Death by ocean warming & acidification

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Terrestrials like us humans can experience warm air currents and escape from them by switching on an air conditioner. Fear is in the air that we will not be able to sustain this escapism for far too long.

With almost certainty, scientists have been warning that greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide could eventually lead to catastrophic climate change. This leaves us with two options: fight or flight. Either way, it needs one to believe that anthropogenic climate change could be a possibility. While some think that this might be a grand political manipulation at work, it might as well be a prediction that needs some time to prove itself.

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(Image credit: Lorenzo Tondi on WordPress)

Well, we have a choice to make. A choice that can be made easy by scientific studies that not only observe the temperature of the earth’s atmosphere, but also what covers 70 percent of it – the oceans.

When greenhouse gases make their way into the ocean, we have Ocean Acidification (direct effect via CO2 absorption) and rising ocean temperature (indirect effect via heat absorption caused by CO2 in the air).

Ocean acidification explained:

Ocean acidification is the process by which the acidity of oceans increase with an increase in carbon dioxide absorption. Here’s how it goes:

  • CO2 + water –> carbonic acid (H2CO3)
  • H2CO3 + water –> HCO3(-) ions + H(+) ions
  • More CO2 = More H(+) ions = More acidity (decrease in pH)

(HCO3(-) ions are bicarbonate ions, CO3(2-) ions are carbonate ions)

This is natural. Now let’s put some more CO2 in those reactions. We get this:

  • More CO2 –> More H2CO3 = More HCO3(-) ions
  • HCO3(-) –> CO3(2-) ions + H(+) ions
  • More decrease in pH with more H(+) ions here

This disturbs the chemical equilibrium of the ocean and the reaction reverses. We now have:

  • CO3(2-) ions + H(+) ions –> HCO3(-)
  • This means we have a lot of bicarbonate ions floating around and less of carbonate ions.

CO3(2-) is a friend of sea shells. It needs it for shell formation. The reaction for shell formation is:

CO3(2-) + Ca(2+) –> CaCO3 (calcium carbonate)

With less of carbonate ions, we have less of calcium carbonate. How can these sea shells possibly build their homes without it?

Effects of ocean warming & acidification:

Although heat and CO2 absorption are a part of a natural cycles: carbon cycle and heat cycle, scientific observations show the cycles are off balance. Scientists have observed amplified natural events: El Nino (warm currents) and La Nina (cold currents). This disturbance in balance is seen as a change in aquatic animals in their structure or behavior. While some aquatic animals like the Gorgorian corals are adapting to it, many are on the verge of expiry, or at least are getting fatally attracted to their own death.

When such natural processes go off balance without human involvement, we still have loss of species. For example, if a meteor strikes our planet, big or small, it does have an effect on our planet. This is because for many processes, Earth can be considered as a closed system: wherein mass and energy stay in a loop and do not go out of the atmosphere. For example, sunlight entering the earth. Much of it stays inside. In the case of meteor though, it can be said to be an open system because there was an addition of mass into the Earth’s system. Considering the lower probability of a meteor strike, Earth can be considered as a closed system. Anthropogenic activities accelerate these processes leaving them no time to get back into the loop. Every species adapts to changes in a different way. Although we cannot control all the processes and it could be arrogant to think so that we can, we can at least try to understand them. We are a part of this problem and whatever we do is going to affect us someday. What’s more shocking is that the very things that can help us study the oceans are disappearing: corals. They have a history to tell just like ice cores.

What are scientists doing about this?

They are tackling this problem via two ways: preventive and curative strategies. Preventive strategies include reduction in atmospheric carbon dioxide and creation of accurate ocean acid mapping devices. Curative strategies include iron fertilization and extraction of carbonic acid from water. Both of the strategies need extensive studies still.

What can we do about this?

Let’s not turn our back on global warming reports on the basis of lack of certainty or proof. Let’s encourage more scientific studies and theories. There are oceans of unknowns to discover.

This article was first published on  LinkedIn.

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4 thoughts on “Death by ocean warming & acidification

    1. Thanks for sharing such an important interview, Dirk. I came across a few things that particularly concerned me:
      – CO2 is absorbed more in colder waters. I didn’t think of this before. It is simple. As the temperature increases, gases come out of water. As the temperature decreases, more and more gases become soluble in water.
      – how phytoplankton decide to the quality of our atmosphere by giving off oxygen. If we conduct a survey on how many people know where half of our planet’s oxygen comes from, wonder what will the number be.

  1. Nice.. it makes you think. Keep the good work going on :)

    On Fri, May 2, 2014 at 12:24 AM, Anuja Sawant

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