What is Ocean Acidification?

Jane Marsh - February 10, 2023

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Natural and human influences will alter how ecosystems operate. Humans rely on the oceans for everything from trade to leisure, with most remaining undiscovered. Therefore, as the climate conversation continues, prioritizing the health of the ocean’s waters should be the pinnacle.

Ocean acidification is a growing concern — in conjunction with climate change, it is a powerful force. Unraveling why it happens, the ramifications and what humans can do to prevent it from happening in the future will be a significant step forward in conservation and preservation efforts.

Ocean Acidification, Defined

In short, ocean acidification describes the ocean’s acidity increasing because of the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It has taken a long time for this process to unfurl, it the change in pH is altering aquatic biodiversity. The side effects of acidification even impact human health and economic well-being.

How Ocean Acidification Happens

Since the industrial revolution, fossil fuels have been developing nations’ lifeblood, increasing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions they produce.

The ocean is a sponge for carbon dioxide — absorbing around 30% of the atmosphere’s stock. Therefore, the more humans put in the atmosphere, the more the ocean takes. The earth does this as a regulatory process, but unfortunately, it isn’t prepared to handle carbon dioxide at this volume. 

The pH of the ocean used to be 8.2, and it maintained this for millions of years. When measuring, it appears it hasn’t dropped much — it is around 8.1 now. However, this is a 25% decline in a short period.

When more carbon dioxide is present in oceans, there is less oxygen. Though many species may be able to cope with a slight change in pH, many still require oxygen to survive. Ocean acidification is not just a carbon dioxide problem but also an oxygen problem.

How the Ocean’s Acidity Affects Life Everywhere

Ocean acidification is a concern for ocean life and humans. For sea creatures, notably shellfish, excess carbon dioxide gives them an osteoporosis-like ailment, preventing them from creating shells. 

This example demonstrates a domino effect — the fewer shellfish able to survive, the less commercially available they become for human consumption. Many coastal nations worldwide require that not only for their nutrition but for their livelihoods. This chain reaction could affect countless humans’ job security and physical and mental health.

This is just one instance of how disrupting the ocean’s pH alters a previously stable ecosystem. With increasing acidity, creatures like shrimp and coral erode and dissolve. Adversely, certain species of dangerous algae flourish, producing more toxins. Therefore, disruption of normal homeostasis can contaminate animals and humans. 

The adverse effects of ocean acidification are not just on ocean life. If more fish die due to acidity, malnutrition could affect countless communities. The fish collected may be contaminated or contain fewer nutrients than previous generations since their environmental conditions are not as nourishing for their development. Consequently, it will affect human nutrition as well.

As previously analyzed, ocean acidification encourages certain toxic organisms to propagate because litter and pollutants provide them with new homes to grow. This also spreads contaminants in the waters, like metals or active ingredients from the pharmaceutical industry. These end up in sea creatures and on human dinner plates.

Acidification also affects sea creatures’ meals, as increased carbon dioxide stunts the growth of phytoplankton. They create the foundation for marine food webs. If their ability to grow slows, it will harm every other sea creature.

How to Prevent Acidification

Ocean acidification and climate change work hand-in-hand. The more humanity grows, it seems like acidification — and climate change — will inevitably increase as a growing population will need more resources. However, we can analyze human behavior to advance toward a healthier ocean.

What happens during ocean acidification is directly influenced by human activity. Here are a few examples of what contributes to acidic waters:

  • Manufacturing of resource-intensive materials like concrete
  • Loss of biodiversity, causing imbalances in natural systems
  • Unregulated laws or lack of regulation entirely concerning ocean protection
  • Changes in the way humans use land
  • Excessive pollution altering biodiversity and homeostasis

Humanity can do its part in reducing the harmful effects of ocean acidification. The blanket solution is deceptively simple — act on climate change. 

Every strategy that applies to reducing one’s carbon footprint equates to positive steps forward for reducing ocean acidification:

  • Educate yourself and others: Knowledge is the best tool against climate change. Promote causes working hard to mitigate climate change and inform others, empowering communities to stay motivated.
  • Develop a more comprehensive scope: Knowing how the world’s ecosystems are connected will promote a healthier world above and below the water. Though the ocean’s well-being is in jeopardy, that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable to forget about forests or mountains, as they all influence and heal each other.
  • Make the move to renewables: This includes eliminating reliance on single-use materials like plastics and using reusables. This also looks like switching to renewable energy sources like wind and solar instead of fossil fuels. Moving toward a circular economy will help the ocean and all environments to stay healthy and regulated. 
  • Make changes despite not seeing results: It’s impossible to see the effects on the planet from one action you do. Humans are responsible for analyzing their daily habits, from producing too much trash to wasting energy. Every human could change one small habit and create a lasting impact — know you won’t see it, but the Earth will feel it.

Coastal communities and nations relying on ocean-based industries are naturally hit the hardest by ocean acidification. Anywhere connected to ocean waterways will be affected by proxy, so every step to reduce climate change is positive.

Regulating the Ocean’s Acidity

Just because humans don’t see ocean life every day doesn’t mean it isn’t affecting us. Every action and movement we make utilizing energy and resources affects them, and in a cycle, it comes back to influence us. Reducing ocean acidification is more critical now than ever in the global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change.

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About the author

Jane Marsh

Starting from an early age, Jane Marsh loved all animals and became a budding environmentalist. Now, Jane works as the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co where she covers topics related to climate policy, renewable energy, the food industry, and more.