May I Have A Little Acid In My Salt Water, Please?
Oct02

May I Have A Little Acid In My Salt Water, Please?

"The oceans, despite their appearance, are not inexhaustible, vast, and infinitely forgiving." So said Sigourney Weaver of "Alien" fame prior to a press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had just released its video "Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification," narrated by Weaver. (Click the link to watch the full video.) Ocean acidification is one of the big side effects of ever-increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. "There has been a lot of focus on climate change, but a lot of people don't know about ocean acidification," I overheard Weaver--who stood only feet away from me in a 20- by 20-foot room full of chairs, people, and cameras--saying prior to the screening of "Acid Test." The CO2 we pump out doesn't all just stay in the air; about 20-plus million tons per day of it goes into the water, too, forming carbonic acid, which alters the ocean's pH and makes living difficult for some marine critters. The acidic ocean's effects on every marine creature (a lot of which aren't yet known) can't yet be exactly determined, but there is still a lot that is known. "Ocean acidification has a lot of the world's leading scientists freaked out," Weaver said. Although the average pH of the world's oceans has dropped by only about 0.2 pH units since the Industrial Revolution (when we started burning lots of stuff for energy, thus jettisoning CO2 into the atmosphere), that is a bigger change than has occurred since the time of the dinosaurs' extinction, said Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist at NRDC who was in the film and was a panel member who answered questions after the video screening. Ocean organisms alive today are not used to handling such rapid (in an evolutionary timescale) environmental change, and we land-bound animals rely heavily on the bounty of the seas to survive. Suatoni emphasized, "You don't have to live on the coast to have ocean acidification affect your food supply." "If the smallest things in the ocean are affected by ocean acidification, then it ripples all the way up the food web, making the largest things in the ocean even more in danger," said marine ecologist Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University in the video. And predictions estimate that will happen in just a few decades--the "tipping point" of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that will lead to a world-average ocean acidity high enough to basically melt sea life is only 450 to 550 ppm, Suatoni said, answering a question from the audience. Current levels are around 375 ppm and increasing. To put ocean acidification in perspective, Suatoni noted in...

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