Friday, August 14, 2009

NPR's story on ocean acidification

The third and final part of NPR's series on the health of the oceans dealt with a topic scientists and conservationists are trying to push into the forefront of public consciousness - ocean acidification. The report makes some interesting points about the costs of acidification. For example, while the potential for acidification to dissolve the shells of some animals critical to the ecosystem is frequently mentioned when ocean acidification is discussed, but the NPR story interviews a scientist who fears that other animals may have an "energy tax" imposed by increasingly acidic waters. Many marine animals naturally expend energy getting rid of acid in their cells to maintain the right pH, and more acidic environments mean more energy will have to be spent on these processes. Marine biologist Eric Pane explains that this may result in less energy available for "growing and reproducing."

Whatever happens, it doesn't sound like it will be very good for us. Ecosystems change, but big disruptions caused by acidification might mean less food availability for humans. It's important to remember that environmentalists aren't always trying to spoil everyone's fun - as Sylvia Earle noted in a speech I attended a few months ago, ocean life will probably carry on in some form or another even if humans fail to protect it. It's humans who will struggle with sudden disruptions in the availability of food from the ocean, or with new ecosystems dominated by jellyfish, or dead coral reefs that don't lure visitors to tourism-dependent areas. Saving the oceans, Earle insisted, is saving ourselves.

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