Acidification

I’ve really been slacking on talking about the environment lately, for which I apologize. A lot of things have been going on, and while I am still (obviously) very concerned with and interested in environmental issues, I’ve been trying to balance a number of things on my plate, and the environment somehow slid to the side. (Kind of how it’s sliding to the side for the government, come to think of it.)

At any rate, I’ve decided to start an intermittent series highlighting ongoing environmental issues to get people thinking about them. The idea is not that these posts will be wholly informative, but rather than they will serve as quick hits to raise awareness about an issue so that people will seek out more information about the issue. And, perhaps, take action.

Today, I’m writing about ocean acidification. The pH balance of the world’s ocean has slowly been dropping since the 1700s, and there’s pretty clear evidence that it is occurring in response to industrial processes. Most notably, increases in carbon dioxide production have been pretty clearly linked with the lower pH of the ocean, because it’s the dissolution of CO2 in seawater which is leading to acidification.

In fact, organisms in the ocean are a critical part of the carbon cycle, and the ocean is often treated as a giant carbon sink, because that’s basically what it is (among other things). However, our production of carbon dioxide appears to be outstripping the rate at which organisms can process it, which means that the ocean is starting to experience some problems.

From a purely environmental point of view, this is unfortunate, because we like the ocean.

I mean, look at that. The ocean is pretty flippin’ sweet, people. And things which threaten the health of the ocean are not sweet. Ocean acidification is threatening a number of microorganisms in the ocean, which means that biological diversity could take a hit. This is sad, because once things are gone, they are gone. And because unintended consequences can happen; the loss of one species may create a domino effect as organisms higher up on the food chain struggle to replace missing food sources, and so on.

A number of organisms are already showing clear signs of stress as a result of ocean acidification, especially shellfish. Which brings us to an immediate human issue: Things that people like to eat are dying. Lobsters. Clams. We don’t like things which disrupt fisheries because not only do they deprive us of tasty things, they also increase pressure on other food sources. Which can create a chain reaction on land as we respond to declining availability of delicious sea creatures.

Even if you aren’t a consumer of sea creatures for religious, ethical, allergy, or personal reasons, I think you can recognize that other people eat shellfish, and that those people are not going to stop consuming food from animal sources just because the shellfish are gone. They’re going to seek out protein on land, placing even more demands on industrial meat production, and this is not such a great thing, environmentally.

Damage to the ocean may also create environmental ripple effects which we haven’t foreseen. The ocean is a big place, and it plays a clear role in the global climate. I’m not sure we’re ready to disrupt that. Once things start going wrong, they can start snowballing, and if we realize the consequences, it may be too late to stop them. Hence, it would be better for us all to see if we can get a handle on this ocean acidification thing before we let it get much further.

What can you do about it? Well, the same measures we are using to fight global warming will have an impact on ocean acidification. That means indicating your support for tougher measures on greenhouse gases, supporting research which can address global warming, and doing your own small part to combat climate change. Yeah, turning lights off when you don’t need them isn’t going to make a big difference, but what if everyone did it?

The thing about activism is that you can engage in it on a lot of levels, at your personal level of comfort and ability. Maybe that’s spreading the word on the Internet about environmental issues and asking people to think about what they can do. Maybe that’s calling or writing elected officials to ask for better environmental legislation. Maybe that’s chaining yourself to the doors of a power plant to demand that they improve operating efficiency. Maybe that’s being a scientist who is actively studying climate change and ways to stop it. Do what works for you, and maybe we can solve this together. Aside from the real world problems we are encountering right now, we need to think about what kind of Earth we are leaving to folks who will inhabit it after us.