The historic Paris Agreement last December showed the world that the urgent need to act on climate change is being recognized. The effects of climate change on land are well publicized: glaciers melting, increased volatility of storms, and heat waves. Oceans cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, yet the topics of ocean acidification or sea-level rise aren’t as widely understood.
On May 3, the Energy Future Coalition Steering Committee hosted Jane Lubchenco, former Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and the first female Administrator of NOAA from 2009-2013, for a discussion on ocean acidification. Here are 10 key facts we learned from the Steering Committee’s discussion:
- The ocean absorbs 1 out of every 3 molecules of carbon dioxide that humans put in the air.
You don’t need to be a chemist to understand the basic chemistry behind ocean acidification. Carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the air is absorbed by both the atmosphere and the ocean: As atmospheric carbon increases, so too does ocean carbon. This increase in CO2 in the ocean causes a chemical reaction that reduces the pH level of the ocean and makes it more acidic. As a result, many marine organisms are unable to produce and maintain their shells.
- By the end of the century the ocean could be 150% more acidic.
Ocean acidification is measured by the pH scale, which is a logarithmic scale similar to the Richter scale. Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of ocean water has fallen by 0.1 pH units – equivalent to approximately a 30% increase in acidity. If we continue on a path of business as usual, the oceans will continue to absorb carbon dioxide and become even more acidic, reaching a 150% increase in acidity by the end of the century. This would be a pH level that oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years.
- It is happening now.
On the West Coast of the United States, ocean acidification is not a speculation, it is well documented, and it has already arrived. Off the coast of Washington and Oregon, oysters were unable to hatch and survive in the hatcheries in the mid-2000s due to the acidity of the water, causing a decline of 22% in oyster production between 2005 and 2009. In many ways, Oregon and Washington are seen as a window into the future, giving a preview of what is to come in other potentially vulnerable places.
- It is happening globally.
Oregon and Washington are not the only two places seeing changes in ocean acidification. While some areas will experience worse impacts than others, ocean acidification is still a global issue. The physical movement of the ocean, as well as the runoff of nutrients from the land to the ocean can exacerbate the problem on a global scale.
- Oceans have a huge economic impact.
Ocean acidification does more than just impact the lives of shellfish off the coasts of Oregon and Washington or around the world. It also impacts economic activity and jobs. In the state of Washington alone, there is about $1.6 billion in annual economic activity associated with recreational fishing, which directly supports 12,000 jobs. While ocean acidification directly affects the species living in the ocean, it also affects the jobs and livelihoods of thousands of people around the world whose subsistence is dependent on a healthy marine ecosystem.
- Only 2% of the ocean is protected.
If it is happening now, it is happening globally and has huge economic impacts, what are we doing to protect our oceans? Across the world, we protect forests, parks and historic sites, marking 15-17% of the world’s land area for protection. However, even with a huge increase in the past decade, we have only seen an increase from 0.1% to 2% for protected areas of the ocean. In order to increase protection of the oceans, the United Nations has set a goal to protect at least 10% of the world’s oceans.
- Oceans are in the Paris Agreement – finally.
Not all the ocean news is negative. There has been progress on the discussion and inclusion of oceans in the global climate change arena. The Paris Agreement is the first negotiated document ever to even include the word “ocean.” While only 12 Intended Nationally Determined Contributions (INDCs) submitted by countries to the UNFCCC include anything associated to oceans, it is the first step in moving toward the right direction.
- We need to monitor the oceans.
Now is the time to create and enhance the monitoring of oceans that is already under way. In order to have a widespread understanding of the changes occurring throughout the ocean, we need to increase the reliability, availability, and amount of data. In the case of Oregon, this has been done through the Ocean Observatories Initiative, but more efforts are needed to get a better understanding of what is happening. With monitoring, you can find the pockets of ocean that appear to be immune, or where the pH levels are not declining as much, to have sense of how the future might play out.
- Five U.S. states already have adaptation plans.
Rhode Island, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Maryland have already put together local adaption plans. These states have set the baseline for action by doing the fundamental science needed to assess the current situation. This then allows them to measure the effects of their efforts to make the state more resilient by restoring estuaries and eelgrass beds, encouraging restorative fisheries, and reducing nitrogen loading in rivers.
- CO2 does more to oceans than just increase acidity.
Ocean acidification is just a part of the bigger picture. Carbon dioxide is making oceans warmer, higher, stormier, with less oxygen and more acidic. All of those collectively, as well as each individually, have huge consequences for life in the ocean, for economies, and for people who depend on those systems. We need to think about the ocean as a system in order to make real progress.
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