CO2: silent enemy of the ocean

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By Synte Peacock

Our early 21st century lives are completely dependent on fossil fuels. We are currently burning so much coal, oil and gas on the planet that we are adding some 32 billion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. About half of this carbon dioxide stays put in the atmosphere, causing all manner of problems as it slowly warms the planet. The rest is taken up by photosynthesis on land, or absorbed by the ocean.

The ocean, however, doesn’t just quietly suck it up. Rather, it is responding to this extra burden of CO2 in a strange way: by changing its chemistry. As carbon dioxide is absorbed in seawater, a chemical reaction occurs.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) reacts with water (H2O) to produce something called carbonic acid (H2CO3):


This carbonic acid breaks apart, or “dissociates” in water, releasing both hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate (HCO3):


So the first surprising thing that happens when you add CO2 to seawater is that you end up with a lot of additional hydrogen ions floating around.

Some of these free hydrogen ions (H+) can combine with carbonate ions (CO32-) in the water to form more bicarbonate (HCO3).


So the carbonate ions (CO32-) – which there weren’t that many of to begin with – get used up. Bicarbonate (HCO3) – which there is plenty of already, thank you very much – increases.


Image by Joanie Kleypas

The pH is a measure of how acid or alkaline something is. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with values below 7 being considered “acidic” and above 7 being considered “alkaline”. Pure water has a pH of 7. Neither acid nor alkaline, but right in the middle, completely neutral. Add free hydrogen ions to a substance and you will move the pH down towards more acidic values (you may still be on the alkaline side of the scale, but if the pH is going down, you are trending towards more acidic values). So as carbon dioxide is dissolved in seawater and it sets off the chemical reactions above, H+ ions are released and the pH tends towards more acidic values. The average pH of the ocean is actually slightly above 8, so slightly alkaline. Since 1850, it has shifted towards lower pH (more acidic) values by about 0.1 pH units.


Image by Joanie Kleypas

A shift of 0.1 pH units might not sound like much, but it corresponds to a 30% increase in the concentration of hydrogen ions. It is a large enough change that we are already starting to see the first signs of these large-scale CO2-induced changes in ocean chemistry.

Over the course of the 21st century, the amount of CO2 we put into the atmosphere (assuming we stay on our present course to oblivion) will lower the ocean pH by another 0.3 to 0.5 units. Ocean pH has changed in the past, but never, barring catastrophes like meteor impacts, anything like as quickly as it is changing today. To survive large changes in water chemistry, creatures need time to adapt and to evolve to their new environment. Tens to hundreds of thousands of years might be enough; for all but the most rapidly evolving micro-organisms, a few decades certainly is not.

Under a natural (non-human) state of affairs, there is also a negative feedback that kicks in when the ocean becomes too acidic, to prevent a “runaway acid-bath”. On geological timescales, as carbon dioxide increases, so too does the weathering of rocks. The breakdown of continental rocks releases the minerals calcium (Ca2+) and carbonate (CO32-) into the ocean, thus replenishing the stuff that is ‘lost’ to the increasing H+ ion. This natural buffer prevents the oceans from ever moving too far towards the acid side of the pH scale, thus keeping things in check. The process is so effective that even with giant natural swings in atmospheric CO2, the acidity of the ocean can remain relatively unaffected, as the feedback kicks in to balance things out. The problem for us is that this feedback process takes place over thousands of years, not decades. There is no natural process that we know of that can bring ocean chemistry back into check in a matter or decades.

You might be wondering what all the fuss is about. If an esoteric thing called a carbonate ion decreases, so what? Well, we care about carbonate ions, because this is the stuff that shells are made of. When carbon dioxide in seawater goes up, carbonate ion concentration goes down (and vice versa). Take the carbonate away and you start to dissolve existing shells, and you also make it very difficult to build new shells.

There are two common forms of calcium carbonate: calcite and aragonite (both have the same chemical formula, CaCO3). Each of these forms has a different solubility in seawater (solubility measures how easily it will dissolve, and depends on the amount of carbonate present, and the depth). In the upper ocean there is a lot of carbonate floating around, so these minerals tend to form easily. In the deeper ocean, where there is less free carbonate, these minerals tend to dissolve. The temperature of water is another factor we need to think about, because temperature determines how much CO2 water can hold – the colder the water, the more CO2 it can absorb from the atmosphere. More dissolved CO2 means less CO32-, and therefore the tendency to dissolve carbonate minerals is more prevalent in polar waters.

There is an invisible horizon in the ocean that marks the boundary between waters that are corrosive to calcium carbonate, and those that are not (actually, there are two invisible horizons, one for each form of the mineral). In waters above this invisible horizon (that changes its depth with location), the critters are safe. There is enough spare carbonate ion here that they can continue life without fear of dissolution. These shallow waters are called “supersaturated”. In deeper waters (which don’t have enough spare carbonate ion) the waters are “under-saturated”, and the calcium carbonate dissolves. The boundary between the two is the “saturation horizon”. A large part of the reason for the deeper waters not having a lot of spare carbonate ions floating around is that there is a lot of dissolved CO2 down there: as creatures die and sink, they dissolve, releasing carbon dioxide back into the water column in the process.

As we continue adding CO2 to the ocean, the carbonate ions get gobbled up, and the invisible horizon, the “calcium carbonate saturation horizon”, rises up in the water column. The zone containing abundant carbonate ions gets squished into an ever-narrower zone. So a progressively smaller volume of the ocean is safe for life.  Because the ocean is not a simple layered fluid, but rather a vast and complex region of swirling currents and sinking and rising waters, the saturation horizon for the more sensitive aragonite is already at the surface in places. Such regions have no effective habitat left for organisms that make their living with these minerals. One example of this is off the west coast of North America, where deep currents pulled to the surface by the pattern of overlying winds are dragging up their carbonate-ion-deficient waters to the surface. Mollusks with aragonite shells who once made their homes here have now become chemical refugees, and have either perished or had to move on to more accommodating waters.

Creatures like foraminifera and coccolithophores are tiny plankton encased in calcite shells that float through the ocean in their countless billions. Others, such as corals and many mollusks choose aragonite to build their homes. Aragonite is some 50% more soluble in seawater than calcite, so if there is a deficiency of carbonate ions (CO32-) in the water column, it is the corals, and mollusks that will suffer first. In coming decades it is thought that the corals of the tropics and subtropics (which currently cover an area of some 1.28 million square kilometers) will suffer greatly – with implications not just for the reef structure itself, but for the host of organisms that make their living in the reefs. In addition to fish, sea urchins and sharks, some 1 billion people are dependent on coral reefs for their food and livelihoods. Tourists who like to swim and dive in these colorful waters fuel a coral reef tourism industry valued at some $30 billion annually.

It has been estimated that by the time atmospheric CO2 reaches some 550ppm (which will happen in the mid 21st century in the absence of major changes in the way we do business), calcification rates for corals will have decreased by 10-30%, and the situation will only worsen if CO2 continues to rise beyond that. The saturation horizon for aragonite will have risen by several hundred meters by the turn of the 21st century, and will have actually reached the surface in the Southern Ocean by this time.

So by 2100 we could be living in a world in which the entire Southern Ocean is under-saturated with respect to aragonite. Put simply, this means that many of those creatures with aragonite shells that find themselves in the Southern Ocean (the entire ocean south of about 40°S) at the end of this century will dissolve, a casualty of chemistry.


Photo credit: National Geographic Images.

The shelled organisms might be the most obvious casualties of ocean acidification, but those without shells might also be affected. The simple fact that CO2 concentration is increasing might affect all stages of the life cycle of many other creatures – in ways we are only just beginning to understand. For example, the combination of increased CO2 and decreased pH could have an effect on the respiration of larger marine animals, which take up oxygen from the seawater, and expel CO2 through their gills. Large marine animals appear to be much more sensitive to changes in their ambient CO2 than are land lubbers. It is thought that an increase in the CO2 of ambient water could acidify body tissues and fluids, and change the ability of the blood to transport oxygen. This could lower the rate of respiration and of protein synthesis (which could in turn impact other essential processes).  It remains to be seen whether larger marine life-forms are able to adapt to the increase in CO2 we are about to hit them with, or whether their fate will be a less happy one.

It is likely that there will be winners and losers as we continue our giant chemistry experiment with the ocean. There will certainly be shifts in the relative abundance of species as CO2 goes up and carbonate ion goes down. While the multitude of effects will be very difficult to predict or accurately model, they probably won’t be pretty.

The threat from acidification is like a silent freight train that we have already put in motion. Is it too late to stop it? We can put the brakes on, but cannot reverse the changes that we’ve already made. The pH change that has occurred so far is essentially irreversible in our lifetimes. Nature will take care of it – in a few thousand years. But that might be too late for the stunning diversity of life that currently graces our shallow coralline seas.  And the more CO2 we keep adding to the atmosphere, the more the ocean will continue to take up, continuing the downward spiral in pH. If we reach the point where the tiny creatures that form the basis of food-chains start to dissolve, the effects could ripple through oceanic life.

Marine Networks- from Colorado to Fiji

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By Vicki Nichols Goldstein, Colorado Ocean Coalition Founder


When Richard Akhtar from the Matava Eco Resort  on Kundava Island in Fiji donated a week diving trip to the 2012 Making WAVES Gala, I never thought my husband, Bruce, a CU Professor, would be the winning bidder.  This kick-started a collaborative research project with an eye towards learning about Locally Managed Marine Areas (LMMAs) by developing partnerships with conservationists and researchers in the South Pacific.

The LMMA Network has projects in eight countries in the South Pacific and operates in over 600 communities. An LMMA enables village communities to make their own decisions about which fishing methods and other activities can or cannot be carried out in their communal waters, and then designates a portion of their marine areas as no-take marine protected areas. It’s a way to enhance local knowledge and capacity to improve food security and protect the amazing biodiversity of coral reefs.

A large portion of the Fiji trip (after the diving) was devoted to attending the 12th Pacific Science Inter-Congress.  We attended sessions where LMMA community organizers shared lessons learned about their community-based adaptive management work in Fiji, the Solomons, Torres Strait Australia, the Philippines, PNG, and Palau. Bruce also presented his findings about effective network coordination from project work he has conducted in the U.S. A conference highlight was the “Tok Story” evening where member country representatives shared stories about how they facilitate community capacity building and conservation.

Being a new inland community based marine conservation group, 1000 miles from the nearest ocean, inspires us to learn from the world as we explore solutions and innovative approaches to protect the ocean that truly supports us.

And, thank you Richard for your NEW 2013 Making WAVES contribution to a Diving Week at Matava.  On September 21, at the Making WAVES Gala, you might be lucky enough to be the winning bidder. After being there, I can say this is one auction item to keep your eyes-on. It truly is a magical place.

By Vicki Nichols Goldstein, Founder, Colorado Ocean Coalition


There’s Waves in Them Hills! Making Waves in Colorado

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I stood dripping wet, surfboard under arm, barefoot on rocks.

I had never seen so much water coming at me so fast. I have spent my life in the ocean, but this was crazy. The Snake River was running full throttle and the Lunch Counter rapid, so named because that’s where boaters eat it, looked angry. I studied the standing wave. How strange to ride a wave that doesn’t move!

There were some local guys walking back up, placing their steps among rocks and reeds. I had seen them surf a little bit. They did funny chop hops and ollies, little moves that looked more party trick than power surfer. My attempts at full rail carves must have seemed silly to them. I kept looking for tubes that weren’t there. I would slip out the back of the wave get washed down past the rapid where a whirlpool (do you call them that?) would suck me down and rip my board out from under me.

“This is crazy,” I said. “I’ve never surfed in a river.”

They looked at me quizzically. The guy with the duct-taped board—apparently tele-skiers aren’t the only fans of the silver stuff—spoke.

“Really? We’ve never surfed in the ocean.”

We stood there trying to get our heads around the other person’s understanding of surfing. I wondered if all those same millions of gallons of water rushing past us would end up shaping the river mouth sandbar where I had grown up in Ventura, California.

It occurred to me I had been surfing in a river all my life, or at least where a river ends. In heavy rain years the sandbar was best. Perfect waves would peel along it for hundreds of yards. The ocean would go chocolate milk, huge boulders and whole tree trunks would roll around in the lineup. A baby rattlesnake once floated by on a tangle of bamboo. The river’s power to move things was apparent.

And it still is. Now, during rains I see every street as a little river, and every storm drain deposits trash on the beach instead of sand. It’s easy to get frustrated with the people who live upriver from me, whose discards are washing down onto my home beach. But I’m upstream from someone too.

And it’s not a stream, it’s a cycle. Every year steelhead trout swim from rivers out into the ocean, become salmon, and eventually returning to spawn in their home tributary. Bears, eagles, and up to 140 species connected to them benefit from the annual wave of nutrients carried from the ocean by spawning salmon.

Just as rivers were once the corridors of transportation, commerce, communication, they are now the corridors of ecological impact. The salmon won’t reach their inland terminus if they’re overfished in the ocean, before they ever head upstream. That’s why it’s important to support well-managed, sustainable fisheries with our purchases.

I’ve contribute to ocean problems like everyone, whether that’s my carbon emissions acidifying a distant islander’s lagoon, or my sushi dinner pushing an already depleted species closer to the brink. (I don’t do that anymore. More on that here.)
Every piece of plastic thrown away has a good chance of making it into a waterway, and too often, the ocean. (More on that here).

All our actions, not matter where they take place, almost can’t avoid impacting the ocean—it covers 72 percent of the planet.

That’s why our focus at One World One Ocean  includes places far from the beach. (The winner of our World Oceans Day video contest, Non-coastal City category was James Griffith, an 18-year-old kayaker from Denver.

We’re attending Colorado Ocean Coaltion’s Making Waves Ocean Symposium here in Boulder next week because it’s making the connection between inland and ocean clearer. And when that happens we think there will be a wave of ocean support from everyone from flatlanders to mountain dwellers. Heck, maybe some teleskiers will show up at our next beach cleanup.

The Colorado Ocean Coalition’s Event Making Waves will take place October 20, and 21. The event has four different parts. An Ocean Film Festival, a European Ocean Luncheon, an Ocean Symposium, and an Ocean Celebration fundraising gala. The multi-faceted event will feature world-renowned ocean protectors including the incredible Jean-Michel Cousteau. For more information visit

 Ted Reckas is One World One Ocean’s Online Editor. After earning a degree in literature/writing at UC San Diego, Ted has written for The Huffington Post, The Surfer’s Journal, Climbing Magazine, Malibu Magazine, The Snowboard Journal, and others. He has covered the largest technical rescue in the history of Denali mountaineering, and a four-month tour of South America during the financial collapse of 2002. As Associate Editor for the Laguna Beach Independent, he covered the 2010 earthquake on location in Haiti, the Marine Life Protection Act in Southern California, and homelessness in Laguna Beach, as well as winning 2010 Orange County Press Photo of the Year. A lifelong ocean enthusiast, Ted looks forward to introducing his new son Cedar to the ocean next summer.

Making Waves: An inland ocean movement is growing in Colorado

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Our oceans are in trouble, and everyone can help them recover. We are all connected to the oceans, from the oxygen we breathe to the water we drink. That’s what I keep reminding myself since moving to Denver after graduate studies in Rhode Island (the “Ocean State”) and my childhood along the California coast. Even in landlocked states like Colorado, choices we make every day can help marine life – particularly in terms of sustainable seafood and renewable energy options. As an artist and ocean advocate, I am beginning my marine conservation career by using fine art sculpture to inspire policy makers and the public to be better stewards of our oceans. Even from a mile above sea level and over 1,000 miles from the coast, I believe that art has a unique potential to instill in us an emotional connection to the fragile beauty of marine ecosystems and inspire us to act to preserve and restore them. That’s why I am proud to bring my work to Denver’s Art District on Sante Fe through my new Inland Sea Studio, where I am working to raise awareness about ocean issues in the heart of Colorado. But neither art or I can do it alone. An inland ocean movement is gaining momentum thanks to the Colorado Ocean Coalition – a nonprofit project of The Ocean Foundation founded by Vicki Nichols Goldstein that is dedicated to creating, uniting and empowering a Colorado coalition with shared values, goals and actions to promote healthy oceans through education and community engagement. This weekend, ocean lovers, scientists, families, community members and ocean advocates will gather in Boulder, CO for the Colorado Ocean Coalition’s Making Waves 2012: Attitudes at Altitude – a two-day ocean film festival and conservation symposium. Honoring legendary ocean explorer and keynote speaker for the event Jean-Michel Cousteau (son of Jacques Cousteau), Making Waves will feature talks by an unprecedented group of notable marine researchers and conservation professionals during the Ocean Symposium on Sunday October 21st, including Dr. Joanie Kleypas of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Louie Psihoyos – Oscar-winning director of The Cove, and Conservation International’s Dr. Greg Stone. An evening Ocean Celebration fundraising gala at Boulder’s Spice of Life Event Center will conclude the weekend with live and silent auctions, cocktails and heavy hors d’oeuvres. With such a fantastic lineup of my ocean heroes and so much love for “Planet Ocean” concentrated in Boulder, I wouldn’t be surprised if we make waves across the Rocky Mountains!

– Courtney Mattison is an artist and ocean advocate working to inspire policy makers and the public to preserve and restore our oceans from a mile high. A California native with a fascination with the fragile beauty and ecological importance of marine ecosystems – particularly coral reefs – Mattison creates ceramic sculptural work at her “Inland Sea Studio” near the Art District on Santa Fe in Denver, CO. Photo caption: Mattison’s ceramic sculptural piece inspired by the Charlie-Gibbs Fracture Zone will be featured in the Ocean Celebration auction. This piece represents one of the most vital marine ecosystems on earth, a “Hope Spot” as identified by legendary oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Sustainable Seafood: Fish for the Future by COCO

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Sustainable Seafood: Fish for the Future

The Ocean serves many purposes. It regulates our climate, provides us with recreational opportunities, is the major source of the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. However, our oceans are in serious trouble.


The global catch of wild fish leveled out 15 years ago and since then 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are either declining or being harvested at capacity. Demand for fish is also increasing and it is now over seven times what it was in 1950.


There are a variety of destructive fishing practices such as bottom trawling and long lining that are devastating the marine environment.  Our oceans are being fished at alarming rates and scientists estimate that most of the world’s major fishery species have been reduced in numbers by 75-95 percent.  We as consumers can make a difference by choosing seafood that has been sustainably harvested.  Our seafood choices offer a daily opportunity to contribute to the oceans health.


5 Fish to Avoid*

  • Atlantic Blue Fin Tuna
  • Skates and Rays
  • Chilean Sea Bass 
  • Orange Roughy
  • Sharks
*There is a lot of complexity around which fish to avoid. Be an informed consumer and learn about the issues on what YOU can do.  Do plenty of research with all the resources available to you and make your own educated decision. These are our recommendations.


 ·What You Can Do·


  1. Use all available resources to make smart choices about seafood.
  2. Ask where your seafood comes from before you make a choice. 
  3. Avoid unsustainable seafood at markets and restaurants. 
  4. Teach others about the importance of being a conscious consumer.
  5. Show your support for local businesses that incorporate sustainable seafood practices. 




Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Food Watch-information for consumers and businesses

Fish Choice– connects buyers and sellers of sustainable seafood

GreenPeace Seafood- store ratings for sustainable seafood

Fish Watch– NOAA’s seafood watch

SeaChoice– Making smart seafood decisions for today and tomorrow

Marine Stewardship Council– Certifies sustainable seafood

Blue Ocean Institute Sea Food Choices– searchable guide for seafood


Seafood Watch provides action cardsfish factsconsumer information, and seafood recommendations.

Seafood Watch, an organization involved with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has been working since 1999 to make the vision of a healthy abundant ocean a reality, showing us that overfishing developed over a long period of time and we are just starting to solve it.



Click on the Map to see the sustainable seafood guide closest to where you live!

View Sustainable Seafood Guides in a larger map