Imagine an ‘invisible force’ invades the world. Slowly dissolving all life and there’s almost nothing you can do to stop it. And like Thanos, it is inevitable. It sounds like science fiction… yet actually its science non-fiction. Otherwise known as reality and it’s happening right now. I present, ocean acidification, the deranged evil stepchild of Climate Change.
Let’s take it back to the Industrial Revolution starting around the turn of the 19th Century. Since then the Earth’s oceans have absorbed over 25% of all atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) released from the burning of fossil fuels. Within that time the pH of the oceans’ surface waters has decreased by 0.1 units. This may not seem like much, but pH is logarithmic, meaning every unit represents a tenfold increase in acidity. That 0.1 represents roughly a 30% increase in acidity. It’s estimated that by the end of the century, pH may decline by 0.4 units if global emissions continue with a “business as usual” approach, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In fact, researchers have found that our oceans are becoming more acidic faster than at any time in the past 300 million years — a period covering four mass extinctions.
Once in the ocean, the dissolved C02 undergoes a series of chemical reactions bringing about an increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions whilst lowering the ocean’s pH and carbonate minerals causing our oceans to become more acidic. Acidity or alkalinity is determined by the number of hydrogen ions in water. These hydrogen ions bond with available carbonate ions to form bicarbonate, thus depleting the available amount of carbonate in our oceans. All things considered, it’s a pretty big deal as less carbonate in the oceans makes it far more difficult for calcifying creatures such as corals, clams, sea urchins, plankton and arguably the most abundant organism on the planet, krill, to form their calcium carbonate shells or skeletons.
As it stands, we’re releasing about 35 billion tons of carbon annually into the atmosphere with at least 1/4 of that going into the ocean. That’s almost 24 million tonnes every day! Looking back some 70 years people were concerned the ocean would be taking up all this carbon and we knew this would change the chemistry of seawater, but we didn’t know until the late ’90s how sensitive organisms were to it all.
Here’s the really bad news. Many of the organisms most sensitive to ocean acidification, although tiny, form the foundation of the ecological food web in the ocean. Therefore, it comes at no surprise that threatening these species has a domino-like effect placing even greater numbers of marine life in the red. In turn, the communities that rely on the ocean’s ‘bountiful’ resources will feel the knock-on effect, that’s you, me and about 3.5 billion other people. Creatures like corals, which are already threatened by rising ocean temperatures, are especially at risk from ocean acidification. So, as you can see when little things change on a big scale big changes are sure to follow.
According to Scott Doney, a professor of Environmental Sciences “corals are what we call a foundational species because they generate the habitat that other organisms live in. If the corals shift or change, it affects everybody. And that includes humans. Corals are particularly important to the developing world. Many small coastal and island nations rely on coral reefs for their food supply and the income they generate through recreation and tourism. The presence of corals also protects their shorelines from storms and waves, so if these reefs start to erode – protection declines.”
What makes the subject trickier is that ocean acidification is not uniform. Some regions and organisms will be impacted to a greater degree and sooner than others. Rivers present another obstacle as they have the potential to bring in polluted and more acidic waters to coastal environments, further exacerbating the rate of acidification. Along with that, upwelling, where ocean currents bring colder waters with higher concentrations of C02 to the surface, have a similar effect.
Whether you’re itsy bitsy phytoplankton of the sea or a bipedal ape, it’s increasingly likely that ocean acidification will impact your life in the long run.
“Our best case is if we stabilize our carbon emissions. Right now we’re at about 410 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere,” Doney said — a level that would allow ocean acidification to eventually stabilize. “The worst case is that we don’t slow carbon emission and acidification continues to grow,” he said. “There will be some threshold that ecosystems will reach where they can’t keep up anymore.” Even if you are a climate change skeptic there is no denying the simple physics of C02 dissolving in our oceans. If you are that way inclined then the future looks a lot scarier than fiction.
Feeling overwhelmed by the escalating existential crises we’re facing when it comes to our oceans turning into acid? You know, that helpless, sinking feeling that events are spiralling out of control, and we’re all going down with the ship and there’s nothing we can do about it. Well you’re not alone. Eco-anxiety is a thing. The Science Journal lays it out as conclusive, “without major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, ecosystems worldwide are at risk of major transformation and even total collapse.” No sugar-coating that turd, humankind is deep in the dwang! But that doesn’t mean you should lose hope, curl up in a ball and wait for the apocalypse. The fight for the planet is gonna take longer than our lifespans, the stakes are enormous and the time to act is right now. But it’s not a fait accompli, done deal kinda thing, better to think of it as a halftime oranges situation.
We’re a few goals down and we’re going to have to play out of our socks, as a team, to turn it around. So put down your phone, roll up your sleeves, get stuck in and allow us to stoke the optimism fires, with some good news that could turn the tide on ocean acidification:
Renewable Energy is Booming
Out with the old and in with the renewable. As a recent report indicates, thanks to its cost-effectiveness, ‘greener’ energy will replace fossil fuels as the main source of energy within the next 15 years. As far back as 2014, 99% of Costa Rica’s electricity was derived from renewable energy. Last year, Germany produced enough renewable energy in 6 months to power every household in the country for a year. Portugal ran the same way for the month of March. In many places, it’s cheaper to build and run wind and solar farms than to run existing coal plants.
Tech won’t solve the Climate Crisis alone, but fresh thinking is on the way. Every day more people invest in breakthrough technologies, transforming economies and industry to help power the planet from a cleaner source. Tech solutions like direct carbon capture, which involves storing extracted carbon deep in the ground or in plants, is gaining momentum. There are innovations in hydropower that seem unimaginable in terms of both yield and environmental impact, along with solar panels that float and long-lasting sustainable batteries for storing all that clean energy. 985 institutional investors representing $6.24 trillion have divested from fossil fuels. That’s a huge jump from just $52 billion in 2015.
Transportation is Getting Greener
Transportation is the biggest source of carbon pollution, fact. A slew of cheaper, more reliable electronic cars are disrupting the automobile market. In the next 20 years combustion engines are going to be the preserve of museums and petrol-head collectors. Driving a petrol or diesel vehicle is going to be as appealing as having a flip phone in the smartphone era.
A New Era of Environmental Justice
Fires in the world’s rainforests can be seen from space, now the companies that instigate this environmental carnage can be held accountable for crimes against the environment, which ultimately equate to crimes against humanity. According to Climatic Change Journal only 90 companies are responsible for nearly 60% of the observed increases in global temperatures. The fight is now against them. In 2018, lawsuits were filed against some of these US companies, seeking to recover climate change damages. Climate liability cases are a part of a global trend including lawsuits filed in the Netherlands, Peru, the Philippines and Canada, with plenty more to come!
The Youths are Revolting!
Righteously pissed at apathetic adult leaders, young people the world over are putting down their phones and taking matters into their own hands. In March 2019, 1.5 million youths and their allies took to the streets, striking in 2052 locations in 123 different countries. In 2018, 15000 Australian students marched against plans to build a massive coal mine in Queensland. As 17-year-old climate activist Greta Thurnberg puts it: For way too long, the politicians and the people in power have gotten away with not doing anything to fight the climate crisis, but we will make sure that they will not get away with it any longer. We are striking because we have done our homework and they have not.
Surfing is Good for the Planet
Surf more! Seriously. Long hours in the brine are good for the planet and for you. The act of surfing is totally non-consumptive. When you’re in the ocean riding waves, you’re not burning any fossil fuels, using electricity or consuming anything wrapped in single-use plastic. Increase your impact by staying local, riding a bicycle to the beach and choosing eco-friendly and sustainable surf and lifestyle products. Surfing will also put you in a natural environment, uplift your mood, build your confidence and deliver you back to shore with renewed optimism and energy to tackle these challenges. Let’s go!