In his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron’s hero says, “Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean – roll! Man marks the earth with ruin – his control stops with the shore.” This is no longer true, and much needs to be done to protect our greatest natural resource.
A recent edition of EarthTalk, a syndicated weekly column distributed to 1,850 newspapers, magazines and websites throughout North America, identifies a new twist to the problems posed by industrial and automotive carbon emissions: The chemistry of the world’s oceans is changing.
Studies have shown that the waters surrounding our planet are becoming more acidic as a result of the increasing amounts of human-generated carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbed from the atmosphere. About 25% of all the CO2 sent skyward from exhaust pipes and smokestacks ends up in the world’s oceans. Researchers estimate that the acidity has increased by 29% since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. If the rate of greenhouse gas emissions is not slowed, our oceans could be two to three times as acidic in 2100 as they are today, which could prove disastrous to marine ecosystems and part of the world’s food chain.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that seawater plus CO2 induces a chemical reaction that adversely affects the concentration of biologically important calcium carbonate minerals. They are the essential building material for the skeletons and shells of many marine organisms, from oysters to coral. Acidification is weakening this mineral content, which is likely to affect the ability of some organisms to produce and maintain their shells. The process will not only wreak havoc on shellfish, but also on organisms that are key components at the bottom end of the marine food chain.
It is likely that coral reefs around the world will face an even greater risk because they require very high levels of carbonate to build their structures. Acidity slows reef-building, which could lower the resiliency of corals and lead to their erosion and eventual extinction. It is estimated that some one million marine species depend on healthy coral reefs for survival. The loss of coral reefs would reduce the protection that they offer coastal communities in regions such as the Pacific, Indian Ocean and the Caribbean where people are already affected by global warming.
Any large-scale effort to address ocean acidification will require the political will to do so and a rapid slowing down or phasing out of using fossil fuels. Cutting back on consumption of oil, gas and coal and switching to renewable energy sources – solar, wind, biomass and others – will be a vital part of the strategy to counteract ocean acidification. The 2011 United Nations Climate Change Conference held in Durban, South Africa, established a new treaty to limit carbon emissions, agreeing to a legally binding deal comprising all countries, which will be prepared by 2015 and take effect in 2020. Many feel that such progress is too slow.
Jacques Cousteau (1910-97), one of the world’s best known oceanographers, was convinced that people’s ultimate survival depends on the oceans of the world. He owed that insight to a near fatal car crash. In 1930, he had passed the highly competitive entrance examinations to enter France’s Naval Academy and entered naval aviation school. But the crash denied him his “wings” and he was transferred to sea duty encouraging him to swim regularly to regain strength in his badly weakened arms. The therapy had unexpected consequences.
In his book The Silent World (1953), he wrote, “Sometimes we are lucky enough to know that our lives have been changed, to discard the old, embrace the new, and run headlong down an immutable course… It happened to me … on that summer’s day, when my eyes were opened to the sea.” Cousteau spent the rest of his life trying to raise people’s awareness of our fragile ecosystem and to persuade people that, in order to survive, they must protect it.