Changing Ocean Chemistry

September 16, 2009
“As individual citizens, we must also be part of the solution.” - Jean-Michel Cousteau

When my father, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, first donned newly invented SCUBA equipment over 60 years ago, he and his dive partners opened a new frontier in ocean exploration. They truly transformed the world’s view of our water planet. At that time a fundamental principle of ecology--that everything is connected--was generally understood (although ecology was not yet even a common word), but the deep and subtle connections between humanity and nature were not clear. Rachel Carson was one of the first to provide examples of such connections in her book, Silent Spring. More recently Dr. Theo Colborn has shown us the consequences of synthetic chemicals on our endocrine system and unborn generations in her book, Our Stolen Future. And now one of the most benign of chemicals, carbon dioxide, a component of every exhaled breath, is having a profound impact on our planet and our lives as a consequence of our use of fossil fuels.

The oceans play a vital role in the Earth’s carbon cycle and much of the world’s emitted carbon dioxide ends up in the ocean where it is stored. Since the 1800s, one-third of anthropogenic CO2 emissions has been absorbed by the oceans; this is good news for mitigating the CO2 being released into the atmosphere, but it has come at a price; the oceans are becoming more acidic. Many scientists are now asking what this means for the future of our oceans. Scientific research indicates that the impacts could be dramatic with many marine ecosystems already showing signs of stress and damage.

Coral species that build reefs and other shelled organisms are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification and shifting ocean chemistry. Increasing acidity impedes the ability of shelled organisms to form calcium shells and skeletal structures, and research shows that this is likely to reduce coral reef growth. Many of these organisms are vital to the proper functioning of marine food chains.

Until now, ocean acidification has received little attention on an international scale. On September 3, however, in an unprecedented meeting, the United Nations convened an international panel of experts on ocean acidification to increase awareness and to discuss mitigation options. This panel brought together key stakeholders who are involved with the oceans, climate change, and sustainable development and was an important step in furthering discussion of an international ocean acidification policy.

At the meeting, expert panel members suggested that the long-term impacts of ocean acidification are unclear, but continued research will unveil the extent of ocean acidification and its impacts. Researchers declared that there must be significant reductions in current emission levels in order to slow the effects of ocean acidification.

In addition to emission reduction measures, scientists also suggest that other steps be taken to promote healthy marine ecosystems,which have shown to be more resilient than expected in the face of environmental changes. Establishment of marine protected areas and reserves and improved fisheries management may help to balance the negative impacts of ocean acidification.

Communication among scientists, policy makers, economists, local communities, and countries is critical to preventing and mitigating the impacts of ocean acidification, and this United Nations meeting was an essential step in the process. The hope is that continued discussions and developments will lead to an international policy to reduce emissions and to minimize and deal with the problems associated with ocean acidification.

As individual citizens, we must also be part of the solution. A few things you can do to reduce your emissions include using public transportation or riding a bike, reducing waste and recycling, eating less meat, and using energy-efficient light bulbs and household appliances. In addition, you can contact your local legislators and tell them that you support the development of marine protected areas and sustainable fishery policies. Unless we take urgent steps to reduce emissions, we could see, in our lifetime, the demise of our beautiful underwater ecosystems.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, President