The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a major report this week, addressing ocean acidification head on for the first time. Ocean acidification is just as big a problem as severe storms, droughts, heat waves, wildfires, crop failures, disease and ocean circulation changes that are driven by global temperature rise. Just as with these other threats, the need for solutions is urgent. The good news is that there are already solutions at hand – all that’s needed is leaders willing to push for them.
Ten years ago, scientists first reported that sea snails’ shells became weak and vulnerable in acidified seawater. Since then, our knowledge has grown enough and the implications are serious enough to elevate ocean acidification to the international level.
It’s wonderful to see how quickly the science community has been able to gather hard evidence proving that ocean acidification is happening, and that it is a real danger for marine ecosystems. Thanks to the pioneering work of climate change researchers, oceanographers knew where and how to look in the ocean for carbon pollution, and we had reams of historical data that helped us figure out what kinds of new experiments and equipment are needed to study ocean acidification.
Yet it’s clear that the work is not done.
The IPCC’s report also considers which human communities are most vulnerable, and how people can adapt to the changes. So far there are only a few scientifically studied instances where human communities have been harmed by ocean acidification: shellfish growers in the Pacific Northwest, and impacts on fishermen in New England. Yet we know anecdotally acidification affects a huge number of people and seafood businesses around the world.
Scientists are using theory and models to identify who else could be vulnerable and what changes they can make now, knowing that ocean acidification will continue until we address and reduce carbon pollution. States like Washington and Maine are responding in the meantime, putting in place measures that enable coastal businesses to thrive by tackling local pollution that makes acidification worse.
I am optimistic that science and smart policies will help us win this race and avoid problems from ocean acidification before they become more widespread. Even though what we know about how species and communities will respond to ocean acidification is just a proverbial drop in the bucket, our understanding is growing every day. Future IPCC reports will surely have more to say on ocean acidification, as well as the array of actions available to us. IN the meantime, we have a lot of work to do.
View Ocean Conservancy’s slideshow: Changing chemistry: The people impacted by ocean acidification.