Bye, Bye Sponge Bob: Ocean Acidification

Oceans are acidifying, due to an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, (for details see this site by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)). We can see this right now from multiple studies. This does not mean that the oceans are actually becoming acidic (which would mean that pH had fallen below 7), but rather that they are becoming less alkaline, moving from a pH of 8.2 to 8.1. Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s huge if you are an ocean dwelling creature.

We can get a peek at historical ocean pH through a variety of methods, and since the time of the industrial revolution (when human actions started driving atmospheric CO2 up) the oceans have become about 30% more acidic. Such acidity has not been seen for 800,000 years and, never, ever has pH dropped this rapidly. On a geologic time scale, this is almost instantly. And it is happening too fast for organisms to evolve a response.

So what’s at stake? Will our boats start to dissolve? No. At a minimum, however, things with shells, and other hard calcified structures, are likely to be profoundly affected. This is because their shells are particularly vulnerable to changes in oceanic water pH. We can see directly what happens with lower alkalinity in the laboratory. Many studies have shown that a number of shelled things cannot tolerate this kind of change, especially in the larval stage. But no one knows what the actual fallout would be ecologically, (it may be good for lobsters, as long as they don’t have to live on coral reefs). How to translate up the laboratory studies to the ecosystem scale is notoriously difficult. However, we do know that ecological systems are highly connected, meaning that a change in something as small as plankton (and see here), can have wild effects that cascade up the food chain.

So although we have high-quality science on the changing seas, we don’t know exactly what the ecological effects will be. But ecological systems tend to be like the game Jenga, in which you try to remove wooden pieces without causing the whole structure to collapse. Eventually, however, if you remove too many blocks, the fall of the entire structure is inevitable. Because our economy is tied to ecosystem services (more on this in another post, but of major concern directly is the 60 billion dollar a year fisheries industry), ecological collapse tends to be a bad thing for most creatures, and most economies.

We are in the middle of a planet-wide experiment on the effect of acidification on oceanic life. If you were sitting on an ethics board, would you approve this experiment?

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10 Responses to Bye, Bye Sponge Bob: Ocean Acidification

  1. Joseph Smidt says:

    Jenga is a great analogy! (So much more helpful then saying some system is “nonlinear”) Small changes can lead to catastrophic effects if you aren’t careful.

    I was amused by you hinting some people may not appreciated a slight change in pH as we are not aquatic. It’s sort of like plants saying (if they could talk to each other) “hey, you know the level of oxygen in the atmosphere is dropping by a few percent, but who cares?” Well, humans would sure be hugely impacted if the oxygen level dropped by only a few percent.

  2. Holly says:

    I love your question ” If you were sitting on an ethics board, would you approve this experiment?”

    Because the fact of the matter is, we–at least, those of who are citizens of the countries most responsible for C02 emissions–are all indeed on the ethics board, and if we collectively made it clear that we wanted to STOP the experiment, we could–or at least, we could slow it down.

  3. Honestly, I’ve thought of this as a much more significant issue for the past several years than warming.


  4. Mrs.Andy says:

    So you’re saying Spongebob will be a goner, but what about Patrick and Mr. Crab?! Will Plankton prevail after all or will he quickly follow our good friend who lives in a pineapple under the sea (absorbent and yellow and porous is he!)?
    Kidding aside, I can almost predict what arguments will come of this. Someone must point out that we can’t know that this level of increase is truly unprecedented because nobody actually witnessed it before. Next someone will have to point out that human activity is actually compensating for some of the acidification so we should probably not make any sudden changes because it is possible that our collective human activity is actually what is holding disaster at bay!
    I’m still not sure how to react to this type of update. I am curious to know if anyone has predicted how much difference any intervention could make and whether or not these trends are reversible. If they aren’t, I think our best move would be to start anticipating what options will be available in the future and getting prepared to cope with the inevitable. I hope that doesn’t sound too “glass half empty” but if we’re past the point of no return now, isn’t it advisable to consider long term strategies for adapting to our environment?
    Really, if we humans are such a force on this planet that we can actually change our environment on a global scale, shouldn’t we anticipate that when the tide turns back on us that it will be our turn to scramble for survival?

  5. Ben Pratt says:

    If we could rid the world of Sponge Bob Squarepants then all the oceanic disasters would be worth it.

  6. Owen says:

    Why no argument against this finding? Is it because water is visible and air is invisible?

  7. Jack says:


    It’s not even worth the effort (arguing). The ocean is even more complex than the atmosphere — do to disappoint all sides of the debate.

  8. Jack says:

    er, “due to…”

  9. Owen says:

    Um, so really complex things can’t be understood or measured? What in science isn’t stupendously complex? That’s the whole point of science: reducing complexity through abstraction, theory and modeling to allow us to understand important bits of reality (which is largely made up of stochastic processes) enough to make better decisions than with no information. I’ll stick with my sarcastic, belittling assessment: people actually believe in water because they can see it.

  10. Jack says:

    Well, sure. But on the other hand, let’s be grateful that we’re beyond arguing over whether or not the clinically depressed should lobotomized.

    We’re talking about paying heavy prices along the way. I fear that science has a harder time learning from the past than even politics.

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