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We're Giving Coral Osteoporosis

Looks like we'll have to whip up another "disaster tour": for climate change's "equally evil twin," ocean acidification. That's how the National Oceanographic and...
July 9, 2012, 1:59pm

Looks like we’ll have to whip up another disaster tour for climate change’s “equally evil twin,” ocean acidification. That’s how National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration chief Jane Lubchenco describes the alarming phenomenon, which is now considered to be the greatest threat to the world’s coral reefs.

See, the planet’s oceans absorb carbon dioxide, and now that there’s a major surfeit of the stuff, they’re sucking down more than ever. And an increased concentration of CO2 causes the seas to grow more acidic—which is bad news for the myriad calcium-built critters that live in the deep.


Or at least the not-so-deep. Because it was once assumed that ocean acidification would be mitigated by the fact that those oceans are so damned huge, and that the CO2 would be absorbed and distributed evenly among them. But according to new scientific analysis, CO2 is concentrating in surface waters, in the shallows, where coral reefs, one of the most important foundations to ocean ecosystems, reside.

More acidic water means that it’s harder for those creatures with calcium skeletons to grow; it makes them weaker and brittle. It’s like “osteoporosis of the sea,” Lubchenco told the AP. A recent study says that climate change has killed coral before, and gives some hope that over long enough time periods, coral could regrow.

Coral’s not the only concern. The the Guardian notes that other ocean life is suffering from conditions alarmingly similar to the malnourished bones of elderly people:

Higher acidity levels are especially problematic for creatures such as oysters, because they slow the growth of their shells. Experiments have shown other animals, such as clown fish, also suffer. In a study that mimicked the level of acidity scientists expect by the end of the century, clown fish began swimming toward predators, instead of away from them, because their sense of smell had been dulled.

Ocean acidification is among the most under-discussed impacts of mankind’s carbon-spewing habits; it’s not just melting glaciers, heat waves, and sad polar bears, after all. Our carbon habit is changing the composition of every natural habitat imaginable, above and below sea level. If we don’t kick it, coral reefs as we know them could be gone in just 40 years. Slow, crumbling death by osteoporosis is only adding insult to injury.