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Beyond Shellfish, Ocean Acidification is Bad for People

Ocean Acidification and Human Effect

Lisa Suatoni, Senior Scientist, New York

There’s a predictable arc to many environmental debates.

Step 1: Scientists observe a change in the natural world due to human activity.

Step 2: A discussion ensues about what this change might mean for the natural world. Will it challenge the prosperity, or even the survival, of this or that species of plant or animal? This phase of the debate is well underway before we finally arrive at

Step 3: What does this observed change mean for people? That last one is usually the prerequisite for corrective action.

The climate change debate is finally arriving at this third stage, with unsettling predictions about populations displaced by sea-level rise, drought and storm damage, etc. But when it comes to “the other carbon problem,” ocean acidification, the discussion remains stuck between steps 1 and 2.

So let’s just cut to the chase: As with most major environmental disturbances (or upheavals), ocean acidification is, and will be, bad for people too.

To recap, about a quarter of the carbon dioxide people put into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the ocean, where it forms carbonic acid. The more fossil fuels people burn, the more we change the pH, and ‘acidify’ the ocean. Geochemists are fairly certain that at the current fossil-fuel burn rate, ocean acidity will double compared to preindustrial times by the turn of the century.

That’s likely to be a big problem for many marine life forms, particularly those that live in shells, such as corals, crabs and oysters. Animals that depend on these creatures for food are also at risk. Which, in turn (here’s Step 3), means it’s a big problem for us. The ocean, after all, is a vital food source for people on earth; a source that over 1 billion people depend on every day for their protein.

The human impacts of rising ocean acidity have already begun. Consider oyster farmers in the Pacific Northwest, who have seen over 90 percent of their oyster “spat” (their term for baby oysters) die off when corrosive waters upwell from the deep Pacific onto the continental shelf. In the past several years, hatcheries in Oregon and Washington have been struggling to adapt, shutting off ocean water-valves whenever pH plunges. Within 50 years, however, the waters of the Pacific Northwest may be corrosive year-round.

Forgive the metaphor, but oyster larvae are canaries in the coal mine. And so, therefore, are oyster farmers. How much longer will they be able to adapt to rising acidity in vulnerable regions like the Pacific Northwest?  No one knows.

Alaskan king crab may be next. They have shown sensitivity to lower pH, and pockets of acidic water are beginning to show up in their habitats. Alaskan-king-crab fisherman expressed anger recently when they were docked (literally) by the government shutdown, which made crabbing permits unavailable for a few days. Imagine their pain if the crab populations that their livelihood is based upon begin to dwindle from rising acidity and ocean temperature.

In New Bedford, Mass., upward of 80 percent of fishing revenues come from sea scallops, another shelled organism that may be threatened by increasingly corrosive waters. Worldwide, nearly a quarter of all marine species live in tropical coral reefs, which are disappearing as a result of carbon dioxide pollution and local stressors. What happens to these species when their habitat is gone? And what happens to the millions of people who depend on them for food and income?

To avert disaster, the first thing people need is more information to form a clearer understanding of the profound changes that are taking place.

That means building the global scientific network to monitor changes in the ocean’s vital signs: pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen. The effort can start with a bare bones network in the most vulnerable sites like the Pacific Northwest of the U.S., the sub-Arctic, and the coral triangle. Carefully designed research at these sites will help local communities understand what is at risk and how best to mitigate the harm.

Scientists know that climate change has a long, built-in, lag time, which means it will keep getting worse for decades even as people reduce carbon emissions. But ocean acidification is different. Cutting carbon dioxide emissions will very quickly slow changes to ocean pH. That fact should give people some hope.

No one wants fishing communities and economies to see their way of life disappear. The faster people understand how ocean acidification poses a threat to that way of life, the better our chance of protecting it.

To learn more about ocean acidification, watch NRDC’s Acid Test (video).

Photo Credit: Ocean Acidification/shutterstock


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Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on December 7, 2013

There is sufficient information out there.  Information is not the problem, it’s disinformation from fossil fuels and the disinterest of a public who has head up butt saying won’t happen to me and change is too inconvenient.  Call a spade a spade!

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on December 7, 2013

Lisa, there’s a disconnect here:

That means building the global scientific network to monitor changes in the ocean’s vital signs: pH, temperature and dissolved oxygen…Carefully designed research at these sites will help local communities understand what is at risk and how best to mitigate the harm.

Mitigate the harm to ourselves, or to the ecosystem as well? If so, we must reduce carbon emissions drastically on a global scale, and NRDC has yet to come up with a realistic scenario for doing so.

You feature Ken Caldeira in your “Acid Test” video – the same Ken Caldeira who recently co-authored a letter directed to your organization, among others, which includes the assessment that:

While it may be theoretically possible to stabilize the climate without nuclear power, in the real world there is no credible path to climate stabilization that does not include a substantial role for nuclear power.

NRDC’s wholly inadequate and fallacious response to this plea from four of the world’s top climatolgists is written by three attorneys, a public affairs administrator and one physicist. It claims carbon emissions reductions from renewables and efficiency improvements are sufficient to address climate change without one iota of quantitative justification. David Goldstein, Ph.D., the one scientist involved, even went so far as to admit in a 2008 paper titled, Extreme Efficiency: How Far Can We Go If We Really Need To? that:

The careful reader will note that this paper has not yet posited an answer to the question posed in the title…The research to support a quantitative estimate of how far energy use can be lowered if we really needed to does not yet exist, nor is there a well-articulated methodology to guide such research.

So it’s apparently NRDC’s position that we’ll have to wait until the caca really hits the fan to see how much efficiency can help  – a ludicrously naive and shortsighted approach to dealing with the largest problem humankind has ever faced.

It’s well past time for the NRDC to admit that nuclear’s shortcomings are dwarfed by the climate challenge before us, and it represents the only real hope of preserving the planet as we know it.

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on December 13, 2013

As usual, more disinformation and outright distortions from the “green energy” movement.

There is no way in hell the ocean will ever become acidic, but it can become less basic (alkaline). The use of “acidic” is unquestionably yet another example of using words to scare people into going along with an underlying philosophy being foisted on the public. If the underlying philosophy were legitimate, there would be no reason to employ “voodoo” science to purposefully scare folks with non-problems.

The oceans are experiencing problems, but becoming less alkaline from increased levels of the trace gas CO2 is more-or-less bug dust. To name a few major problems: the destruction of estuaries, man dumping vast amounts of sewage and garbage into the seas, over fishing. That is where our limited resources need to be applied as opposed to make believe boogey-men.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on December 13, 2013


Another example of “not me” thinking.  Ocean acidification is a major player.  That doesn’t mean the other problems are not worthy of attention however to denegrate the reality of acidification is shear willfull not me stupidity!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on December 13, 2013

It is not possible for the ocean to become acidic; no physical way neutralize the alkalinity of the ocean.

Try actually using science and the language properly.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on December 14, 2013

Bullcrap, that’s the same kind of thinking as “there’s so many fish in the sea we can never fish them out” and resulted in the collapse of the cod fishery, the severe decline of the bluefin tuna etc. or on land the loss of the bison herds or the passenger pigeon.  Chemically examples are the atmosphere is so big we can’t hurt it and yet we’ve managed acid rain and ozone depletion.  Must an actual disaster happen before the stupid actually wake up?  Acidification is a reality and idiotic naysayers simply hold back the efforts that would go towards preventing a disaster instead of having to pick up the peices after.  Time and again people have proven beyond any shadow of doubt that willful stupidity will overcome the resiliency of nature.  Learn some real science and history yourself!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on December 14, 2013

You really need to take a remedial chemistry course. It is not physically possible to turn the ocean acidic. Kindly stop with the melodramatic and try actually understanding science.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on December 16, 2013

Really, prove it, do the stoichiometry!

Michael Keller's picture
Michael Keller on December 16, 2013

The ocean’s PH is somewhere around 8.1 while the mass is staggering. The amount of material required to drive the oceans HP below 7.0 (neutral) is equally staggering. Furthermore, the concentration of CO2 in the atmoshere is around 550 parts per million and applying Dalton’s law of partial pressures reveals that such CO2 concentrations (or anything that man can add in the future) is incapable of achieving anything remotely capable driving the oceans anywhere near even a PH of below 7.0.

I do not suffer fools lightly and you are a fool.

Max Kennedy's picture
Max Kennedy on December 16, 2013

Really, only a blind fool says that with the evidence already in regarding shell deformations, coral depletion etc that acidification can’t be happening.  Better look beyond the chemistry to the biology of the life forms being affected.  Acidification is a process that is having substantial impact and only a par-blind idiot would reject it!

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