Climate Change 2013: Why the Arctic Ocean is Turning Into Acid

The Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Program (AMAP) has released a series of key findings about the effects acidification is having on the Arctic Ocean. What does this process mean for the oceans and the people who depend on them?

Every day, unimaginable quantities of coal and oil are burned to power our modern lives. The United States alone consumes over 18 million barrels of oil per day, and 42% of the electricity created in the U.S. comes from coal. Both coal and oil naturally contain large amounts of carbon, which is released into the atmosphere when it’s burned.

It is widely known that some of that carbon remains in the atmosphere and traps heat, creating a warming effect on our planet. Yet most people don’t realize that about a quarter of the carbon we burn everyday gets absorbed into the ocean. This creates chemical reactions that are making the oceans more and more acidic.

The Arctic Ocean is acidifying at a faster rate than most seawater bodies for two reasons: 1) The cold temperature creates a better opportunity for carbon dioxide to travel from the air to the water, and 2) The freshwater that is supplied to the Arctic Ocean through rivers and melting glaciers is less able to able to neutralize carbon dioxide than traditional salt water. 

There is evidence that the amount of carbon humans are putting into the ocean currently is greater than the amount released by natural forces during four historical widespread extinctions. During those times, massive amounts of species died out and new ones evolved to withstand the conditions.

The pH of oceans has already become 30% more acidic since the Industrial Revolution and this trend is expected to increase at a faster and faster rate if we do not minimize the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. 

This new environment is already making it harder for animals such as oysters, scallops, and clams to build the shells they need to survive. Fish eggs will also be more likely to not withstand new acidic conditions. These animals are integral to the rest of the food chain, and the chain of events that their destruction could set off remains to be seen.