While many of us only consider how carbon dioxide emissions are impacting our home and work lives, scientists are now seeing that our oceans are suffering, too.

According to recent research, carbon gases are wreaking havoc on our oceans, by making them more acidic and increasing temperatures.

Many of these concerns were addressed in the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference, or “Copenhagen Summit,” where scientists met to discuss their findings. Scientists are now seeing the following effects:

Ocean waters are taking on our carbon dioxide:

According to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) brief, “Carbon Dioxide and our Ocean Legacy,” the world’s oceans have absorbed 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide over the last 200 years! While this has reduced greenhouse gas effects, this transfer of carbon dioxide from the air to the water is changing our ocean’s chemistry for the worse.

Ocean Acidification

If each of us does our part to help curb our carbon footprint, we may very well be able to slow down the destruction being done to the world’s oceans.

Acidification of the oceans:

According to researchers, when seawater absorbs carbon dioxide the result is carbonic acid. This chemical alteration in the oceans’ seawater is resulting in a lowered pH. How dire this change in lowered pH will be is still uncertain but scientists are not hopeful that sea life will be able to survive if the oceans’ acid levels continue to increase; by 2100 our oceans’ acidity could more than double.

Marine life is being pressured:

As ocean water is increasing in acidity, this is creating increased pressures on marine life. Scientists are especially worried about sea creatures known as “ocean calcifiers,” which are animals and organisms such as corals that create and live in shells that could be easily destroyed by an acidic environment.

Ocean reefs are being destroyed: Ocean reefs provide vital fisheries and also are a primary source of ecotourism in many communities around the world. You don’t need to be a scientist to see the destruction that has occurred. Many snorkelers and SCUBA divers are now commenting on reef destruction, which researchers are attributing to increased carbon dioxide uptake in ocean waters.

Temperatures are rising:

Scientists are pointing to automobiles, smokestacks and other carbon emitters as one of the primary reasons that ocean temperatures are steadily rising. Scientists estimate that there is an 84% chance that human activities have resulted in gradual rise in Sea Surface Temperatures (SSTs) in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

The food chain is breaking:

One of the ways that marine life is being impacted is by breaks in the food chain. If sea life is suffering due to higher sea temps and chronic seawater acidosis, this will result in deaths of certain species and a break in the food chain. The northern Pacific Ocean’s ecosystem near Alaska and Russia is considered to be extremely vulnerable due to rising ocean temperatures.

Hurricanes are increasing in intensity:

Scientists are now studying the effect that rising ocean temperatures are having on hurricanes and blaming human behavior. The School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Georgia Tech and the National Center for Atmospheric Research discovered that the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes (storms with winds over 131 miles per hour) rose from approximately 10 per year in the 1970s to 18 per year in the 1990s. According to atmospheric scientist, Tom Wigley, “The important conclusion is that the observed SST increases in these hurricane breeding grounds cannot be explained by natural processes alone.”

While scientists and countries may argue over the best way to address the issue of carbon dioxide emissions and protecting our oceans, you can do your part. Start by making conscious choices that reduce carbon dioxide output. If each of us does our part to help curb our carbon footprint, we may very well be able to slow down the destruction being done to the world’s oceans.


Connie Prescott is a conservation writer who works with NRDC and other organizations to protect our health and environment. The complex issue of ocean acidification, and its interrelationships to our weather patterns and ecosystem, make it a emergency of monumental proportions.

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