by Anya Szykitka
Think that the worst effects of climate change are in the distant future? Think again. Not only does carbon dioxide—a by-product of burning coal, oil, and gas—stay in the atmosphere and trap heat, it’s also absorbed by the world’s oceans. According to a 2005 report by the Royal Society, a U.K. fellowship of prominent scientists, oceans are nearly maxed-out in their capacity to hold carbon dioxide, changing the chemistry of the water, pushing acidity levels to those not known in hundreds of millennia. Ocean life—from microscopic plankton to coral reefs to fish—could be obliterated by the year 2100 as a result.
Most vulnerable are the shell-growing organisms, which, in the lower ph conditions (acidity rises), are unable to produce sufficient calcium carbonate to grow shells. Measurements have shown that ocean shells are becoming thinner and thinner as the water’s ph levels become lower. But it’s not just starfish, urchins, and the other usual suspects who could have a hard time, it’s microscopic plankton as well. The shelled plankton support entire ocean food chains, from fish, to whales, to seals, to birds, to—us. When the plankton can no longer survive because they can’t grow shells, whole ocean ecosystems could collapse, with polar regions especially susceptible, according to studies outlined in ScienceDaily (Feb. 2010), an online magazine. In addition, lower ph levels may cause existing shells to deteriorate, leaving their inhabitants even more vulnerable to predators and other threats. Coral reefs, which are home to 30 to 34 percent of Earth’s animal phyla—the tropical rainforests of the oceans—and which are already dying because of higher temperatures, pollution, and disease, will also be especially vulnerable to increased acidity. If the current rate of carbon dioxide absorption continues, it’s estimated that lack of plankton could cause the death of major ecosystems by the end of THIS century. That’s in about 90 years. That means that if you have children, or are planning to, they might live in a world without ocean fish, or whales, or seals, or seabirds…
To learn more about the effects of climate change and carbon dioxide on the oceans and other natural systems, check out World Resources Institute’s website: www.wri.org