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Ocean Acidification

Ocean acidification is the chemical process that occurs as carbon dioxide (CO2) is absorbed by seawater causing reductions in the pH levels of the ocean’s surface waters. The ocean absorbs approximately one quarter of the CO2 released into the atmosphere each year. A relatively stable pH level in the ocean has been maintained for tens of millions of years, however the pH level has dropped 30% since the Industrial Revolution, becoming much more acidic. This is due to the fact that since the Industrial Revolution, the anthropogenic release of CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels has increased at an alarming rate from 280 ppm to the current level of 400 ppm. As atmospheric CO2 levels increase, so do CO2 levels in the ocean, causing the ocean to become increasingly acidic. It is estimated that ocean surface waters could become 150% more acidic than pre-industrial times by the end of this century. This would result in a pH level that hasn’t been experience for over 20 million years.

Ocean acidification and the resulting reduction of pH levels are harming the ocean environment and marine organisms. Acidification is causing many parts of the ocean to become under-saturated with calcium carbonate minerals, which are the key components for the creation of skeletons and shells for many calcifying marine organisms. Carbonic acid, which is formed when CO2 dissolves in the ocean, is the inhibiting factor of shell growth in marine organisms, such as oysters, clams, sea urchins, shallow water corals, deep sea corals, and calcareous plankton. Research indicates that by the end of this century coral reefs may erode faster than they can be produced. This could potentially affect over 1 million species that depend on the coral reef environment for their habitat.

Ocean acidification’s harmful affect on marine species such as Phytoplankton, Zooplankton, and Pteropods, which are small, shelled organisms that form the base of the food chain, further affect the marine organisms that feed on them. Any disturbance in the populations of the species at the bottom of the food chain causes a ripple effect among the populations of the organisms at the top of the food chain. This further affects humans since we rely on the ocean for food and jobs in industries that harvest that food. In fact, over a billion people are looking to the ocean as their primary source of protein, and 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, tourism, renewable resources, and coastal protection.

Key champions in Congress continue to lead on addressing this issue. Current & past legislation (stay tuned for further developments in this Congress!):

  • April 16th, 2013 the Obama Administration released its final plan for the implementation of the National Ocean Policy which was established by Executive Order in 2010. The Plan intends to better manage and protect the ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes resources, which will also greatly benefit the U.S. economy.

  • April 1, 2013 U.S. Senator and ocean champion Sheldon Whitehouse announced the re-introduction of his National Endowment for the Oceans, Coasts, and Great Lakes Act (S. 646). This legislation would provide funding to protect our coasts and oceans as well as the research, tourism, and job opportunities they provide. Cosponsors of the bill are Senators and ocean champions Bill Nelson and Maria Cantwell, and Senator Richard Blumenthal.

  • January 22, 2013 Senator and ocean champion Barbara Boxer sponsored the West Coast Ocean Protection Act of 2013 (S.45) to permanently prevent offshore oil drilling along the west coast.

  • January 3, 2013 ocean champion and U.S. Representative for Guam, Madeleine Bordallo, sponsored the Coral Reef Conservation Act Reauthorization and Enhancement Amendments of 2013 (H.R. 71). The passage of the Coral Reef Conservation Act authorized funding to NOAA through 2004 to protect and manage coral reefs.

  • House Representative Baird and Senator Lautenberg took leadership roles in the introduction of The Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009 (H.R. 14). The bill, which passed, calls for ocean acidification research and monitoring.

  • Congressman Markey led the Waxman-Markey Climate bill (H.R. 2454 American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009) to passage in the House in June 2009. This legislation aims to create clean energy jobs, achieve energy independence, reduce global warming pollution, and transition to a clean energy economy.