Water, Water, Everywhere…

In 1798 Coleridge wrote, “water, water, everywhere, [but not a] drop to drink”. By 2100 this may become “water, water, everywhere, but not a fish to eat”. Carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, may be doing more than warming our atmosphere, it may be acidifying our oceans. According to Dr. Richard Feely, an Oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), 525 billion tons of CO2 has been absorbed by the ocean over the last 200 years with 22 million tons being absorbed daily. This gas is converted to carbonic acid and has resulted in a 30% increase in ocean acidity since the early 1900s. Dr. Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institute of Washington stated in a written testimony to the Committee on Science and Technology that 65 million years ago the oceans acidified and not only did almost all marine life with shells disappear, but coral reefs dissolved and weren’t seen again for two million years. Although the impact of ocean acidification has become a concern for scientists and legislators alike, much research to this point has been conducted only in fish tanks and on a small scale. In a July 3, 2008 publication of Nature, Dr. Jason Hall-Spencer presented the first large-scale study of an oceanic ecosystem to provide disturbing proof of what could happen to marine life if the acidity of the ocean continues to rise.

Many things are acidic, such as battery acid and orange juice. The ocean, however, is supposed to be slightly basic at pH 8.2, similar to baking soda. However, the pH has dropped to 8.1 and is estimated to drop to 7.7 by the year 2100. Hall-Spencer has shown that this could be detrimental to the marine ecosystem. By surveying oceanic areas where volcanic vents were either present or absent, he and his colleagues drew comparisons involving the marine life present in each area. These vents released millions of liters of CO2 gas each day, acidifying the surrounding water. In areas of normal pH, marine life which depended on calcified shells thrived. When the pH dropped to 7.8, the number of marine species was reduced by 30%. In more acidic conditions around 7.4, the shells of various shellfish were eaten away, pitted and fragile. Many scientists worry that as the ocean acidifies, aquatic creatures will become unable to make shells. Another pressing concern is the preservation of coral reefs. In acidic conditions, the population of Corallinaceae, an alga important in protecting reefs, dropped by 60%. This left the reef vulnerable to harmful algae and dissolution due to the acidity of the water.

While the fate of a snail or coral reef may not initially trigger concern, the future consequences of ocean acidity on all marine life and the global economy might. In May 2008, NOAA released a “State of the Science” fact sheet. It stated that not only is the U.S. the third largest seafood consumer globally, but patrons spend $60 billion per year on fish and shellfish. Furthermore, coastal and marine fishing supports 70,000 jobs and produces revenue of $30 billion each year. This industry is dependent on the stability of coral reefs. Reefs are the lynchpin for many fisheries since half of them use reefs for the life cycles of their fish. Fish stocks are currently estimated at over $250 million. The marine plankton and small snails which serve as a food source for many fish such as salmon, mackerel and cod would be reduced, along with the coral, as acidity increased. This could reduce the amount of food available and restructure the food web altogether. In the end, if the coral fails, so too does a large portion of the lucrative fishing industry.

Coral does not, however, only support marine life and fishing. It also supports tourism. NOAA estimated that the economic losses from coral reef degradation in the Caribbean will be $350-780 million per year by 2015. Trying to protect the reefs will entail another $3-4 billion each year. The Florida Keys generates $1.2 billion per annum in coral reef tourism while Hawaii collects $360 million every year. These numbers do not even consider the amount of money saved in real estate damage that is averted due to the protection coral reefs provide from storms and tsunami. On June 5, 2008, a hearing was held by the Committee on Science and Technology in the U.S. House of Representatives to listen to testimony regarding ocean acidification and its consequences. As stated by the chairman, Nick Lampson, “H.R. 4174 was introduced by…Congressman Tom Allen…to coordinate and expand…efforts…to expand our knowledge of ocean acidification. Through more comprehensive monitoring and research we can begin to address the impacts of these changes on our fisheries and…ecosystems.” In his written testimony to the committee, Feeley wrote that the ocean is estimated to be more acidic in 2100 than in the last 20 million years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated the CO2 concentration could be so high in 2100 as to begin dissolving the coral reefs faster than they can grow. If the predictions for 2100 are correct, the growth rate of coral reefs could be reduced by 85% when compared to today’s rate. They are already growing 15% slower than they did at the beginning of the 1900s when ocean acidity was at a proper level according to data in NOAAs “State of the Science” fact sheet.

The question is what can we do about it? While many, such as Caldeira, believe the “only way to really save the oceans is to greatly decrease carbon dioxide omissions soon.”, H.R. 4174 proposes to give $25 million over three years and $30 million every following year towards research of acidification and how to reverse it. Dr. Joan Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, however, stated in her written testimony that $50-55 million each year is the “minimum if scientists are to provide useful information regarding how oceans are responding to acidification and how we should change our…policies.” While this initially sounds stunning, Caldeira noted in his written testimony that, “It’s impossible to say what the oceans are worth to us, but it has to be…tens of billions of dollars per year. [The] research investment [is] starting at several millions of dollars per year…that’s a ratio of about ten thousand to one. That’s like having a $20,000 car and…spending only two bucks to find out what’s going wrong. We shouldn’t be surprised when it breaks down [on] the highway.”

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