In the months leading up to last week’s Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, a number of organizations and individuals called for an increased focus on the world’s oceans. As the Global Ocean Forum argued, they are after all “the quintessential sustainable development issue… Just as one cannot do without a healthy heart, the world cannot do without a healthy ocean.”

Illustration of the effects of ocean acidification, Pre-Industrial Revolution through 2100 (Source: Ocean Acidification Research Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks)

One of the many elements of truth behind this statement is that oceans represent a massive carbon sink, having taken up approximately 48 percent of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. Through this process of ongoing absorption, the oceans have played a vital role in maintaining global balance and mitigating the climatic effects of anthropogenic emissions: the more CO2 we released into the atmosphere, the more the oceans absorbed. Unfortunately, the ocean – despite its vastness – has its limits, and this absorption comes at an enormous cost.

Once absorbed by the ocean, CO2 sets in motion a series of chemical reactions that decrease seawater’s pH level, making it more acidic and depleting the water of essential compounds like calcium carbonate that many marine organisms (including corals and mollusks) need to construct their shells. Ocean acidification – dubbed by some commentators as the other carbon dioxide problem, or ‘global warming’s evil twin’ – can also reduce respiratory efficiency in animals like squid and impair sensory ability in reef fish, making it difficult for them to locate prey.

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biodiversity, carbon dioxide, carbon sinks, Climate Change, marine ecosystem, oceans, Rio+20

International Congress for Conservation Biology logoWhether big cats on U.S. soil or tiny bats around the world, more and more species are being driven toward extinction and crammed into smaller slivers of habitat as a result of unchecked climate change. That’s bad for the diversity of life on Earth and often bad for people, too, according to recent research by conservation biologists and other analysts. But amid the gloom, some promising strategies might protect people from harsher climates while preserving nature.

At the annual conference of the Society for Conservation Biology, held earlier this month in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, 128 of the nearly 1,100 research presentations, posters, and papers dealt exclusively with the impacts of climate change on the Earth’s species. The lesson learned: that this impact is nearly always negative. Perhaps twice as many additional studies considered climate change alongside other major drivers of extinction such as population growth and habitat destruction, making climate change the biggest issue at the conference. Not even 10 years earlier, climate featured heavily in only half as much of the Society’s work.

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