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Ocean Acidification: A Silent Threat to Marine Life

Writer: Nehir Yel

The Earth's oceans, covering more than 70% of the planet's surface, have long been regarded as the lungs of our planet; they absorb carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, mitigating the impacts of greenhouse gases on our climate. However, this process has a darker side, one that has been gradually revealing itself as a profound threat to marine ecosystems: ocean acidification. Ocean acidification refers to a reduction in the pH of the ocean over an extended period, typically decades or longer, caused primarily by the uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere (Gattuso et al., 2011). This article focuses on ocean acidification caused by human activities.

How Does CO2 Affect pH in the Oceans?

Carbon dioxide plays a pivotal role in regulating the pH levels in water. The quantification of CO2 within a solution serves as a means to ascertain its pH. Essentially, the greater the concentration of CO2 in water (H2O), the lower the pH tends to be. When CO2 integrates with water, a fraction of it undergoes a reaction with water molecules, transforming into carbonic acid (H2CO3). It is the presence of hydrogen ions within carbonic acid that imparts an acidic quality to water, thereby diminishing its pH (Blackfrod et al., 2007).

We can elucidate the formation of carbonic acid through the subsequent chemical equation:

CO2 (aq) + H2O → H2CO3 (aq)

Furthermore, carbonic acid has the capacity to undergo dissociation, resulting in the generation of hydrogen ions (H+) and carbonate ions (CO3–2). This process can be represented by the equation:

H2CO3 → 2H+ + CO3-2

Consequently, for every individual carbonate ion, two hydrogen ions are produced.

In the aqueous medium, the interaction between carbon dioxide and pH is the crux of pH level determination. As earlier mentioned, the dissolution of carbon dioxide in water triggers the release of hydrogen ions found within carbonic acid, leading to a reduction in pH levels. With the escalation of CO2 levels in the Earth's atmosphere, there is a concurrent surge in the quantity of dissolved CO2 in water, consequently augmenting the presence of carbonic acid, which in turn leads to a lowering of pH levels. This intricate interplay between carbon dioxide and pH levels underscores the profound impact of rising CO2 concentrations on aquatic environments.

Fig. 1: Average changes in the carbonate chemistry of surface seawater from 1766 to 2100 (Gattuso et al. 2007)

As depicted in Figure 1, a discernible trend emerges in the escalating levels of CO2 in our oceans, a direct consequence of the ongoing climate crisis. This trajectory is anticipated to precipitate a substantial decline in oceanic pH levels, with projections extending up to the close of the 21st century. Experts in the field assert with a high degree of certainty that the repercussions of this impending pH reduction are both far-reaching and inescapable. This grim forecast underscores the urgency of addressing the manifold challenges posed by ocean acidification.

Biological Impacts of Increased Acidification in the Oceans

The biological impacts of increased acidification in the oceans are extensive and wide-ranging. Marine organisms, particularly those with calcium carbonate shells or skeletons, face significant challenges in the face of rising ocean acidity.

Corals and Coral Reefs: Corals are highly sensitive to changes in pH levels. Ocean acidification hinders the ability of corals to build and maintain their calcium carbonate structures, which are essential for their survival. This can lead to weakened and more vulnerable coral reefs, affecting the biodiversity and productivity of these vital marine ecosystems (Silverman et al., 2009).

Shellfish and Mollusks: Creatures like oysters, clams, and some types of plankton rely on calcium carbonate to form their shells. In more acidic conditions, it becomes more difficult for them to secrete and maintain these protective structures. This can lead to reduced growth rates, increased vulnerability to predation, and even reproductive issues (Guo et al., 2015).

Pteropods: These small, free-swimming marine snails play a crucial role in the marine food web. They are a primary food source for various species, including important commercial fish like salmon. The dissolution of their fragile shells in acidified waters disrupts their lifecycle and poses a threat to the animals that depend on them for sustenance (Manno et al., 2017).

Foraminifera and Plankton: These microorganisms are essential components of the marine ecosystem. They play a crucial role in the carbon cycle and serve as a foundational food source for many marine creatures. Ocean acidification can interfere with their ability to form calcium carbonate shells, potentially disrupting marine food webs (Wolf-Gladrof et al., 2002).

Fish and Marine Mammals: While fish and marine mammals do not directly produce calcium carbonate structures, they can still be affected by ocean acidification. Altered prey availability due to disruptions in lower trophic levels can have cascading effects on higher trophic levels, potentially leading to shifts in marine species distributions and abundances (Munday et al., 2012).

Cascading Effects on Ecosystems: The disruptions in these key species can lead to broader ecological consequences. Changes in the abundance or availability of certain species can impact predator-prey dynamics, alter competition for resources, and influence the overall balance of marine ecosystems.


In conclusion, the phenomenon of ocean acidification stands as a stark reminder of the complex and interconnected nature of our planet's ecosystems. The Earth's oceans, acting as a crucial carbon sink, have borne the burden of absorbing excessive carbon dioxide emissions. This natural service, which has long been dubbed the lungs of our planet, has unwittingly become a double-edged sword, concealing a perilous threat to marine life beneath its depths.

As elucidated, the mechanism by which carbon dioxide exerts its influence on oceanic pH levels is both intricate and impactful. The interplay between carbon dioxide, water, and the ensuing formation of carbonic acid underscores the direct relationship between atmospheric CO2 levels and the acidification of our oceans. This escalating trend, depicted vividly in Figure 1, paints a sobering picture of the ongoing climate crisis, foretelling a future in which the very bedrock of marine ecosystems is irrevocably altered.

The biological repercussions of this acidification are profound and far-reaching. From the delicate coral reefs that teem with biodiversity to the industrious shellfish and mollusks that form the backbone of marine food chains, each facet of the marine world is intricately woven into the fabric of life. The plight of corals, their calcified homes eroded by increasingly acidic waters, serves as a poignant example of the vulnerability of even the hardiest marine organisms. Shellfish and mollusks, essential components of marine ecosystems, face dwindling growth rates and compromised reproductive capabilities, threatening the very foundation of their populations. Pteropods, the unassuming linchpins of marine food webs, suffer the dissolution of their shells, disrupting the balance of countless marine species. Meanwhile, foraminifera and plankton face potential disruption in their pivotal roles. Even apex predators like fish and marine mammals are not immune, as shifts in prey availability and distribution reverberate up the trophic levels.

The cascading effects of these disruptions ripple through ecosystems, with far-reaching consequences. Changes in the abundance and distribution of species may lead to altered predation patterns, shifts in competition for resources, and an overall restructuring of marine communities. As the interconnectedness of marine life becomes increasingly apparent, it is evident that the threat of ocean acidification extends beyond individual species, permeating the very framework of our global ecosystem.

In the face of this mounting crisis, urgent action is imperative. It falls upon us, as the future of this planet, to confront the manifold challenges posed by ocean acidification. Efforts to curb carbon emissions, enhance conservation measures, and foster resilience in vulnerable marine species must be prioritized. Through concerted global initiatives, we have the opportunity to mitigate the impacts of ocean acidification and safeguard the intricate tapestry of life that depends on our oceans. Only through collective dedication and unwavering resolve can we hope to preserve the delicate balance of marine ecosystems for generations to come.


Gattuso, J., Hansson, L. (2011), Ocean Acidification, Oxford University Press

Blackfrod, J.C., Gilbert, F.J. (2007), Journal of Marine Systems, Science Direct, 229-241

Silverman, J., Lazar, B., Cao, L., Calderia, K., Erez, J. (2009), Coral reefs may start dissolving when atmospheric CO2 doubles, Geophysical Research Letters

Guo, X., Huang, M., Pu, F., You, W., Ke, C. (2015), Effects of ocean acidification caused by rising CO2 on the early development of three mollusks, Imter-Research Science Publisher

Manno, C., Bednaršek, N., Tarling, G. A., Peck, V. L., Comeau, S., Adhikari, D., Bakker, D. C. E., Bauerfeind, E., Bergan, A. J., Berning, M. I., Buitenhuis, E., Burridge, A. K., Chierici, M., Flöter, S., Fransson, A., Gardner, J., Howes, E. L., Keul, N., Kimoto, K., ... Ziveri, P. (2017). Shelled pteropods in peril: Assessing vulnerability in a high CO2 ocean Earth-Science Reviews, 169, 132-145.

Wolf-Gladrow, D. A., Riebesell, U., Burkhardt, S., & Bijma, J. (2002). Direct effects of CO2 concentration on growth and isotopic composition of marine plankton Tellus B, 54(5), 639-650.

Munday, P. L., McCormick, M. I., & Nilsson, G. E. (2012). Impact of global warming and rising CO2 levels on coral reef fishes: what hope for the future? Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(22), 3865-3873.

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