Where does ocean acid come from?

Swimming in salty, more acidic waters (photo courtesy of J. Offenbach, 2018)

The ocean’s biological pump, represented by the mighty phytoplankton, efficiently transfer vast amounts of carbon to the deep ocean. But that carbon cycle is in big trouble.

All marine organisms that do not swim or do not live on the ocean floor are called plankton. The smallest and most abundant plankton are plants (algae) called phytoplankton that photosynthesize.

Plankton have a larger effect on climate than any single other process or group of organisms, especially as food for larger creatures. Plankton grow, molt, excrete and die, taking carbon as dioxide (two oxygen atoms to one of carbon) and as carbonate (three oxygen atoms to one of carbon) with them to the deep ocean.

At least 90% of all marine life relies on plankton, including creatures that absorb calcium carbonate to build their shells. And the deep ocean historically has served as reservoir of 85% of the Earth’s carbon.

But the biological life cycle of plankton is highly dependent on the physics of water chemistry and temperature. You may recall your high school chemistry, “Acid plus base equals salt plus water.”

The more carbon we emit into the air, the more acid we create in the ocean.

When carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater, an unstable compound, carbonic acid, is formed. An acidifying ocean reduces the carbonate available for the ocean’s inhabitants, disrupting plankton and the rest of the food web, and robbing productive coral of its calcium building blocks.

This cycle has a double whammy–for Tuvaluans and all of us. Our oceans are already sinking less carbon to their depths and are producing less available seafood for us to eat. We can save the plankton! Time for Drawdown’s Top Ten Solutions and especially Marine Permaculture.

Sources: NOAA  DrawdownIPCC Special Report 15

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