Carol Turley: The CO2 that we’re putting up into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and things like that, a lot of that is being absorbed by the ocean. And that is making the oceans more acidic.
Carol Turley is a senior scientist at the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, in the U.K. Her research confirms that oceans are acidifying from atmospheric CO2, and that changes in ocean chemistry will likely impact marine life.
Carol Turley: When you add CO2, carbon dioxide, to sea water, it forms a weak acid, carbonic acid. And that is making the oceans more acidic. And it’s already 30 percent more acidic than it was 200 years ago. And if we keep on emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, then ocean acidification will get worse …
She says ocean life is so vulnerable to this relatively rapid acidification because algae, fish, coral – all these evolved over millions of years in a stable ocean chemistry. She said that if current acidification trends continue…
Carol Turley: …things like coral reefs will not be able to make their shells so quickly, so fast. Things like shellfish, things we eat, will be impacted by this.
Dr. Turley spoke more about the scientific evidence behind her thinking:
Carol Turley: We have long term observations of marine chemistry over the last 30 years.. So we can basically say, if we put this amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, it’s going to be absorbed at this rate. What’s the future ocean going to look like?
Dr. Turley shared what she felt is important for people to know about ocean acidification.
Carol Turley: It’s important for us all to realize that the CO2 that we’re putting up into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and things like that, a lot of that is being absorbed by the ocean. And while it’s been buffering climate change – without the oceans it would be far higher than it is now, so climate change would be even worse – we now realize that the amount going into the oceans, which is about 25-30 percent over the last 200 years since the industrial revolution, has had an impact on the ocean chemistry. Because when you add CO2, carbon dioxide, to sea water, it forms a weak acid, carbonic acid. And that is making the oceans more acidic. It’s already 30 percent more acidic than it was 200 years ago. If we keep on emitting CO2 into the atmosphere, then ocean acidification will get worse and worse. So we need to urgently reduce the amount of CO2 emissions in order to stop the ocean chemistry changing in the way that I told you.
She told EarthSky why that’s important.
Carol Turley: It’s because a lot of marine organisms depend on a stable chemistry and have evolved over millions of years in a stable chemistry. The whole cycle of carbon in the ocean is affected by this. Shell-forming organisms depend on this to enable them to form their shells. As you add more CO2, you affect the carbon ions, which are used to make shells by marine organisms. S things like coral reefs will not be able to make their shells so quickly, so fast. Things like shellfish, things we eat, will be impacted by this.
During a press conference at the Copenhagen climate summit, Dr. Turley said that ‘today is a rare even in the history of the world.’ EarthSky asked her to explain why.
Carol Turley: The changes that we’re undergoing now and will continue into the future, unless we reduce our CO2 emissions, probably not have been seen for 50 to 60 million years. So it’s the rate of change, it’s that speed as well as the degree of change, is absolutely astounding.
Jorge Salazar has conducted thousands of in-depth interviews with scientists in the process of creating science content for EarthSky. He also helps host the 90-second EarthSky podcasts. Jorge has a bachelor's degree in physics from the University of Texas at Austin. He knows a lot about a lot of different things. For EarthSky, he has explored subjects as diverse as nanotechnology, ecosystem-based management, climate change, global health, international environmental treaties, astrophysics and cosmology, and environmental security. His penetrating research style, poetic writing, and ability to track down and speak with Nobel prize-winning laureates, all make him a huge asset to EarthSky.