How CO2 in the atmosphere destroys marine life: important facts

    26 Jun 2021

    Greenhouse gas emissions not only cause global temperatures and climate change to rise. They also increase the acidity of the environment in water bodies – the so-called acidification of the oceans. Let’s check the Ecoaction NGO explanation of this process.

    Acidification of the oceans

    About a quarter of CO2 released through human activities is soluble in water. Some of this carbon dioxide reacts with water to form carboxylic acid (H2CO3), which decomposes into other substances that eventually lower the pH of the water.

    This is dangerous for marine ecosystems because they get used to living in a certain environment and are more sensitive to its changes than terrestrial ones. Organisms that have shells with calcium, such as mussels, sea urchins, or corals, are most vulnerable to acidification. In acidic water, it is more difficult for them to build and maintain their skeletons, and their ability to survive is significantly reduced. Acidification can affect other physiological processes, which affects, in particular, the growth and survival of organisms in the early stages of life.

    In addition, acidification changes the behavior of living organisms. For example, it can affect the formation of shoals of fish due to the deterioration of their sensory mechanisms, organs of hearing, smell, and vision. The danger is also exacerbated by other global trends related to climate change – water heating and desalination.

    The acidification of the oceans threatens not only wildlife but also humans. Many coastal communities rely on fish and shellfish for both food and trade. And coral reefs also serve as a natural barrier against waves. Therefore, the destruction of coral reefs, for example, increases the vulnerability of local communities to floods and tsunamis.

    Researchers say that if CO2 emissions increase at the current rate, the water will become 150% more acidic by the end of the century. Then the pH will reach a level that has not been the last 20 million years.

    How do we save our oceans from acidification?

    First of all, of course, it is necessary to fight the cause of the process – greenhouse gas emissions. This means that the whole world must stop burning fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – as soon as possible and switch to renewable energy sources and more sustainable transport. According to the Paris Agreement, governments that ratified it must determine in what way their countries are ready to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the more ambitious this goal is, the faster each country, together with the whole world, will be able to reduce the harmful effects on the oceans.

    This international treaty was adopted by 196 Parties at COP 21 in Paris, on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016. Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.

    To achieve this long-term temperature goal, countries aim to reach global peaking of greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible to achieve a climate-neutral world by mid-century.

    The Paris Agreement is a landmark in the multilateral climate change process because, for the first time, a binding agreement brings all nations into a common cause to undertake ambitious efforts to combat climate change and adapt to its effects.

    However, the processes that have already begun cannot be reversed, because the damage has already been done and more is being done every day. Therefore, it is also important to work on adapting coastal communities and marine ecosystems to new conditions. And first of all the state should take care of their preservation, protection, and restoration.

    To preserve the seas and oceans, it is important to expand the network of marine protected areas. For example, habitats formed by algae and seaweed can provide shelter for acid-vulnerable organisms and mitigate their harmful effects. Where to place such protected areas and how to deal with them should be determined on the basis of scientific research. Measures to restore ecosystems are no less important than environmental measures.

    It is also important for the state to listen to local communities, support and help develop local initiatives to protect marine ecosystems. Reducing the negative impact on marine ecosystems makes them more resistant to climate change and acidification. Therefore, it is also important to prevent pollution of the marine environment with plastic and industrial and agricultural waste.

    Adaptation to ocean acidification is an urgent need that should be highlighted in adaptation strategies. New studies of the effects of ocean acidification should be conducted to ensure timely and appropriate adaptation measures.

    The phenomenon of ocean acidification still remains a problem about which little is known and little is said. Therefore, the BALSAM project brought together NGOs and scientists from the Black Sea and Baltic countries to discuss how acidification affects local seas, to talk more about this issue for action at the international, national and local levels. The project has produced ActionGuide, which details what ocean acidification is and what can be done to reduce the negative impact on marine ecosystems and local communities.

    Thirst, diseases, struggle for resources. And 6 more reasons to worry about the loss of glaciers

    Let’s move to the next problem for marine life, explained by the Ecoaction NGO.

    For the first time in Iceland, the glacier has completely melted, and local activists have even arranged a funeral for it. Greenland broke its own ice loss record by as much as 15%. A piece the size of two Manhattans has broken off from Canada’s last untouched ice shelf. The Arctic and Antarctic, permafrost and snowcaps of the mountains – the ice cover of the planet is melting just now, and news and forecasts are becoming more alarming. But what does this mean for those who live far from the poles and are unlikely to miss the snow-white beauty of icy spaces? Let’s see why the climate crisis and melting ice are not just problems for polar bears.

    Water is coming

    The first and most obvious consequence of the fact that the ice is getting smaller is that the water level in the ocean increases. Combined with the less obvious effects of melting (changing water temperature, currents, tectonic plates, etc.), this can lead to a sea-level rise of almost 1 meter by the end of the XXI century. Thus, people living in coastal areas may be left homeless. This is especially true for small island nations that have almost no climate impact, such as the Marshall Islands or Kiribati. However, even the largest polluters, who are currently inactive, can pay for it with their cities. For example, Shanghai, Miami and Rio de Janeiro may soon disappear.

    You’ll see your favorite resorts, industrial enterprises, ecologically dangerous objects completely or partially flooded.

    Water disappears

    We affectionately call the Earth a blue planet because of the vast number of bodies of water that have become the source of life as we know it. However, of all this infinite mass of water, only 2.5-3% is fresh, 85% of which is stored frozen. Rapid melting means the loss of drinking water supplies, because most of it eventually falls into the ocean, mixes with salt, and ceases to be usable.

    The world is already experiencing a large-scale “water” crisis. More than a billion people lack drinking water, and another 2.7 billion lack it at least one month a year. Every second person on the planet at least from time to time is not able to quench thirst or cook. According to the UN, by the middle of the century, more than half of people will live in regions where there is a shortage of drinking water at least from time to time.

    An important part of the cryosphere – the ice sheet of the planet – is located on top of the mountains. In the cold season, ice accumulates there, and in the warm, it melts and feeds mountain rivers. The mountains of North America, the Himalayas, the Andes – they all lose their “ice caps”. For example, one of Peru’s largest rivers, the Rio Santa, is already short of water, putting the country on the brink of crisis.

    If you think this is not so scary, then remember how after 2019-2020 almost snowless winter in Eastern Europe there was a lack of groundwater, so there was even a risk of limiting industrial water supply. Frozen water is no less important for our survival than melted.

    The water becomes fresher

    The fact that freshwater is more actively mixed with seawater, not only gradually deprives us of drinking water, but also reduces the salinity of the oceans, which upsets the balance of marine ecosystems. Most living things are adapted to living in an environment with certain conditions, so changing these conditions can affect their lives. Marine inhabitants feel it more strongly than terrestrial species.

    Studies for the Baltic Sea show that even a short stay in warmer and fresher water reduces the ability of some algae to photosynthesize. Namely, this process – the conversion of carbon dioxide into oxygen – is critical to overcoming the climate crisis. After all, we need not only to reduce greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere but also to maintain (or rather strengthen) the ability of ecosystems to absorb them.

    In addition, the desalination of seawater in combination with other factors increases the rate of coral discoloration. These marine organisms coexist mutually with microscopic algae, which serve as the main source of nutrients for corals and give them specific bright colors. Due to acidification, heating, and desalination of water, these algae die, leaving only the “skeletons” of coral. They lose their color, and with it the ability to survive. Discolored corals become more vulnerable to disease and destruction. Already, 35% of corals in the northern and central parts of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef have died due to discoloration. And according to scientists, when the global temperature rises by only 2⁰C, 99% of coral reefs will suffer such a fate. And desalination of seawater will further intensify this negative impact.

    The value of coral reefs for the world is not limited to their uniqueness or beauty. They also serve as a home for a quarter of all ocean species, which now risk being left without shelter. And some of the coral ecosystems – such as the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia – also protect people by serving as a natural barrier to large waves, storms, and floods.

    Permafrost ceases to be eternal

    Permafrost or permafrost are terrestrial rocks with a temperature below 0 ° C. In essence, this is frozen ground in the crisis. In some regions (for example, tundra) it is open, in colder areas – hidden under glaciers. The problem is that due to rising global temperatures in general, and due to the disappearance of glaciers in particular, permafrost is also gradually melting and releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere.

    Carbon is found in living organisms and is necessary for their existence. When they die and do not become food for another organism, they begin to rot or decompose and release carbon back into the atmosphere in the form of methane – a compound of carbon and hydrogen, which, like carbon dioxide, causes the greenhouse effect. Another way a dead organism can go is to “preserve” it in the soil. There, over millions of years, under considerable pressure, it can turn into minerals, such as coal, during the combustion of which carbon is returned to the atmosphere.

    Like any other soil, permafrost contains organic animal and plant remains that have been stored there for millions of years. However, due to freezing, these remains remained in the same condition as at the beginning of his life (or rather death). So when they thaw, they continue to move in a cycle – they decompose, releasing greenhouse gases. In addition, it is projected to release much more than through the burning of fossil fuels.

    The planet becomes hotter, the ice melts more actively. It happens like a spiral.

    The hidden becomes apparent

    Ice has an amazing ability to hide other invisible but dangerous things – viruses and bacteria. In the melted permafrost are found the remains of buried people and animals, which have preserved the remains of ancient viruses. For example, RNA of Spanish flu was found in Alaska, fragments of smallpox DNA were found in Siberia, and one of the viruses that hid in the permafrost of the Siberian tundra for more than 30,000 years turned out to be very contagious – fortunately, only for amoebae. Frozen bacteria over 8 million years old have even been found and “resurrected” in Antarctica.

    Most viruses die quickly outside the host cell, so they are not dangerous. They are able to survive only in the laboratory, where they are artificially restored and studied. However, some of them are quite tenacious. In addition, the findings are increasingly such that viruses are so old that they have infected Neanderthals. Their properties and probable impact on modern humans remain poorly understood.

     In addition, the disappearance of ice can lead to the release of fire. After all, volcanoes often rest under layers of ice. The West Antarctic Glacial Shield, for example, hides 138 known volcanoes under miles of ice. It is believed that their activity floods the glaciers below, thus moistening and lubricating the surface, which facilitates the movement of huge ice masses. There are also more open volcanoes, some of which, such as Penguin Island, remain active. Although the effect of ice loss on their activity has not been sufficiently studied, some studies already suggest that decreasing ice cover may increase the frequency of eruptions.

    The earth turns to the dark side

    In addition to chemical processes in living organisms, the climatic spiral is twisted by physical phenomena. Sunlight (and, consequently, solar heat) is reflected from light surfaces and absorbed by dark ones. Therefore, as the area of ​​the cryosphere decreases, so does the earth’s overall ability to reflect the sun’s rays back into space. Instead, the dark parts of the earth’s surface are exposed – the soil, rocks, ocean. They begin to absorb more heat, give it more actively to the atmosphere, and thus the temperature rises faster.

    The more rapid warming of the oceans is particularly alarming. They are able to absorb and retain heat for a long time, which helps keep the planet’s climate in its usual balance. Over the past two decades, the oceans and seas have absorbed more than 90% of the excess heat generated by the greenhouse effect. It is due to this ability that the planet does not heat up as fast as it could. But the warmer the ocean, the less extra heat it can absorb. And the more unstable our climate becomes. In particular, due to the change in heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, winds change, natural disasters become more frequent, and weather phenomena become less and less predictable.

    Currents run the risk of getting lost and not going there

    The Gulf Stream, the largest and most famous ocean current in the Atlantic Ocean, delivers heat from the equator to the northern regions. There it cools, becomes heavier, sinks to the lower layers of the ocean, and returns to warmer regions. This circulation maintains a temperate climate in the North Atlantic, because the Gulf Stream literally delivers equatorial heat there. However, that

    The inflow of freshwater from melted Arctic glaciers is less salty and thus lighter water will not fall down and turn south, which can slow down the flow of currents and upset the whole balance set for millennia.

    However, it is not only the Gulf Stream that is changing due to rising temperatures. The whirlpool in the Beaufort Sea, a system of currents circulating in the Western Arctic, accumulates freshwater, which appears due to the slow melting of glaciers or precipitation. Due to the winds, freshwater remains on the surface of the ocean and continues to move in a circle. Part of this water enters the Gulf Stream in small portions and, as already mentioned, returns with it to the south. This balance has existed for thousands of years. However, due to global warming and accelerated melting of freshwater glaciers is becoming more and more. The more meltwater enters the vortex, the greater its excess will enter the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, slowing them down. So far this has not happened, as strong winds force the vortex to circulate faster and help it hold more water. However, as soon as the wind direction changes (previously it happened once every 5-7 years, while the current wind direction is unusually more than 20), the situation may worsen. Due to the slowdown of these currents, the climate in the North Atlantic can change greatly. Ironically, global warming could cause local cooling in Europe.

    By the way, you can read more about the problem of the Gulf stream in our compilation.

    Animals lose their home

    Not only marine but also terrestrial creatures will have difficulty adapting to the new environment. For example, polar bears in the Arctic hunt and give birth to cubs on ice. During the fall and winter, bears accumulate fat to survive the summer, when they are mostly unable to hunt. However, with the further rise of the ice temperature, it will become less and less, and hunting periods will be reduced. This will impair the animals’ ability to reproduce and survive.

     Loss of ice will harm other species. Seals, for example, also give birth and feed their young on ice. White martins nest on coastal rocks and use ice as a fishing ground. Walruses, which feed mainly on coastal mollusks, will also lose convenient feeding grounds if the ice recedes farther from shore.

    The Arctic is (not) outside politics

    We should not forget about other creatures that consider the Arctic their home (or rather their property) – people. Currently, the North Pole and the Arctic Ocean do not belong to any of the countries in the world. Norway, Denmark, Canada, the United States, and Russia have international law over 12 nautical miles (22 km) of water off their shores, which are considered the territory of these countries. They also own 200 nautical miles (370 km) of adjacent waters and the continental shelf (land underwater) as an “exclusive economic zone”. They can extract natural resources there or, for example, conduct research only on the “owner” countries, but everyone is allowed to swim or fly over them (within the laws established by international maritime law, of course).

    And although Russia has already stuck its flag in the ocean floor directly at the North Pole, the waters (or glaciers) and the continental shelf outside the exclusive economic zones belong to all mankind and are governed by a special UN body. However, oil, gas, and precious metals are hidden deep underwater and land, so all five countries bordering the Arctic have their own claims to these resources. There is even a special procedure that they can turn to in order to obtain the exclusive right to extract them outside their exclusive economic zone. And all countries that have the right to do so have already made their claims.

    In addition, two navigable routes pass through the Arctic: the Northeast and the Northwest Passages. Most of the first runs along the coast of Russia, the second – through the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Therefore, these two states believe that they have the right to establish rules for the movement of these waters. Other shipping countries do not agree with such positions. They classify both routes as international, where passage for vessels should be free.

    All these disputes over resources and territories, although they have been going on for a long time, were in a rather “frozen” state. Now the ice in the Arctic is shrinking, hidden resources are becoming more accessible, and sea lanes are easier to navigate. Therefore, the situation in the North is heating up not only climatically but also politically. China is already showing its interests in the region, having made friends with Russia, developing the adjacent waters on a brand new (already the second for the country) icebreaker. And in general, shipping in the region has intensified in recent years, which, incidentally, also threatens the Arctic with environmental pollution and the intensification of the climate crisis due to emissions from maritime transport. Not to mention the potential damage to local walruses or whales from collisions with ships, noise, or forced changes in natural behavior.

    Therefore, the dramatic events that take place on the world’s ice affect much more events and phenomena than it seems at first sight. And not only the inhabitants of the polar regions will suffer from the rapid loss of ice cover. Therefore, slowing down the climate crisis is not only saving polar bears but also maintaining a stable life on the planet.You can read more about the climate-oriented issues in our Climate section.

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