European Environment Agency – Ocean acidification

Key Assessment published Nov 2012

Key messages

  • Surface-ocean pH has declined from 8.2 to 8.1 over the industrial era due to the growth of atmospheric CO2 concentrations. This decline corresponds to a 30 % change in oceanic acidity.
  • Observed reductions in surface-water pH are nearly identical across the global ocean and throughout Europe’s seas.
  • Ocean acidification in recent decades is occurring a hundred times faster than during past natural events over the last 55 million years.
  • Ocean acidification already reaches into the deep ocean, particularly in the high latitudes.
  • Average surface-water pH is projected to decline further to 7.7 or 7.8 by the year 2100, depending on future CO2 emissions. This decline represents a 100 to 150 % increase in acidity.
  • Ocean acidification may affect many marine organisms within the next 20 years and could alter marine ecosystems and fisheries.

Past trends

In December 2011, the atmospheric CO2 level reached 392 ppm, which is 40 % more than the pre-industrial concentration (280 ppm); half of that increase has occurred in the last 30 years. Ocean pH has been reduced from 8.2 to 8.1 over the industrial era, which corresponds to a 30 % increase in ocean acidity (defined here as the hydrogen ion concentration). This change has occurred at a rate that is about a hundred times faster than any change in acidity experienced during the last 55 million years.

The current decline in pH is already measurable at the three ocean time series stations that are suitable to evaluate long-term trends, located offshore of Hawaii, Bermuda and the Canary Islands. Figure 1 shows the time series from Hawaii, which is the longest and best known one, and the changes here are similar to those that are observed at a much shorter time scale in Europe. The measured reductions in surface pH at those stations match exactly the values calculated on the basis of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, assuming thermodynamic equilibrium between the surface ocean and the atmosphere.

Image 1

Projections

Average surface-water pH is projected to decline further to 7.7 or 7.8 by the year 2100, depending on future CO2 emissions. This decline represents a 100 to 150 % increase in acidity. When atmospheric CO2 reaches 450 ppm, parts of the Southern Ocean will start becoming corrosive to calcium carbonate during winter. Ten per cent of the Arctic Ocean may become corrosive to calcium carbonate already by 2020, and surface waters of the Baltic Sea will still become corrosive well before the end of the century. In the Black Sea and Mediterranean Sea there is no danger of surface waters becoming corrosive to calcium carbonate before 2100, but they will suffer sharp reductions in carbonate ion concentrations (Med Sea - 37 %; Black Sea - 45 %). These rapid chemical changes are an added pressure on marine calcifiers and ecosystems of the European seas that are already heavily suffering from other anthropogenic influences.

Without dramatic actions to curb CO2 emissions, recovery from human-induced acidification will require thousands of years for the Earth system to re-establish roughly similar ocean chemical conditions and millions of years for coral reefs to return, based on palaeo-records of natural coral reef extinction events

More information and downloads European Environment Agency

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