15. What is ocean acidification and why does it matter?

Direct observations of ocean chemistry have shown that the chemical balance of seawater has shifted to a more acidic state (lower pH) (see Figure 7). Some marine organisms (such as corals and some shellfish) have shells composed of calcium carbonate which dissolves more readily in acid. As the acidity of sea water increases, it becomes more difficult for them to form or maintain their shells.

fig7-smallFigure 7. As CO2 in the air has increased, there has been an increase in the CO2 content of the surface ocean (upper box), and a decrease in the seawater pH (lower box). Source: adapted from Dore et al. (2009) and Bates et al. (2012) (larger version)

CO2 dissolves in water to form a weak acid, and the oceans have absorbed about a third of the CO2 resulting from human activities, leading to a steady decrease in ocean pH levels. With increasing atmospheric CO2, the chemical balance will change even more during the next century. Laboratory and other experiments show that under high CO2 and in more acidic waters, some marine species have misshapen shells and lower growth rates, although the effect varies among species. Acidification also alters the cycling of nutrients and many other elements and compounds in the ocean, and it is likely to shift the competitive advantage among species, with as-yet-to-be-determined impacts on marine ecosystems and the food web.

Questions and answers

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1. Is the climate warming?
2. How do scientists know that recent climate change is largely caused by human activities?
3. CO2 is already in the atmosphere naturally, so why are emissions from human activity significant?
4. What role has the Sun played in climate change in recent decades?
5. What do changes in the vertical structure of atmospheric temperature – from the surface up to the stratosphere - tell us about the causes of recent climate change?
6. Climate is always changing. Why is climate change of concern now?
7. Is the current level of atmospheric CO2 concentration unprecedented in Earth’s history?
8. Is there a point at which adding more CO2 will not cause further warming?
9. Does the rate of warming vary from one decade to another?
10. Does the recent slowdown of warming mean that climate change is no longer happening?
11. If the world is warming, why are some winters and summers still very cold?
12. Why is Arctic sea ice reducing while Antarctic sea ice is not?
13. How does climate change affect the strength and frequency of floods, droughts, hurricanes and tornadoes?
14. How fast is sea level rising?
15. What is ocean acidification and why does it matter?
16. How confident are scientists that Earth will warm further over the coming century?
17. Are climate changes of a few degrees a cause for concern?
18. What are scientists doing to address key uncertainties in our understanding of the climate system?
19. Are disaster scenarios about tipping points like ‘turning off the Gulf Stream’ and release of methane from the Arctic a cause for concern?
20. If emissions of greenhouse gases were stopped, would the climate return to the conditions of 200 years ago?

Your questions

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