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Save The Phytoplankton

If I told you the oceans were absorbing a quarter of the Earth’s annual carbon emissions each year, would that shock you? Well how about if I told you that over the last 250 years, oceans have absorbed 560 billion tons of carbon, increasing the acidity of surface waters by 30 percent? Oh yeah, and the current observed rate of change is roughly 50 times faster than known historical change. Are you shocked yet?

We’ve heard that the coral reefs are dying but we never get the how or the why should we care? It has less to do with the exotic scuba divers and more to do with our affinity for aquariums and ocean life.

First, the reefs dying affects zooplankton and shellfish, which are the foundations of the marine food webs. And you might ask yourself, well what does that have to do with humans, right? Today, more than a billion people worldwide rely on food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. Ocean acidification puts this important resource at risk. Oh and by the way, this hidden ocean ‘service’ has been estimated to represent an annual subsidy to the global economy of 86 billion US dollars per year.

Ocean acidification is sometimes called “climate change’s equally evil twin,” and for good reason: oceans absorb some 22 million tons of carbon per day. At first, scientists thought that this might be a good thing because it leaves less carbon dioxide in the air to warm the planet. But in the past decade, they’ve realized that this slowed warming has come at the cost of changing the ocean’s chemistry. You see, when carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, the water becomes more acidic and the ocean’s pH drops.

Scientists formerly didn’t worry about this process because they assumed that rivers carried enough dissolved chemicals from rocks to the ocean to keep the ocean’s pH stable. This buffering system was a default until the solution would become clear. But this natural buffering hasn’t been able to keep up. Such a relatively quick change in ocean chemistry doesn’t give marine life much time to adapt. In fact, the shells of some animals are already dissolving in the more acidic seawater.

Many chemical reactions, including those that are essential for life, are sensitive to small changes in pH. In humans, for example, even a drop in blood pH can cause seizures, comas, and even death. Likewise, a small change in the pH of seawater can have harmful effects on marine life, impacting chemical communication, reproduction, and growth.

So far, the signs of acidification visible to humans are few. And they will only increase as more carbon dioxide dissolves into seawater over time. But what can we do to stop it?

First and foremost, the easy answer is to cut carbon emissions by burning less fossil fuels and to find more carbon sinks. Carbon sinks are sources like the ocean that can absorb the carbon in the atmosphere. Now that we have almost exhausted the ocean, we have to find an alternative. And it's possible that we will develop technologies that can help us reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide or the acidity of the ocean more quickly or without even needing to cut carbon emissions very drastically which is called geoengineering.

But even though the ocean may seem far away from your front door, there are things you can do in your life and in your home that can help to slow ocean acidification and carbon dioxide emissions. Try to reduce your energy use at home by recycling, turning off unused lights, walking or biking short distances instead of driving, using public transportation, and supporting clean energy, such as solar, wind, and geothermal power.

Even the simple act of checking your tire pressure (or asking your parents to check theirs) can lower gas consumption and reduce your carbon footprint. So talk about it. Educate your classmates, coworkers and friends about how acidification will affect the amazing ocean animals that provide food, income, and beauty to billions of people around the world. Thank you.