We’ve been hearing for years how the burning of fossil fuels creates carbon buildup in the atmosphere, leading to global warming. The oceans absorb a lot of that carbon dioxide. This absorption of carbon dioxide changes the pH balance of the ocean, a situation termed “ocean acidification.”

Recent studies are coming to light on what effects ocean acidification is having on the marine environment. The first known affects appear to be manifesting themselves with coral reefs and shellfish. Coral reefs produce eonomic value by way of tourism. Commercial shellfish production represents a multi-billion dollar industry.

As any outdoorsman (or woman) knows, a change in one part of an ecosystem does not sit in a silo. It inevitably has far-reaching effects throughout the ecosystem. This article from VOX summarizes many of the recent scientific studies and the possible effects of ocean acidification.

oysters_tristar“The current rate of ocean acidification appears unprecedented at least over the last 300 million years,” noted a report this week from the World Meteorological Organization.

That’s a big deal — and it’s worth unpacking a bit further. The WMO notes that the oceans currently absorb roughly one-quarter of all the carbon dioxide that we emit from our cars, factories, and power plants each year.

That process helps fend off (some) global warming, but it also comes at a cost: As that extra carbon dioxide dissolves in water, it turns into carbonic acid and decreases the pH levels in the oceans.

This is called “ocean acidification” — and it could have terrible consequences for marine life in the decades ahead. More acidic seawater can chew away at coral reefs and kill oysters by making it harder for them to form protective shells. Acidification might also muck up the food supply for key species like Alaska’s salmon. One recent study estimated that the loss of mollusks alone could cost the world as much as $100 billion per year by century’s end.

Photos: VOX (top); Tristar Seafoods (above)