Science on the front lines of ocean acidification

Life seems easy for the little red tuna crabs delighting Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors. The temperature and water chemistry in their exhibit are carefully controlled and stable. In the wild, it’s a different story. Conditions are changing—fast. Crabs and other critters are in a race with time, as record levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) warm the planet and change ocean chemistry.

Our colleagues at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) are on the front line, documenting the impacts and identifying potential solutions for this serious threat to ocean health.

CO2 bubbled up slowly

For more than a century, scientists have known that burning fossil fuels warms our planet. They’ve also long been aware of another impact—this one affecting ocean chemistry.

In 1909, a brewery chemist discovered that CO2 both creates bubbles when it’s dissolved in liquid, and makes it more acidic.

In 1909, a chemist at the Carlsberg Brewery Laboratory discovered that CO2 dissolved in water not only creates tiny bubbles (like in beer). It also makes liquid more acidic. In other words, our burning of fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of the ocean, a process called ocean acidification.

The impact of rising atmospheric CO2 developed slowly and subtly. By the 1960s, however, climatologists began raising alarms. Decades later, Al Gore’s landmark book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth, framed climate change as an urgent threat to human survival. As the scientific community worked to build accurate models of climate dynamics and explore ways to deal with rampant carbon, some eyed the ocean—which absorbs 25 percent to 30 percent of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere—as a solution. Could we stash even more atmospheric carbon in the sea, sparing the planet the worst impacts of global warming? Continue reading Science on the front lines of ocean acidification