Ocean acidification is one of the wildcard elements of climate change. While both global warming and more acidic oceans are the result of increased carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere, the mechanisms are completely independent. The warming occurs because CO2 absorbs some of the long-wave infrared radiation the Earth would otherwise broadcast out into space. The retention of that energy within the atmosphere warms the planet. Acidification occurs because more CO2 in the atmosphere causes increased hydrogen ion concentration in seawater. Both issues would be addressed through stopping net carbon dioxide emissions. In both cases, the magnitude and pacing of future harm is far from certain, even as a function of future emissions timelines.
New research by Professor Timothy Wootton of the University of Chicago has shown that acidification in the Pacific Northwest is taking place much more rapidly than expected; measurements taken off the coast of Washington state show that pH is falling 10 to 20 times faster than projected. One explanation for the discrepancy is the failure of previous models to take into account the effects of biological organisms. The research has also demonstrated that the effects of changes in pH on marine organisms are more pronounced than anticipated.
Compared to terrestrial life, scientific knowledge about the sea is very rudimentary in places. As a consequence, there is good reason to worry about important and unexpected changes arising because of our increasingly acidic oceans. This is all the more reason to keep the carbon that is so densely packed into coal and oil in the ground, rather than allowing it to be released into the atmosphere from our smokestacks, jet engines, and tailpipes.