Ocean acidification is the name given to the ongoing decrease in the pH of the Earth's oceans, caused by their uptake of anthropogenic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Between 1751 and 1994 surface ocean pH is estimated to have decreased from approximately 8.179 to 8.104, a change of −0.075 on the logarithmic pH scale which corresponds to an increase of 18.9% in H+ (acid) concentration. By the first decade of the 21st century however, the net change in ocean pH levels relative to the pre-industrial level was about -0.11, representing an increase of some 30% in "acidity" (ion concentration) in the world's oceans.
The carbon cycle describes the fluxes of carbon dioxide (CO2) between the oceans, terrestrial biosphere, lithosphere, and the atmosphere. Human activities such as land-use changes, the combustion of fossil fuels, and the production of cement have led to a new flux of CO2 into the atmosphere. Some of this has remained there; some has been taken up by terrestrial plants, and some has been absorbed by the oceans.
Dissolving CO2 in seawater increases the hydrogen ion (H+) concentration in the ocean, and thus decreases ocean pH.
A July 2010 article in Scientific American quoted marine geologist William Howard of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Center in Hobart, Tasmania stating that "the current rate of ocean acidification is about a hundred times faster than the most rapid events" in the geologic past. Research at the University of South Florida has shown that in the 15-year period 1995-2010 alone, acidity has increased 6 percent in the upper 100 meters of the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Alaska.
Changes in ocean chemistry can have extensive direct and indirect effects on organisms and their habitats. One of the most important repercussions of increasing ocean acidity relates to the production of shells and plates out of calcium carbonate (CaCO3). This process is called calcification and is important to the biology and survival of a wide range of marine organisms. Calcification involves the precipitation of dissolved ions into solid CaCO3 structures, such as coccoliths (individual plates of calcium carbonate formed by coccolithophores like single-celled algae, which are arranged around them in a coccosphere). After they are formed, such structures are vulnerable to dissolution unless the surrounding seawater contains saturating concentrations of carbonate ions.
The saturation state of seawater for a mineral (known as Ω) is a measure of the thermodynamic potential for the mineral to form or to dissolve, and is described by the following equation:
Here Ω is the product of the concentrations (or activities) of the reacting ions that form the mineral (Ca2+and CO2-3), divided by the product of the concentrations of those ions when the mineral is at equilibrium (Ksp), that is, when the mineral is neither forming nor dissolving. In seawater, a natural horizontal boundary is formed as a result of temperature, pressure, and depth, and is known as the saturation horizon, or lysocline. Above this saturation horizon, Ω has a value greater than 1, and CaCO3 does not readily dissolve. Most calcifying organisms live in such waters. Below this depth, Ω has a value less than 1, and CaCO3 will dissolve. However, if its production rate is high enough to offset dissolution, CaCO3 can still occur where Ω is less than 1. The carbonate compensation depth occurs at the depth in the ocean where production is exceeded by dissolution.
Calcium carbonate occurs in 2 common polymorphs: aragonite and calcite. Aragonite is much more soluble than calcite, with the result that the aragonite saturation horizon is always nearer to the surface than the calcite saturation horizon. This also means that those organisms that produce aragonite may possibly be more vulnerable to changes in ocean acidity than those that produce calcite. Increasing CO2 levels and the resulting lower pH of seawater decreases the saturation state of CaCO3 and raises the saturation horizons of both forms closer to the surface. This decrease in saturation state is believed to be one of the main factors leading to decreased calcification in marine organisms, as it has been found that the inorganic precipitation of CaCO3 is directly proportional to its saturation state.
Calcification Impacts on Ocean Organisms
Although the natural absorption of CO2 by the world's oceans helps mitigate the climatic effects of anthropogenic emissions of CO2, it is believed that the resulting decrease in pH will have negative consequences, primarily for oceanic calcifying organisms. These span the food chain from autotrophs to heterotrophs and include organisms such as coccolithophores, corals, foraminifera, echinoderms, crustaceans and molluscs. As described above, under normal conditions, calcite and aragonite are stable in surface waters since the carbonate ion is at supersaturating concentrations. However, as ocean pH falls, so does the concentration of this ion, and when carbonate becomes undersaturated, structures made of calcium carbonate are vulnerable to dissolution. Even if there is no change in the rate of calcification, therefore, the rate of dissolution of calcareous material increases.
Research has already found that corals, coccolithophore algae, coralline algae, foraminifera, shellfish and pteropods experience reduced calcification or enhanced dissolution when exposed to elevated CO2. The Royal Society of London published a comprehensive overview of ocean acidification, and its potential consequences, in June 2005. However, some studies have found different response to ocean acidification, with coccolithophore calcification and photosynthesis both increasing under elevated atmospheric pCO2, an equal decline in primary production and calcification in response to elevated CO2 or the direction of the response varying between species. Recent work examining a sediment core from the North Atlantic found that while the species composition of coccolithophorids has remained unchanged for the industrial period 1780 to 2004, the calcification of coccoliths has increased by up to 40% during the same time. While the full ecological consequences of these changes in calcification are still uncertain, it appears likely that many calcifying species will be adversely affected. When exposed in experiments to pH reduced by 0.2 to 0.4, larvae of a temperate brittlestar, a relative of the common sea star, fewer than 0.1 percent survived more than eight days. There is also a suggestion that a decline in the coccolithophores may have secondary effects on climate, contributing to global warming by decreasing the Earth's albedo via their effects on oceanic cloud cover.
Aside from calcification, organisms may suffer other adverse effects, either directly as reproductive or physiological effects (e.g. CO2-induced acidification of body fluids, known as hypercapnia), or indirectly through negative impacts on food resources. Ocean acidification may also force some organisms to reallocate resources away from productive endpoints such as growth in order to maintain calcification. It has even been suggested that ocean acidification will alter the acoustic properties of seawater, allowing sound to propagate further, increasing ocean noise and impacting animals that use sound for echolocation or communication. However, as with calcification, as yet there is not a full understanding of these processes in marine organisms or ecosystems.
Leaving aside direct biological effects, it is expected that ocean acidification in the future will lead to a significant decrease in the burial of carbonate sediments for several centuries, and even the dissolution of existing carbonate sediments. This will cause an elevation of ocean alkalinity, leading to the enhancement of the ocean as a reservoir for CO2 with moderate (and potentially beneficial) implications for climate change as more CO2 leaves the atmosphere for the ocean.
For more information and reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ocean_acidification
Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License and Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License.)