Experts Say Ocean Acidification is a "Planet Changer"

coral ocean acidification

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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7 thoughts on “Experts Say Ocean Acidification is a "Planet Changer"”

  1. Human impact on the environment will most likely be precluded by either geologic or astrophysical activity. However, it is imperative that we deal with our pollution problem, as our current situation is far from sustainable if we maintain our current level of exploitation and negligence.

  2. as far as the polar ice caps go, and their melting which would induce sea level rise we must also look to the gasses currently trapped in the ice that would be released into the atmosphere and ocean waters upon melting.

  3. I tend to back away slowly when I encounter religious overtones and righteous fervor, no less so for those enamored of their computer models. It’s baffling to hear that “this issue hasn’t been taken seriously enough”- surely the entire industrialized world is now aware of the ocean acidification issue, and separately, has signed on to CO2 reductions (with the exception of the United States). It would be refreshing to see a bit more collaboration with biologists in the world modelling work- but no matter what- these are only models (ah, the heresy in those words!).

  4. This issue is still lacking in press coverage, and may turn out to be far more important that what is occurring in the atmosphere. When you look at the trends, and the volumes of CO2 involved, any reversal in the rate of damage will take centuries to undue.

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