Of the marine world’s many mysteries, few is greater than its role in terrestrial life. The ocean supplies fish and jobs and recreation, but its infinite colonies of unseen phytoplankton create about half of all the oxygen we breathe. To say the ocean is connected to the air, not to mention the weather and food chain, is to understate things.
So we take sharp notice of a preliminary report from the National Research Council, which finds that acid levels in seawater worldwide are rising to the point at which sea life, as well as living coral reefs, could be harmed. The culprit: rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, much of it from human activity.
Oceans are sponges for atmospheric CO2 — they sop it up at an astonishing rate and for 800,000 years held their pH levels rock steady. But that changed after the Industrial Revolution, which fused human progress with CO2 emissions, and ocean pH levels are now on the slide. The result is ugly.
Experiments show harm is brought to the shell- and skeleton-building capacity of reef-building corals, oysters and mussels, as well as some phytoplankton and zooplankton species at the floor of marine food webs. In a few instances, marine biologists have corroborated this in ocean investigations.
We may well be poisoning the ocean with CO2, the same bad-actor gas tied to rising global temperatures.
Not everything underwater will go bad. Some species may flourish in lower pH environments, creating a lottery of winners and losers, and nobody’s saying our oxygen supply is at stake.
But it is a grave thought that our CO2 lifestyle is tainting ocean water to the extent it could hurt us — one estimate has ocean acidity rising by 200 percent by the end of the century. Along with its known benefits, a healthy ocean is prolific in the biodiversity that promises discoveries in biomedicine — our own Amazon.
Ocean acidification sounds wonky. But it’s quite down to earth and calls for urgency by the United States and several countries, with European nations well along. Right now eight federal agencies, among them the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration headed by Oregonian Jane Lubchenco, scramble to figure the next best steps.
One of them, outlined by the NRC, should be to expand ocean testing for CO2 and pH levels. It sounds small but isn’t. To test well involves placing new sensors on existing moorings but also creating more sites with more gauges — all reporting in real time to data centers that sort and make legible the health of the ocean. Only then will we really know what’s up and, maybe, what to do.
But getting there will take money, leadership, collective will. We know how well nations collaborate on a problem as shared as climate change — may ocean acidification dodge that fate as handily as it shed its polarizing nickname of global warming’s “evil twin.”
The NRC’s full report will be published soon. Congress deserves credit for requesting the review in the first place. Now it should pay heed with an open wallet, as the tab could run $50 million a year to do proper global testing, according to calculations by Richard Feely, NOAA’s top-gun researcher in Seattle, and colleagues. Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, aware that sharp acidification has been gauged in Northwest waters, has done right in signaling alarm; now she is encouraged to push hard for America’s share of the funding.
An already concerned White House, meanwhile, must substantially raise the profile of ocean acidification as an international challenge that won’t go away without somehow reining in CO2 emissions.