October 26, 2009

An Ocean of Change

Mary Campbell, Extension Director and Urban Sustainability Agent, Pinellas County Extension

There are many environmental impacts attributed to climate change. As scientists begin to understand all the impacts caused by the burning of fossil fuels and build-up of carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere, changes are occurring within our oceans.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been researching the impact of CO2 on marine ecosystems. The oceans have absorbed about 50% of the CO2 released from the burning of fossil fuels. This causes chemical reactions that lower ocean pH (measurement of acidity). This has caused an increase in acidity of about 30% since the start of the industrial age through a process known as “ocean acidification.” A growing number of studies have demonstrated adverse impacts on marine organisms.

When CO2 reacts with seawater, the reduction in seawater pH reduces the availability of carbonate ions, which play an important role in shell formation for marine organisms such as corals, marine plankton, and shellfish. This could have profound impacts on some of the most fundamental biological processes of the sea in coming decades. Some of the smaller calcifying organisms are important food sources for higher marine organisms. Declining coral reefs due to increases in ocean temperature and acidification would have negative impacts on tourism and fisheries. Abundance of commercially important shellfish species may also decline and negative impacts on finfish may occur. This rapidly emerging scientific issue and possible ecological impacts have raised serious concerns across the scientific and fisheries resource management communities.

As human processes of energy production and transportation continue to build CO2 levels in the atmosphere, scientists are uncertain what the continuing impacts of ocean acidification will be. We do know that CO2 will continue to build up and oceans will continue to absorb it without intervention. The U.S. is the third largest seafood consumer in the world. Coastal and marine commercial fishing generates as much as $30 billion per year and nearly 70,000 jobs. Healthy coral reefs are the foundation of many of these viable fisheries, as well as the source of tourism and recreation revenues.

Reduction of the use of fossil fuels is a key to reducing the impacts of climate change. Energy conservation, renewable energy production, new transportation options, and better gas mileage for cars are just a few of the solutions. Preserving the health of our oceans is critical to maintaining critical food production for the world.

Climate Change Basics Webinar: November 17, 11:30 am – 12:30 pm – On-Line Registration

NOAA Ocean Acidification -
What is Ocean Acidification?
EPA Climate Change

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