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The Ocean’s Death March


Something is out of kilter in the ocean.

The problem is found throughout the marine food chain from the base, plankton (showing early signs of reproductive and maturation complications) to the largest fish species in the water, the whale shark (on the endangered species list.)

The ocean is not functioning properly. It’s a festering problem that will not go away. It’s called acidification, and, as long as fossil fuels predominate, it will methodically, and assuredly, over time, kill the ocean.

Scientists already have evidence of trouble in the seawater.

The use of fossil fuel, in large measure, is the primary pathway behind this impending extinction event. Excessive quantities of CO2, of which the ocean absorbs 30% of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere, are changing the ocean’s chemistry, called acidification, which eventually has the potential to kill most, but not all, ocean life forms.

This problem is unquestionably serious, and here’s why: The rate of change of ocean pH (measure of acidity) is 10 times faster than 55 million years ago. That period of geologic history was directly linked to a mass extinction event as levels of CO2 mysteriously went off the charts.

Ten times larger is big, very big, when a measurement of 0.1 in change of pH is consistent with significant change!

According to C.L.Dybas, On a Collision Course: Oceans Plankton and Climate Change, BioScience, 2006: “This acidification is occurring at a rate [10-to-100] times faster [depending upon the area] than ever recorded.”

In other words, as far as science is concerned, the rate of change of pH in the ocean is “off the charts.” Therefore, and as a result, nobody knows how this will play out because there is no known example in geologic history of such a rapid change in pH. This begs the biggest question of modern times, which is: Will ocean acidification cause an extinction event this century, within current lifetimes?

The Extinction Event Already Appears to be Underway

According to the State of the Ocean Report, d/d October 3, 2013,International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO): “This [acidification] of the ocean is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change… The next mass extinction may have already begun.”

According to Jane Lubchenco, PhD, who is the former director (2009-13) of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the effects of acidification are already present in some oyster fisheries, like the West Coast of the U.S.  According to Lubchenco: “You can actually see this happening… It’s not something a long way into the future. It is a very big problem,” Fiona Harvey, Ocean Acidification due to Carbon Emissions is at Highest for 300M Years, The Guardian October 2, 2013.

And, according to Richard Feely, PhD, (Dep. Of Oceanography, University of Washington) and Christopher Sabine, PhD, (Senior Fellow, University of Washington, Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean): “If the current carbon dioxide emission trends continue… the ocean will continue to undergo acidification, to an extent and at rates that have not occurred for tens of millions of years… nearly all marine life forms that build calcium carbonate shells and skeletons studied by scientists thus far have shown deterioration due to increasing carbon dioxide levels in seawater,” Dr. Richard Feely and Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographers, Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, April 2006.

And, according to Alex Rogers, PhD, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, OneWorld (UK) Video, Aug.  2011: “I think if we continue on the current trajectory, we are looking at a mass extinction of marine species even if only coral reef systems go down, which it looks like they will certainly by the end of the century.”

“Today’s human-induced acidification is a unique event in the geological history of our planet due to its rapid rate of change. An analysis of ocean acidification over the last 300 million years highlights the unprecedented rate of change of the current acidification. The most comparable event 55 million years ago was linked to mass extinctions… At that time, though the rate of change of ocean pH was rapid, it may have been 10 times slower than current change,” IGBP, IOC, SCOR [2013], Ocean Acidification Summary for Policymakers – Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High- CO2 World, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, Stockholm, Sweden, 2013.

Fifty-five million years ago, during a dark period of time known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), huge quantities of CO2 were somehow released into the atmosphere, nobody knows from where or how, but temperatures around the world soared by 10 degrees F, and the ocean depths became so corrosive that sea shells simply dissolved rather than pile up on the ocean floor.

“Most, if not all, of the five global mass extinctions in Earth’s history carry the fingerprints of the main symptoms of… global warming, ocean acidification and anoxia or lack of oxygen. It is these three factors — the ‘deadly trio’ — which are present in the ocean today. In fact, (the situation) is unprecedented in the Earth’s history because of the high rate and speed of change,” Rogers, A.D., Laffoley, D. d’A. 2011. International Earth System Expert Workshop on Ocean Stresses and Impacts, Summary Report, IPSO Oxford, 2011.

Zooming in on the Future, circa 2050 – Location: Castello Aragonese

Scientists have discovered a real life Petri dish of seawater conditions similar to what will occur by the year 2050, assuming humans continue to emit CO2 at current rates.

This real life Petri dish is located in the Tyrrhenian Sea at Castello Aragonese, which is a tiny island that rises straight up out of the sea like a tower. The island is located 17 miles west of Naples. Tourists like to visit Aragonese Castle (est. 474 BC) on the island to see the display of medieval torture devices.

But, the real action is offshore, under the water, where Castello Aragonese holds a very special secret, which is an underwater display that gives scientists a window 50 years into the future. Here’s the scoop: A quirk of geology is at work whereby volcanic vents on the seafloor surrounding the island are emitting (bubbling) large quantities of CO2. In turn, this replicates the level of CO2 scientists expect the ocean to absorb over the course of the next 50 years.

“When you get to the extremely high CO2 almost nothing can tolerate that,” according to Jason-Hall Spencer, PhD, professor of marine biology, School of Marine Science and Engineering, Plymouth University (UK), who studies the seawater around Castello Aragonese (Elizabeth Kolbert, The Acid Sea, National Geographic, April, 2011.)

The adverse effects of excessive CO2 are found everywhere in the immediate surroundings of the tiny island. For example, barnacles, which are one of the toughest of all sea life, are missing around the base of the island where seawater measurements show the heaviest concentration of CO2. And, within the water, limpets, which wander into the area seeking food, show severe shell dissolution. As a result, their shells are almost completely transparent. Also, the underwater sea grass is a vivid green, which is abnormal because tiny organisms usually coat the blades of sea grass and dull the color, but no such organisms exists. Additionally, sea urchins, which are commonplace further away from the vents, are nowhere to be seen around the island.

The only life forms found around Castello Aragonese are jellyfish, sea grass, and algae; whereas, an abundance of underwater sea life is found in the more distant surrounding waters. Thus, the Castello Aragonese Petri dish is essentially a dead sea except for weeds.

This explains why Jane Lubchenco, former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, refers to ocean acidification as global warming’s “equally evil twin,” Ibid.

To that end, a slow motion death march is consuming life in the ocean in real time, and we humans are witnesses to this extinction event.

What to do?

The logic is quite simple. If fossil fuels cause extinction events, stop using fossil fuels.

Postscript: Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of IPSO and professor of Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford (Fellow of Somerville College): “Climate Change affects are going to be extremely serious, and it’s interesting when you think many people who talk about this in terms of what will happen in the future… our children will see the effects of this. Well, actually we’re seeing very severe impacts from climate change already… We’re already there.” (Source: State of the, Video Interview, Dr. Alex Rogers)

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at

Robert Hunziker lives in Los Angeles and can be reached at

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