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Ocean acidification: the scariest environmental problem you’ve never heard of

Daniel Hinerfeld

Posted June 8, 2009 in Reviving the World's Oceans

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I've had the privilege over the last several months to write, co-direct and executive produce a startling half-hour documentary featuring Sigourney Weaver. ACID TEST explores the impending catastrophe of ocean acidification -- which scientists call the OTHER carbon problem.  (The first being global warming.)

ACID TEST will premiere this August on Discovery Planet Green.  Watch the trailer:

The word "startling" above is not hype.  Ocean acidification seems to be the best kept secret in environmental science despite that it may, in a matter of a few decades, devastate our oceans.  Although I've worked at NRDC for six years (and covered environmental issues as a reporter for years before that) I knew virtually nothing about ocean acidification before NRDC Films began making the movie in conjunction with Lisa Suatoni, a scientist in NRDC's ocean's program. 

That goes for most of the people I know: the organic food eating, Prius driving, urban professionals whom one expects to be well aware of every looming environmental crisis.

That knowledge gap seems particularly weird once you start talking to the scientists who work on this issue.  They are FREAKED OUT.   They are so alarmed about what the future holds for the oceans (if we don't change our carbon emitting ways) that they seem to be losing a battle against despair.

There ARE solutions, of course, but first, here's a basic explanation of ocean acidification: The atmosphere touches the ocean over about 70% of Earth's surface, so a significant percentage of the carbon dioxide we emit by burning fossil fuels ultimately mixes with ocean water.  That interaction produces carbonic acid.  The more CO2 we put into the atmosphere, the more CO2 ends up in the ocean and the higher ocean acidity goes.

The models show that unless we significantly cut CO2 emissions, ocean acidity will double compared to pre-industrial times by the end of the century.  As NRDC's Lisa Suatoni says in the film with characteristic understatement: "That is a big problem."

It's a big problem because it will mean that water in large parts of the ocean will be so acidic as to be corrosive to shells.   That includes the "shellfish," which probably first come to mind (lobsters, shrimp, crabs, etc.), but perhaps more significant, the small, shelled creatures such as plankton and corals that help form the foundation of the ocean food web.

What happens if thousands of shelled species can't build their shells?  Scientists aren't entirely sure, but the likely scenario isn't pretty. (To learn more about acidification, check out this NRDC web page.)

So if ocean acidification is about to kill off our coral reefs and contribute significantly to an unraveling of the ocean food web (an unraveling that could have huge implications for how the human race feeds itself), how come you've never heard of it before? What explains that knowledge gap between the scientific community and the light green world of average environmentally conscious citizens?

Part of the answer seems to be that there was a peculiar, collective lapse on the part of the scientific community.  Although the chemistry of ocean acidification is quite straightforward and has been understood for many decades, it was only about five years ago that scientists started to think rigorously about the biology. Until then, they hadn't considered what rapidly rising acidity would mean for life in the ocean.

One theory I've heard to explain that lapse is that scientists have been preoccupied with global warming, and since the ocean's ability to absorb carbon dioxide actually slows the pace of global warming, the fact that large amounts of CO2 were going into the ocean was considered (at least in a superficial way) a GOOD thing.  Were it not for the ocean absorbing about a quarter of the CO2 we've emitted since the industrial revolution (and otherwise keeping the planet cool), Earth would already have the climate now predicted for 2050.

Add to the mix the fact that ocean issues are generally out of sight and therefore out of mind, and you see how we got to this weird point at which even opinion leaders are almost totally unaware of one of the most grave and immediate environmental threats we face.

My hope is that our new film, ACID TEST, will help get us out of that situation; that it will help to put ocean acidification at the top of the agenda. Not just the agenda at ocean policy conferences, but at the dinner tables of all those Whole Food shopping, bike commuting urban professionals I know whose engagement is vital if we're to have any hope of getting out of this mess.

And there IS a way out of this mess if we act quickly.  The most important step is to accelerate our transition to a new energy economy.  We simply need to power our lives without emitting huge quantities of CO2.  But we can also help the ocean defend itself against the twin attacks of global warming and ocean acidification by making sure its systems are as healthy as possible.  That's why marine protected areas (like national parks in the ocean) and sustainable fishing practices are so important.

So is there hope?

Well, as Bruce Steele, a fisherman we interviewed for ACID TEST says wisely at the end of the film: "I have hope.  You can't fish and not have hope."

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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