I often get asked the question "how will ocean acidification affect our lives ... why should we care?" I find myself talking about impacts to fisheries, declining revenues, and limited seafood choices. And that's accurate - after all, rising ocean acidity impairs shell growth, making it more difficult for shelled animals (like shellfish) to survive, and that will have a ripple effect throughout the entire ocean food chain.
But I have to admit that I'm puzzled by my answer - and its level of practicality - because it doesn't completely resonate with me. It's not that I don't care about shellfish, or fisheries, or my annual summer lobster feast - because I do. In fact, much of my professional effort goes towards maintaining healthy, sustainable fisheries in the United States.
It's just that when I think about why I really worry about ocean acidification - how it affects me personally - a different answer comes to mind.
I think about the dismay I felt last year when I took my kids snorkeling for the very first time on a coral reef in the Caribbean. I think about my kid's utter delight at seeing a sprinkling of colorful fish and the occasional curious sea turtle, and about my horror at the terribly degraded condition of the reefs. I found myself faking enthusiasm a lot that week during those snorkels. I didn't want to spoil their exhilaration with the reality that the reefs were a fraction of their former glory. This was the first time that I could so clearly see how my generation is denying the next of some of the great wonders of nature, and it was deeply disturbing. There are many local causes for coral reef decay (e.g., overfishing and sediment runoff from coastal development), however the mounting stress from ocean acidification may well be terminal.
Ocean acidification is a second impact of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and the process is surprisingly simple. About ¼ to 1/3 of the carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels is absorbed by the seas. As carbon dioxide enters the ocean, it reacts with sea water to form an acid. This acid poses a very direct stress to organisms with shells, as it is corrosive. However, it presents a physiological stress to a range of other organisms as well. Since the industrial revolution, the oceans have become 30% more acidic. If we continue to pollute as we are now, ocean acidity will more than double by the end of the century.
NRDC explores the phenomenon of ocean acidification in a new film, ACID TEST: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification - which will premiere on Discovery's Planet Green tomorrow, August 12 at 10:30 pm eastern (and re-airs throughout the month). With narration from Sigourney Weaver and interviews with leading scientists in the field, this film not only explains the science of ocean acidification and its implications for life on earth, but it also tackles the often less discussed ethical dimensions of its impacts.
After viewing ACID TEST, Bruce Steele, the commercial fisherman interviewed in the film said "how can a message so terrifying be made so beautiful?" His comments capture a fundamental message of the film: we are not only threatening the health of marine ecosystems and fisheries worldwide, we are putting the vast beauty of the ocean at grave risk.
For local show times and more information go to: http://www.nrdc.org/acidtest