Report from 2050: Our Acid Seas

Fisheries and corals succumb to ocean acidification, worsening the global food crisis

[Note: This was originally published on 13.7 Billion Years as part of "Reports from 2050," a series of imagined reports from the year 2050, based on current news, recent discoveries and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]

by Reynard Loki, 13.7 Billion Years

JANUARY 10, 2050 (Auckland) -- Forty-five years ago, in 2005, a study entitled "Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms" was published in the journal Nature. Though its findings were extremely frightening, it received little attention by the media.

The study was undertaken by almost 20 scientific and academic institutions, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Seattle, Washington; Laboratoire d'Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentations et Approches Numériques (LOCEAN), Plouzané, France; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, UCLA, Los Angeles, California; Frontier Research Center for Global Change, Yokohama, Japan; Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute, University of Bern, Switzerland; Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOS) Program, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey; and Max Planck Institut für Meteorologie, Hamburg, Germany.

According to the report's authors, "Today's surface ocean is saturated with respect to calcium carbonate, but increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are reducing ocean pH and carbonate ion concentrations, and thus the level of calcium carbonate saturation. Experimental evidence suggests that if these trends continue, key marine organisms -- such as corals and some plankton -- will have difficulty maintaining their external calcium carbonate skeletons...Our findings indicate that conditions detrimental to high-latitude ecosystems could develop within decades, not centuries as suggested previously."

Less than five decades later, their predictions -- based on 13 models of the ocean-carbon cycle used to assess calcium carbonate saturation under the IS92a "business-as-usual" scenario for future man-made carbon dioxide emissions -- have come true.

In 2010, Achim Steiner, then the head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said, "Ocean acidification is yet another red flag being raised, carrying planetary health warnings about the uncontrolled growth in greenhouse gas emissions," according to Reuters.

"About 25 percent of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, are absorbed by the seas, where it converts to carbonic acid," according to the Reuters article. "The pH value of the oceans, a scale from alkaline to acidic, has fallen 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution in a shift to acidity."

But neither the world's leaders nor the general public listened to such warnings, and as a result, the world's coral reefs and commercial fish stocks
have been devastated. Most marine animals that depend on the health of coral reefs -- about a quarter of all marine life on Earth -- have been declared extinct or threatened. Ocean acidity is on target to increase by 150% of its 2010 levels by the end of the century.

For the past five decades, humans have chosen the "business-as-usual" path of carbon dioxide emission, and as a result, the Earth's oceans are reeling from the greatest change in their chemistry in the last 65 million years, and it is fully man-made.

Shellfish like mussels, shrimp and lobsters are in extremely short supply as these animals cannot form their shells in their natural oceanic environment. The vast majority of them are now grown in a small number of high-tech food labs, which are expensive to maintain. As a result, market prices have skyrocketed. With the average price of lobster reaching upwards of 900 ameros per pound, shellfish are now eaten only by the super-rich.

Combined with the effects of overfishing, climate change, desertification and human overpopulation, the effects of ocean acidification have exacerbated the rapidly growing global food crisis -- particularly the over 1 billion people around the world who rely on fish as a main part of their diet.

"Part of the problem is education -- most humans have been unaware of the grave environmental situation that has plunged the world into several crises over the past fifty years," said Professor Ned Land of the Nautilus Underwater Ocean Observatory (NUOO), located about 300 miles west of Auckland in the Tasman Sea, via email.

Land noted a little-known 2011 Michigan State University study that found that most American college students did not grasp the scientific concept of the carbon cycle, one of the most important of Earth's natural cycles. As a result, Land said, "the vast majority of Americans -- and indeed, humans in general -- conducted their lives as if they were living in a bubble. And now, that bubble has finally popped."

image: Estimated change in annual mean sea surface pH between the pre-industrial period (1700s) and the present day (1990s). Δ pH here is in standard pH units. Calculated from fields of dissolved inorganic carbon and alkalinity from the Global Ocean Data Analysis Projectclimatology and temperature and salinity from the World Ocean Atlas (2005) climatology using Richard Zeebe's csys package. It is plotted here using a Mollweide projection (using MATLAB and the M_Map package). Note that the GLODAP climatology is missing data in certain oceanic provinces including the Arctic Ocean, the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Malay Archipelago. (credit: Plumbago, Wikipedia)

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