[Editor's note: Last month was Victory Month, which looked back at some of the various victories of 2010. This month, 13.7 Billion Years looks four decades into the future, presenting imagined reports from the year 2050, supported by current news, facts and scientific predictions. To see what's real and what's not, click on the links within the text.]
JANUARY 10, 2050 (Auckland) -- Forty-five years ago, in 2005, a study entitled "Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms" was published in the journal Nature. Though its findings were extremely frightening, it received little attention by the media.
The study was undertaken by almost 20 scientific and academic institutions, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Seattle, Washington; Laboratoire d'Océanographie et du Climat: Expérimentations et Approches Numériques (LOCEAN), Plouzané, France; Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, Massachusetts; Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics, UCLA, Los Angeles, California; Frontier Research Center for Global Change, Yokohama, Japan; Climate and Environmental Physics, Physics Institute, University of Bern, Switzerland; Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences (AOS) Program, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey; and Max Planck Institut für Meteorologie, Hamburg, Germany.
According to the report's authors, "Today's surface ocean is saturated with respect to calcium carbonate, but increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are reducing ocean pH and carbonate ion concentrations, and thus the level of calcium carbonate saturation. Experimental evidence suggests that if these trends continue, key marine organisms -- such as corals and some plankton -- will have difficulty maintaining their external calcium carbonate skeletons...Our findings indicate that conditions detrimental to high-latitude ecosystems could develop within decades, not centuries as suggested previously."
Less than five decades later, their predictions -- based on 13 models of the ocean-carbon cycle used to assess calcium carbonate saturation under the IS92a "business-as-usual" scenario for future man-made carbon dioxide emissions -- have come true.
In 2010, Achim Steiner, then the head of the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), said, "Ocean acidification is yet another red flag being raised, carrying planetary health warnings about the uncontrolled growth in greenhouse gas emissions," according to Reuters.
"About 25 percent of the world's emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, are absorbed by the seas, where it converts to carbonic acid," according to the Reuters article. "The pH value of the oceans, a scale from alkaline to acidic, has fallen 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution in a shift to acidity."
But neither the world's leaders nor the general public listened to such warnings, and as a result, the world's coral reefs and commercial fish stocks have been devastated. Most marine animals that depend on the health of coral reefs -- about a quarter of all marine life on Earth -- have been declared extinct or threatened. Ocean acidity is on target to increase by 150% of its 2010 levels by the end of the century.
For the past five decades, humans have chosen the "business-as-usual" path of carbon dioxide emission, and as a result, the Earth's oceans are reeling from the greatest change in their chemistry in the last 65 million years, and it is fully man-made.
Shellfish like mussels, shrimp and lobsters are in extremely short supply as these animals cannot form their shells in their natural oceanic environment. The vast majority of them are now grown in a small number of high-tech food labs, which are expensive to maintain. As a result, market prices have skyrocketed. With the average price of lobster reaching upwards of 900 ameros per pound, shellfish are now eaten only by the super-rich.
Combined with the effects of overfishing, climate change, desertification and human overpopulation, the effects of ocean acidification have exacerbated the rapidly growing global food crisis -- particularly the over 1 billion people around the world who rely on fish as a main part of their diet.
"Part of the problem is education -- most humans have been unaware of the grave environmental situation that has plunged the world into several crises over the past fifty years," said Professor Ned Land of the Nautilus Underwater Ocean Observatory (NUOO), located about 300 miles west of Auckland in the Tasman Sea, via email.
Land noted a little-known 2011 Michigan State University study that found that most American college students did not grasp the scientific concept of the carbon cycle, one of the most important of Earth's natural cycles. As a result, Land said, "the vast majority of Americans -- and indeed, humans in general -- conducted their lives as if they were living in a bubble. And now, that bubble has finally popped."
[Part of the series "Reports from 2050."]
- Register your support for Ocean Ark Alliance and Ocean Acidification Campaign
- Sign the International Declaration of Reef Rights
- Sign a Climate Protection Action Fund letter demanding that the Senate pass comprehensive climate and clean energy legislation
- Download the Greenpeace "Less Is More" Toolkit to get simple tips to reduce your carbon footprint
- Sign up to receive updates from the 350.0rg global movement to address the climate crisis
- Learn more about transitioning to an earth-friendly diet
- Monitor the growing devastation with Peter Russell's World Clock
- Analyze and reduce your impact on the environment with the National Grid Floe
- Add your voice to the WE Campaign to affect bold action on climate change
- Follow 13.7 Billion Years on Twitter
- Report from 2050: Too Many Mouths to Feed (January 3, 2010)
- Rise of the Herbivores (October 29, 2010)
- An Examined Diet (October 26, 2010)
- Zeroing in on 350 (October 8, 2010)
- 75 (September 28, 2010)
- 514,000,000 (September 27, 2010)
- 10,000 (September 23, 2010)
- 37 (September 15, 2010)
- Too Many People (July 22, 2010)
- The Dirty Man of Europe (June 29, 2010)
- Jimmy Carter Was Right (June 26, 2010)
- Shantih Shantih Shantih (June 22, 2010)
- Our Carbon Future (May 27, 2010)
- Which Countries Are Killing the Environment? (May 12, 2010)
- Enter the Dead Zone (April 20, 2009)
- Coral Reefs: Here Now, Gone Tomorrow? (April 3, 2009)
- Oceanic Acid Trip (March 10, 2009)