In part two of our World Ocean series, we look at ocean acidification – what it is, where it came from and why it’s so terrible for our planet.
Words by Natalie Fox | 18th June '21
Whilst humans might not immediately and directly feel the effects of ocean acidification, if we know anything by now, it is that the ocean is intricately intertwined with the health of our whole planetary system. A problem in one area can have a devastating knock on effect across millions of miles and years to come.
We learnt last week when looking at marine plastic pollution that plastic waste is a “wicked” problem and we can no longer try and fix it with one simple solution or a “silver bullet” as they say in sustainability. And just like marine plastic pollution, ocean acidification is also human problem. It is caused by humans, and continues to exist because of humans yet it’s the tiny microorganisms in the ocean bearing the brunt of this environmental disaster.
Let’s start with a breakdown of what ocean acidification is, where it came from and why it’s so terrible for our blue planet. But let’s finish with how we can all work together to change the potential future scenarios – and be the first generation to save an entire ecosystem.
Ocean acidification refers to a process by which the pH balance of the ocean shifts due to rising carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the atmosphere. More CO2 in the atmosphere means more CO2 is absorbed by the ocean’s surface and this excess produces more hydrogen ions and lowers the ph of the liquid ocean. Whilst this may seem a little bit contradictory and complicated, what we need to know is that:
“Between 1751 and 1996, surface ocean pH has decreased from approximately 8.25 to 8.14, representing an increase of almost 30% in H+ ion concentration in the world’s oceans.” Mark Z Jacobsen
It is the change in pH levels due to increased H+ ion that impacts the species and habitats in the ocean as they require a specific chemistry to exist and thrive.
If you think about it, as humans we breathe air and without the correct amount of gases in the air we breathe we suffer or even suffocate. It’s like that in the ocean. For organisms like phytoplankton, corals, crustaceans and molluscs, this chemistry change is catastrophic as they rely on carbonate ions to produce calcium carbonate (what makes their shell structures). And whilst this might not seem like a disaster at first, these are the species that are providing food and habitats for others to survive.
Coral reefs are a whole ecosystem in their own right. And though they only cover only 1% of the ocean, 25% of all marine creatures live in them. Plus, not only are coral reefs susceptible to changes in ph levels, but they also respond dramatically to changes in temperature. Even as little as a 1 degree C temperature change, can lead to an event called coral bleaching. And with the sea absorbing excess heat from global warming, the effects of the climate crisis on the ocean are only just beginning to be understood, and talked about.
In 2019, the World Surf League partnered with Glowing Glowing Gone to highlight how, in a desperate bid to protect themselves from ocean heat waves, some corals glow in fluorescent colour. The fluoro colours of yellow, blue and purple adorned all the branding for the Tahiti Pro, where the top 44 surfers were competing at Teahupo’o, one of the world’s most renowned, heavy and intimidating reef breaks.
“The ocean is as complex and fragile as the human body, and just a small increase in temperature leads to vital systems shutting down. Glowing corals are the indicator of system shutdown – it’s the ocean’s ultimate warning.” World Surf League
This was a global campaign by Adobe, Pantone and the Ocean Agency, used to accelerate ocean protection and climate action using colour and creativity – and raise awareness of ocean warming being the biggest environmental issue facing coral reefs.
Rises in sea temperatures and ocean acidification are due to us burning fossil fuels and releasing much more CO2 into the atmosphere. Simply put, these changes are a byproduct of the industrial revolution. And the impacts humans have had over the last 200 years means we’ve now been issued a new name for our current epoch: the anthropocene. But while we cannot necessarily reverse the damage we have done, we can get a grip on what needs to stop, and what needs to be reconfigured.
The InterAcademy Panel produced a statement in 2009 saying: “Large and rapid reductions of global CO2 emissions are needed globally by at least 50% by 2050. Humanity needs to recognize that reducing the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere is the only practicable solution to mitigating ocean acidification.”
In response to this, Surfers for Climate are attempting to tackle the climate crisis at its root cause: emissions.
The Surfers for Climate movement started in October 2019, after co-founders Johnny Abegg and Belinda Baggs attended a climate summit on Heron Island, Queensland. They were moved by what they learnt about climate science, the impacts of climate change and how many viable solutions there are from Australia’s leading scientists and policy experts. Most importantly, though, they were struck by the critical role the oceans play in our climate system.
They’re encouraging all surfers to join the movement, to be active on behalf of the ocean and to focus on climate solutions: carbon neutral surf events, sustainability measures for the surf industry, mangrove/seaweed restoration and renewables, as well as other ‘blue carbon’ projects.
Perhaps most crucially though, they are fighting to prevent new coastal and offshore fossil fuel developments, with surfers playing key roles in these campaigns.
It is a slippery slope from rising CO2 emissions to ocean heat waves, pH levels lowering and ocean acidity rising. We have already seen the signs and symptoms from surf ecosystems, specifically coral reef habitats. We have also heard the ongoing warnings from scientists. But there is still hope.
One thing is for certain: the glowing glowing gone campaign ignited a passion for protecting corals and united creativity with conservation. The ocean developed a way to show us the ramifications our industrialisation of the planet was having on the ocean, so we could begin to understand the chain of events unfolding all because of our atmospheric pollution. Now we know what has to be done, we can get on and do it.
For more info on ocean acidification: try the following resources, check out Chasing Coral on Netflix or You Tube, and of course join Surfers for Climate. We will only fix this together.