When the amount of carbon in the atmosphere increases, a large amount is absorbed by the oceans. This might seem like good news, as it means there is less carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to add to climate change. However the oceans are not giant sinks and as the carbon is absorbed it lowers the pH level of the seas. In other words the oceans become more acidic.
This is serious since the acidification of the oceans affects marine life. Acidic waters dissolve the calcium carbonate shells of animals ranging from clams to plankton. Even organisms without such shells are adapted to a certain chemistry. Drastic changes could mean they struggle to survive. Some species may thrive but we might also be facing the mass extinction of many others.
Corals are especially vulnerable and coral reefs form the home for countless other species. The loss of large areas of coral reefs has already been seen and represents a great loss of biodiversity. So far the coral bleaching appears to have been caused by a combination of warming waters and pollution. If acidification progresses it could make things worse for the remaining coral.
Since ocean ecosystems are complex and interlinked the loss of just one species affects thousands of others. The loss of entire groups of organisms is likely to affect all marine life in one way or another. This will in turn affect life on land. Then you have land based species such as ourselves that depend upon the oceans for food. With ecosystems collapsing they may no longer be a dependable source.
The main lungs of the planet are not the rainforests, they are in fact the oceans and their photosynthesising plankton. However here things may be far brighter than they are for other organisms. Recent studies show that at least one species of phytoplankton thrives when carbon levels go up.
This might be good news. It is certainly good news for the plankton in question. However if the oceans become too acidic the plankton won’t act as a sink, instead they will release the carbon they absorbed back into the oceans before they reach the ocean floor and the problems of acidification will remain.
People may argue about climate change. You can’t argue with acidification and its effects, which have the potential to be just as catastrophic. On the other hand the oceans can be far more resilient than we dared hope and scientists are still not sure how life will adapt and cope with the changing chemistry of the oceans. In the meantime governments, corporations and individuals have to take steps to minimise the problem. Inadvertent interferance with the chemistry of ecosystems as important as the oceans is dangerous and potentially disastrous.