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At Copenhagen global warming conference, alarms on ocean acidification

At the Copenhagen global warming conference, researchers have been seeking attention to what's often been an "orphan" issue in the climate change debate: increasing ocean acidity and its risks for fisheries.

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Commercial fishermen and other mariners join together to raise awareness of ocean acidification caused by fossil fuel emissions, in Homer, Alaska, on September 6.

Newscom/File

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Walk the halls at the cavernous Bella Conference center and it's no surprise that global warming gets all the buzz, all the time. Carbon dioxide's other effect, to increase the acidity of sea water, is a bit like the toddler constantly tugging at the trouser legs of its elders, asking: "What about me?"

On Monday, the UN Convention on Biological Diversity attempted to strengthen that tug by releasing a "synthesis report" on ocean acidification. The oceans' acidity has increased 30 percent over the last 250 years. But at current carbon-dioxide emission rates from factories, power plants, and other human activities, ocean acidity could increase by 150 percent by 2050, according to the survey of recent research on the subject.

If that occurs, it would represent an increase some 100 times faster than ocean life has experienced in the last 20 million years – a rate that outpaces the ability of shell-building marine life to adapt to the shift through evolution. As the oceans become more acidic, they eat into stores of carbonate minerals dissolved in seawater. Many ocean animals use various forms of these carbonates to build shells, or in the case of corals, to generate the skeletons they live in and that form coral reefs.

Humans rely on many of these animals indirectly, since they serve as food for large fish. And they rely on some of them directly as food – lobsters, clams, oysters, conch, and a range of other high-value creatures. In the case of corals, reefs provide a dual benefit as nurseries for fish, and as a first barrier against coastal erosion from high waves and storm surges.

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