Coral Reefs Threatened By The ‘Osteoporosis Of The Ocean’

By Amir Khan on July 9, 2012 11:44 AM EDT

Reef
The world's oceans are becoming more acidic and it's posing a real threat to coral reefs (Photo: Creative Commons)

The world's oceans are becoming more acidic and it's posing a real threat to coral reefs, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The acidification is acting as the "osteoporosis of the ocean" and unless something is done, reefs could be gone for good.

"We've got sort of the perfect storm of stressors from multiple places really hammering reefs around the world," Jane Lubchenco, chief of the NOAA, told the Associated Press. "It's a very serious situation."

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The ocean absorbs much of the carbon emitted into the air. Carbon reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which causes the ocean to become more acidic, scientists said.

Typically, sources such as rock weathering neutralize acids found in oceans. However the amount of carbon dioxide being deposited into the oceans is too high for acids to be neutralized.

In a recent study, scientists found the ocean's pH, the measurement of the acidity of a liquid, fell by .01 to 8.1 over the last hundred years, indicating an increase in ocean acids. Researchers have never measured such a high level of acidity, the authors wrote. Acidification is happening faster in the current era than in 300 million years and as carbon emissions increase, acidification will only get worse, the researchers concluded.

Ocean acidification challenges species such as coral that build body parts with calcium carbonate, a basic chemical compound that dissolves in acidic environments. Entire reefs could be destroyed if acidification isn't stopped.

Coral reefs are huge tourist attractions, which many areas rely on to sustain their economy. In addition, the corals act as walls, protecting shorelines from tsunamis, Lubchenco said. Some measures have been undertaken to reduce the acidification, but are only stop-gap measures. The real solution is reducing carbon emissions, Lubchenco said.

"The carbon dioxide that we have put in the atmosphere will continue to be absorbed by oceans for decades," she said. "It is going to be a long time before we can stabilize and turn around the direction of change simply because it's a big atmosphere and it's a big ocean."

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