Corrosion in the Ocean: When coming out of your shell is a Bad Thing

Marine snails are dissolving.

Well, their shells are, at any rate.

We’ve known for a while that the ocean is becoming more acidic. For a brief overview, the ocean’s pH has been, throughout the history of civilization, around 8.25. This means that the ocean is slightly basic (7 is neutral). Currently, the ocean’s pH is between 8.05 and 8.15 on average, with areas of lower pH (higher acidity), which may not seem like a big change, but now we have a dramatic illustration of just how big of a change it really is.

The shells of pteropod snails – free-floating sea snails – are dissolving. Pteropods are tiny “winged” snails that swim around in the water column, and are a major part of the oceanic food chain, to the point where they are sometimes called “the potato chips of the sea”.

Now their shells are dissolving. We knew this was coming – it’s basic chemistry, and it was unavoidable, with a rise in acidity – and we also know what follows. Pteropods, and other creatures like them, form the base of the food web that supports life in the ocean. Removing them from the equation will have a similar effect to removing grass from the Serengeti – the ecosystem will collapse.

The fact that this is happening already means that it may well collapse in the next 50 years.

Over the past couple of years, people have been very focused on declining crop production, as droughts, floods, and heat waves have hammered farms all around the world. Food prices have risen as supply has dropped, which has contributed to unrest like the uprisings now known as the Arab Spring. Now, on top of that, we have to add the very real risk that the 30 BILLION people who rely on seafood for protein will have that resource taken away this century.

This is bad news. There’s no other way to look at it. The ocean is already a desert, but it is on track to become a wasteland, where the only surviving organisms are those that can find refuge from the creeping acidity, and those that can survive off of the scraps that are left behind as the seas die.

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