been beneficial in assessing possible OA solutions. While data is still being collected, it is a crucial step toward proper water quality managing techniques.

It is crucial to understand that as CO? levels rise, so does the incidence of dangerous climate change situations. One of several potential externalities of human activity is OA, and it is crucial we remain vigilant of how it develops over the years — especially as UNESCO warns that ocean acidity could rise 150 percent by 2100.

As land creatures, it can be difficult to assess the damage an acidic ocean poses on ecosystems and — inevitably — ourselves. However, in an effort to support our global and local fisheries, as well as protect marine life, we need to become aware of OA impacts.