Our Oceans Are  pHucked

By Andrew Iidal Head Writer & Resident EMT

When I was in elementary school in the 90’s, I learned about acid rain. In my young mind, the world worked like a cartoon, and I was convinced a rain would come that would melt the skin off our bones. Fortunately, the United States recognized the growing threat and had already passed the Clean Air Act to limit the emissions of the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide responsible for acid rain. We’re still reducing these emissions today, and while acid rain is still a problem, we’ve made great progress. But while acid rain was never actually going to melt people into piles of goo, there is another serious problem that requires our attention, and we’re not exaggerating when we say that it has the potential to literally dissolve living organisms like the mollusk shells seen above.

If you’ve never heard of it, you need to know about ocean acidification.


Greenhouse gas emissions aren’t just warming the planet; they’re changing the chemistry of our oceans. When carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere, it doesn’t always stay there. Some of it is removed from plants, which use photosynthesis to combine CO2 and water to store energy in the form of carbohydrates. But a third of the CO2 that enters our atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean. When CO2 dissolves into water, it forms carbonic acid, which further breaks down into bicarbonate and carbonate ions. These chemical reactions also produce protons, which lower the pH of the ocean. Acids have a lower pH than bases or neutral compounds, so the result of the absorption of CO2 is called ocean acidification. The pH of the ocean does change over time, but the ocean today is acidifying more quickly than any known period in the last 50 million years.

When I was in elementary school in the 90’s, I learned about acid rain. In my young mind, the world worked like a cartoon, and I was convinced a rain would come that would melt the skin off our bones. Fortunately, the United States recognized the growing threat and had already passed the Clean Air Act to limit the emissions of the nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide responsible for acid rain. We’re still reducing these emissions today, and while acid rain is still a problem, we’ve made great progress. But while acid rain was never actually going to melt people into piles of goo, there is another serious problem that requires our attention, and we’re not exaggerating when we say that it has the potential to literally dissolve living organisms like the mollusk shells seen above.

If you’ve never heard of it, you need to know about ocean acidification.


Greenhouse gas emissions aren’t just warming the planet; they’re changing the chemistry of our oceans. When carbon dioxide (CO2) is released into the atmosphere, it doesn’t always stay there. Some of it is removed from plants, which use photosynthesis to combine CO2 and water to store energy in the form of carbohydrates. But a third of the CO2 that enters our atmosphere is absorbed into the ocean. When CO2 dissolves into water, it forms carbonic acid, which further breaks down into bicarbonate and carbonate ions. These chemical reactions also produce protons, which lower the pH of the ocean. Acids have a lower pH than bases or neutral compounds, so the result of the absorption of CO2 is called ocean acidification. The pH of the ocean does change over time, but the ocean today is   acidifying more quickly than any known period in the last 50 million years.

Human activity is changing our planet faster than ever

There is a clear cause behind the rapid changes in our ocean’s chemistry: we have more CO2in the atmosphere than any time in the last 800,000 years. Put another way, the CO2 levels in the air today are the highest they have been in all of Homo sapiens’ existence. The majority of our emissions come from transportation, electricity production, and industry, which make up more than 3/4ths of our greenhouse gas emissions. Another area of concern is deforestation. CO2is drawn from the atmosphere and stored in plants, but when forests are cleared to make room for livestock, the trees are usually burned. This instantly releases all of the stored CO2back into the air while reducing our planet’s capacity to store more CO2. Tropical deforestation alone emits more greenhouse gasses than the entire European Union.

It’s a global problem, but not every area of the ocean is being affected equally. A new study, released in December 2019 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reveals that the waters off the coast of California are acidifying twice as quickly as the global average, so the problems caused by ocean acidification will be felt even more strongly here in La Jolla. And unfortunately, we’re already seeing those problems. The chemical reaction of dissolving in water reduces the availability of calcium carbonate, which animals ranging from plankton to mollusks to coral need to build their exoskeletons. So as ocean acidification continues, the shells of certain animals are becoming thinner
, which slows their growth and increases their death rates.

Human activity is changing our planet faster than ever

There is a clear cause behind the rapid changes in our ocean’s chemistry: we have more CO2in the atmosphere than any time in the last 800,000 years. Put another way, the CO2 levels in the air today are the highest they have been in all of Homo sapiens’ existence. The majority of our emissions come from transportation, electricity production, and industry, which make up more than 3/4ths of our greenhouse gas emissions. Another area of concern is deforestation. CO2is drawn from the atmosphere and stored in plants, but when forests are cleared to make room for livestock, the trees are usually burned. This instantly releases all of the stored CO2back into the air while reducing our planet’s capacity to store more CO2. Tropical deforestation alone emits more greenhouse gasses than the entire European Union.

It’s a global problem, but not every area of the ocean is being affected equally. A new study, released in December 2019 by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), reveals that the waters off the coast of California are acidifying twice as quickly as the global average, so the problems caused by ocean acidification will be felt even more strongly here in La Jolla. And unfortunately, we’re already seeing those problems. The chemical reaction of dissolving in water reduces the availability of calcium carbonate, which animals ranging from plankton to mollusks to coral need to build their exoskeletons. So as ocean acidification continues, the shells of certain animals are becoming thinner
, which slows their growth and increases their death rates.

Tens of thousands of animal species are threatened by acidification, as well as the hundreds of thousands of species that rely on them

In addition to reducing the ability of organisms to build shells, the oceans are becoming acidic enough to start to dissolve existing shells. A 2016 study found that the water in California tide pools is already becoming so acidic that it is corrosive to calcium carbonate shells, such as those found on mussels. If acidification continues at its current rate, the ocean water in the year 2100 will be corrosive enough to almost completely dissolve mollusc shells in just 45 days. We don’t know exactly what will happen to life in the ocean if it becomes uninhabitable for these organisms, but the interconnected nature of life in the ocean’s food webs means that the effects will likely be far-reaching. Ocean acidification has the strong potential to threaten food security and economies worldwide.


If this is worrying you, it should. But the reports of ocean acidification are not explanations of what the worldwilllook like in the future. They’re warnings about what itcould look like if we don’t start working on solutions. We must continue to reduce our carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. We can also slow down deforestation by reducing the amount of beef and palm oil that we consume, and work to grow more CO2-absorbing flora. We need more plants in the world, but we shouldn't be focusing solely on land-based plants.

Some of the best solutions to ocean acidification can be implemented in the ocean itself. Scientists have been studying the way that marine plants can help reverse acidification. They found  that in the waters off the coast of Oregon, oysters were only able to thrive in areas with beds of eelgrass, which absorbed enough CO2 to raise the pH to adequate levels. Another team found that these plants can increase coral growth by 18 percent.

Tens of thousands of animal species are threatened by acidification, as well as the hundreds of thousands of species that rely on them

In addition to reducing the ability of organisms to build shells, the oceans are becoming acidic enough to start to dissolve existing shells. A 2016 study found that the water in California tide pools is already becoming so acidic that it is corrosive to calcium carbonate shells, such as those found on mussels. If acidification continues at its current rate, the ocean water in the year 2100 will be corrosive enough to almost completely dissolve mollusc shells in just 45 days. We don’t know exactly what will happen to life in the ocean if it becomes uninhabitable for these organisms, but the interconnected nature of life in the ocean’s food webs means that the effects will likely be far-reaching. Ocean acidification has the strong potential to threaten food security and economies worldwide.


If this is worrying you, it should. But the reports of ocean acidification are not explanations of what the worldwill  look like in the future. They’re warnings about what itcould  look like if we don’t start working on solutions. We must continue to reduce our carbon emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. We can also slow down deforestation by reducing the amount of beef and palm oil that we consume, and work to grow more CO2-absorbing flora. We need more plants in the world, but we shouldn't be focusing solely on land-based plants.

Some of the best solutions to ocean acidification can be implemented in the ocean itself. Scientists have been studying the way that marine plants can help reverse acidification. They found  that in the waters off the coast of Oregon, oysters were only able to thrive in areas with beds of eelgrass, which absorbed enough CO2 to raise the pH to adequate levels. Another team found that these plants can increase coral growth by 18 percent.

Helping the kelp is one of the best ways to help the planet

Our concern over ocean acidification and our commitment to finding solutions are why we’re so proud to partner with GreenWave, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable kelp farming. They train farmers to use a model called 3D ocean farming, which allows them to grow seaweed and mollusks efficiently in a small area. Marine plants are so efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide that an ocean farm can store 20 times more carbon than a forest of the same size. GreenWave estimates that by using their farming model on just 5% of US waters, we could remove 135 million tons of carbon and 10 million tons of nitrogen from our atmosphere. Additionally, we could reduce methane emissions from cattle by 58%, produce as much protein as 3 trillion cheeseburgers, and create 50 million new jobs, all without the need for fresh water, feed, or fertilizer.


Most of GreenWave’s farms are in New England. We would love to see more sustainable kelp farming in California, but potential farmers have significant hurdles to overcome. Getting approved for a kelp farm in California can take years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of the major reasons for the slow pace is the under-funding of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Despite being a coastal state with a GDP higher than the entire United Kingdom, California’s aquaculture department has just one full-time employee. If we want kelp farming to be a viable career option in California, we need more than a single, overworked person handling the bureaucracy. We know what we can do to combat ocean acidification and global climate change, but without political action to streamline the process for establishing ocean farms, it will remain a concept rather than a solution.

Helping the kelp is one of the best ways to help the planet

Our concern over ocean acidification and our commitment to finding solutions are why we’re so proud to partner with GreenWave, a nonprofit organization that promotes sustainable kelp farming. They train farmers to use a model called 3D ocean farming, which allows them to grow seaweed and mollusks efficiently in a small area. Marine plants are so efficient at absorbing carbon dioxide that an ocean farm can store 20 times more carbon than a forest of the same size. GreenWave estimates that by using their farming model on just 5% of US waters, we could remove 135 million tons of carbon and 10 million tons of nitrogen from our atmosphere. Additionally, we could reduce methane emissions from cattle by 58%, produce as much protein as 3 trillion cheeseburgers, and create 50 million new jobs, all without the need for fresh water, feed, or fertilizer.


Most of GreenWave’s farms are in New England. We would love to see more sustainable kelp farming in California, but potential farmers have significant hurdles to overcome. Getting approved for a kelp farm in California can take years and tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars. One of the major reasons for the slow pace is the under-funding of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Despite being a coastal state with a GDP higher than the entire United Kingdom, California’s aquaculture department has just one full-time employee. If we want kelp farming to be a viable career option in California, we need more than a single, overworked person handling the bureaucracy. We know what we can do to combat ocean acidification and global climate change, but without political action to streamline the process for establishing ocean farms, it will remain a concept rather than a solution.

More than 70% of our planet is covered in water, but less than 4% of it is protected

There are other ways that we can use political action to help our oceans. If you’ve joined us on a kayak tour, you know that the La Jolla Ecological Reserve is one of the few parts of the ocean designated as a Marine Protected Area. By some estimates, less than 4% of the entire ocean is protected. If you’ve been following our blogs for a while, or if you stay up to date on the status of our oceans, you know that one of the major threats to kelp forests is sea urchins. Their large populations and voracious appetites can ravage kelp forests, and the loss of kelp fields hastens ocean acidification. A quick solution is to designate more areas as MPAs. Protected areas have larger populations of predators such as the California sheephead, an weird-looking fish that loves to eat urchins. Because the predators are able to flourish, urchin populations in MPA’s are significantly lower than populations outside of them. And we don’t necessarily have to designate our entire coast as a protected area; research shows us that areas adjacent to MPAs also benefit from higher populations of beneficial life.

Ocean acidification is terrifying, and we need change to prevent the dystopian nightmare that it threatens to bring to our future. We need to keep fighting against greenhouse gas emissions, lower the barriers to sustainable ocean farming, and provide more legal protections for our ocean. Donating to GreenWave is a great way to help, and if you’ve joined us on a tour in La Jolla, our 1% for the Planet membership means some of the money you’ve spent with us has already been donated to them. But if you’ve spent all your money on gifts for the holiday season and have nothing left to donate, you can help by contacting your politicians and asking them to take political action to help our oceans. It just takes a few minutes to contact the Governor of California online and ask him to increase the budget for California aquaculture.

No matter how you decide to help, the most important thing is that you’re doingsomething, no matter how small. Ocean acidification is a threat to every single one of us. Weall need to work to solve it.

More than 70% of our planet is covered in water, but less than 4% of it is protected

There are other ways that we can use political action to help our oceans. If you’ve joined us on a kayak tour, you know that the La Jolla Ecological Reserve is one of the few parts of the ocean designated as a Marine Protected Area. By some estimates, less than 4% of the entire ocean is protected. If you’ve been following our blogs for a while, or if you stay up to date on the status of our oceans, you know that one of the major threats to kelp forests is sea urchins. Their large populations and voracious appetites can ravage kelp forests, and the loss of kelp fields hastens ocean acidification. A quick solution is to designate more areas as MPAs. Protected areas have larger populations of predators such as the California sheephead, an weird-looking fish that loves to eat urchins. Because the predators are able to flourish, urchin populations in MPA’s are significantly lower than populations outside of them. And we don’t necessarily have to designate our entire coast as a protected area; research shows us that areas adjacent to MPAs also benefit from higher populations of beneficial life.

Ocean acidification is terrifying, and we need change to prevent the dystopian nightmare that it threatens to bring to our future. We need to keep fighting against greenhouse gas emissions, lower the barriers to sustainable ocean farming, and provide more legal protections for our ocean. Donating to GreenWave is a great way to help, and if you’ve joined us on a tour in La Jolla, our 1% for the Planet membership means some of the money you’ve spent with us has already been donated to them. But if you’ve spent all your money on gifts for the holiday season and have nothing left to donate, you can help by contacting your politicians and asking them to take political action to help our oceans. It just takes a few minutes to contact the Governor of California online and ask him to increase the budget for California aquaculture.

No matter how you decide to help, the most important thing is that you’re doingsomething, no matter how small. Ocean acidification is a threat to every single one of us. Weall need to work to solve it.

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