March 29th, 2009 by Derek Markham
Leading experts at the 2009 Aspen Environment Forum called ocean acidification caused by high levels of CO2 emissions a “planet changer”, and predicted that all coral in the ocean would be in danger of dying off by mid-century if we continued to burn fossil fuel at our current rate.
Ken Caldeira of Carnegie Institution, Martin Hoffert of New York University, and Dawn Martin of SeaWeb told attendees at the session “The Ocean Carbon Cycle: Facing the Damage” that we haven’t taken the issue seriously enough, and expressed dismay at the lack of media coverage for such an important issue.
“People would be more upset if you told them that their favorite TV show was canceled than if you told them that entire biomes would disappear.” – Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution
The issue of ocean acidification is not well known outside of academia, yet the impact on many of the ocean’s life forms will be severe. Too much is unknown about possible cascade effects on climate change due to acidification, as well as any ripple effects on other marine ecosystems due to loss of coral reefs worldwide.
The ocean absorbs about 1/4 of the CO2 released into the atmosphere by human activities each year, which tempers the effect of this greenhouse gas on our climate. Carbonic acid is formed when the CO2 is dissolved in the seawater, which lowers the pH (increases the acidity). An acidic ocean reduces the rate at which corals can produce their skeletons and at which other marine organisms can build their shells. And so many other marine organisms are affected by anything that takes a toll on the corals. It’s estimated that the global economy based on coral (and other related marine life) is about $16 trillion per year.
We’ve taken carbon that has been stored under the earth for hundreds of millions of years and burned it at an ever-increasing rate over the last hundred years, so even if we stopped all CO2 emissions from human activity, the levels of CO2 won’t return to pre-industrial levels any time soon. It may take 10,000 years to recover from these extremely high CO2 levels in the atmosphere.
The big takeaways from the session I attended with these experts were that there are no safe levels of CO2 emissions, and that we absolutely need a moratorium on fossil fuel burning and emissions. We need to radically change our energy sources to carbon neutral power generation, and we need to do it now. That’s a tall order, but one that we need to heed.
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