CO2 Threatens the Oceans

Ocean acidification is global warming’s “equally evil twin,” says Jane Lubchenco, marine biologist and head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Ocean Acidification, National Geographic, April 2011.

According to a Feature Story in Al-Jazeera: CO2 Dangerously Acidifying World’s Oceans, November 28, 2012:

Oceans are sucking up increased carbon emissions, raising fears acidification could lead to marine life extinctions… scientists say greenhouse gases are causing rapid changes that may irreversibly alter the composition of the Earth’s oceans.

Not only is CO2 the source behind the big meltdown of glaciers and ice sheets, and scorching farmland and altering the climate in a haphazard manner, the menace of CO2 is also a threat to life in the oceans. Paradoxically, the genesis; i.e., the oceans, from which humankind originated, may be polluted as a result of dependency upon fossil fuels for transportation and lifestyle as human activity poisons the source of its own origin.

If the current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, computer models show that the ocean will continue to undergo acidification, to an extent and at rates that have not occurred for tens of millions of years… nearly all marine life forms that build calcium carbonate shells and skeletons studied by scientists thus far have shown deterioration due to increasing carbon dioxide levels in seawater.  (Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy, April 2006, Dr. Richard Feely and Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographers, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.)

Scientists calculate the oceans have absorbed 30% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since the industrial revolution. This is based upon the results of a 15-year study analyzing 77,000 seawater samples at various depths and locations from around the world. This, in turn, presents a serious problem because too much CO2 in seawater increases the difficulty for marine species to extract calcium carbonate from water, which is the primary component for marine organisms like crabs, lobsters, snails, and coral to build shells and skeletons. Excessive acidity causes marine skeletons to dissolve. In this manner, CO2 emissions threaten the foundation of the world’s food chain as well as the integrity of coastlines to contain normal sea flow and storms. As a result, global warming is an on-going multi-faceted attack on planet Earth as sea levels rise because of melting ice whilst reef barriers and shorelines that help control the seas are slowly disintegrating due to rising CO2 levels within the oceans, therefore losing a layer of protection against rising seas and accompanying storms. It all fits together in a seamless web of self-annihilation.

“Ocean acidification today is at least 10 times faster than at any other time in history,” according to Dr.Andy Ridgwell of the University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences. Ridgwell also concedes that science does not yet know for certain whether the unusual rate of acidification is going to cause large-scale extinctions. There are, however, early disturbing signs that this is happening.

For example, scientists at Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eliat, Israel have studied reefs along the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea and found alarming evidence that the primary ‘builder’ of the reefs has recently gone extinct. They believe excessive carbon dioxide levels may be the cause.

Heightened Concerns About Ocean Acidification in the U. S. (Washington State)

A scientific study by the Department of Ecology for the State of Washington recorded dramatic decreases in shellfish larvae from 2005-09, affecting an industry that employs 3,000 people with annual revenues of $270 million.  According to Hedia Adelsman, Executive Policy Advisor for the State of Washington, Department of Ecology, the problem was found to be “Upwelling,” a phenomenon in the summer when strong winds push aside warmer surface water and bring up colder water which is rich in carbon dioxide, thus, impeding development of shellfish larvae. As a result, Adelsman says, “We are calling on the White House, Congress, and so on, to really take a serious look at the problem….”

But, unfortunately for Ms. Adelsman, there is little evidence that Capitol Hill is seriously concerned about Global Warming and Climate Change. While the world burns up from serious droughts, 20,000-year-old glaciers disappear, and oceans turn acidic, the nation’s politicians grunt a huge D’Oh! eerily similar to Homer Simpson, which is the extent of their concern about the world’s biggest threat to life on the planet, outside of some research grants to federal agencies to study the problem.

Meanwhile, according to, Ocean Acidification, National Geographic, April 2011:

Even if CO2 emissions were somehow to cease today, it would take tens of thousands of years for ocean chemistry to return to its pre-industrial condition… in 2008 a group of more than 150 leading researchers issued a declaration stating that they were ‘deeply concerned by recent, rapid changes in ocean chemistry,’ which could within decades ‘severely affect marine organisms, food webs, biodiversity, and fisheries’.

As one example, Pteropods are a free-swimming creature, a tiny snail with a calcium carbonate shell that is directly threatened by CO2 levels. Pteropods are crucial to the food chain, eaten by animals ranging from tiny krill to giant whales and serve as an important food source for salmon, mackerel, herring, and cod.

Coral Reefs Are Key to Marine Life

The University of Sydney runs a research station on a tiny island named One Tree Island located in the Coral Sea. Professor Ken Caldeira, Dept. of Global Ecology, University of Sydney, says, “Corals build the architecture of the ecosystem, and it’s pretty clear if they go, the whole ecosystem goes.”

Several forces threaten coral reefs, including rising water temperatures (from global warming), which produce “bleaching” events causing corals to turn stark white and die. But, of most concern is the ominous threat to the basic, ancient structure of the stony skeleton that’s secreted by billions of coral polyps over the millennia. Coral polyps are tiny animals that form a thin layer of living tissue on the surface of a reef. The coral polyp surrounds itself with a protective, cup-shaped exoskeleton of calcium carbonate, thus, participating in creation of a collective skeleton reef for the whole colony. The problem with CO2 and coral reefs is: As atmospheric CO2 levels rise, carbonate ions become scarcer. In the lab, coral skeleton growth has been shown to decline linearly as the carbonate concentration declines because of excessive CO2 levels

The University of Sydney research team compared measurements from the 1970s to recent samples, discovering that at one location on the northern tip of the reef, calcification had declined by 40%.

More alarming yet, ocean acidification affects coral’s ability to reproduce. Studies conducted by Dr. Selina Ward, a researcher at the University of Queensland, found that too much acidity leads to declines in fertilization, in larval development, and in settlement, covering the entire life cycle. As a result, acidity in the ocean negatively affects every aspect of the life cycle of coral polyps. “And if any of those steps doesn’t work, you’re not going to get replacement corals coming into your system,” according to Dr. Ward.

Coral reefs are as crucial to marine life as food, water and air are to humans. Up to nine million marine species live on or around coral reefs. According to Professor Caldeira, “Under business as usual, by mid-century things are looking rather grim… I mean, they’re looking grim already.”

CO2 directly threatens the entire ecosystem of the world’s oceans, and this prompts an extremely important question: What is the position of the United States, which is the second heaviest emitter of carbon dioxide after China, regarding this threat to life in the oceans?

Several U.S. federal agencies have received funds to conduct long-term studies of acidification of the oceans; however, there has been no mention of a sweeping solution; for example, converting from fossil fuels to alternative energy sources. This logical solution remains a hands-off solution as far as America is concerned.

According to Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, OneWorld (UK) Video, August 2011:

I think if we continue on the current trajectory, we are looking at a mass extinction of marine species even if only coral reef systems go down, which it looks like they will certainly by the end of the century. That would, in my mind, constitute a mass extinction event… up to 9 million species are associated just with coral reefs…many of the symptoms that we are seeing of change in the oceans indicate that the effects will be much wider than coral reef existence… rising temperatures are already changing distribution of organisms….

Is it too Late?

 It’s still possible to avert the most extreme acidification scenarios. But the only way to do this, or at least the only way anyone has come up with so far, is to dramatically reduce CO2 emissions. At the moment, corals and pteropods are lined up against a global economy built on cheap fossil fuels. It’s not a fair fight. (Elizabeth Kolbert, Ocean Acidification, National Geographic, April 2011.)

Remarkably, a survey by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication indicated 77% of Americans had no knowledge about ocean acidification, and less than 8% understood ocean acidification is caused by CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, the American political establishment is collectively gloating over concerted efforts to make America energy independent by forcing poisonous chemicals deep underground and “fracking” Mother Earth to release fossil fuels buried ever since dinosaurs roamed the planet, in order to spew more CO2 into the atmosphere… but wait a moment! As stated by Elizabeth Kolbert: This is not fair!  Mother Earth is being attacked by humankind from the air, the sea, and now underground… it’s an all-out assault on the planet’s capabilities to breathe and recreate… you’ve gotta wonder who on earth comes out ahead from this vicious assault… or do you? Unfortunately, it appears the odds are decidedly stacked against the planet, but assuming humans survive, while kicking the proverbial fix-global-warming-can down the road, what will our children’s children say about their great grandparents’ focus on underground explosions and airborne emissions from fossil fuels that deadened the seas, the land, and the air when our children’s children read about, and wonder, what constitutes a glacier or an ocean reef or clam chowder.

The Good News/Bad News

The good news is: As of today, whenever scientists discuss global warming and CO2 emissions, they generally agree there is still time to save the planet but only if the world gets its act together and gets off fossil fuels. Fortunately, alternative energy resources are all around us from solar to wind to biofuels, which can substitute for fossil fuels; however, in order to organize an approach which is as effective as the current attack by fossil fuels against the planet, political leadership must first decide to eliminate the use of fossil fuels and substitute alternative ‘green’ energy resources. In turn, this would likely prove to be a renaissance of the most powerful worldwide economic growth since the industrial revolution, employing millions of people in the conversion process from fossil fuels to clean energy resources, leading to full employment, robust worldwide growth, and a spanking-clean planet.

However, the bad news is there is no sign of the political will to halt CO2 emissions within the near future or the distant future, especially since the major U.S. political parties are committed to fossil fuel energy independence over the next decade(s). They’ve made their decision to stay with fossil fuels. Thus, one wonders what the future holds in store for planet Earth?  And, is there a future?

And, why not commit to ‘green’ energy independence rather than fossil fuel independence?  It would solve both the unemployment problem and the planet problem.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.