Ocean acidification is the biggest issue facing the planet. It threatens everyone from microscopic plankton to blue whales and has the potential to wipe out most life on earth.
Much of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere each year doesn't stay in the atmosphere, it gets absorbed into the ocean, making the ocean more acidic. In a more acidic environment animals who build shells and skeletons out of calcium carbonate can't form.
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution 4 quadrillion pounds of carbon dioxide have been released into the atmosphere and the ocean has become 30% more acidic. By the end of this century, if current trends continue, the ocean could become up to 150% more acidic.
Volcanic vents in Papua New Guinea shed light on what the future could look like if ocean acidification continues. Carbon dioxide bubbling out of the sea floor acts as a time machine, simulating the future conditions we're headed towards. Around these vents, not much can live. The corals that once inhabited the area are dissolving, turning to rubble.
If acidity increases at current rates it is predicted that coral reefs worldwide will literally start dissolving by 2070. But corals are expected to be wiped out much sooner - by 2048 - due to the combination of ocean warming and increased acidity.
The effects of losing coral reefs would be devastating. It would mean losing 30% of all species in the ocean at least. And the effects could ripple out much further.
50% of the world's coral reefs are already gone. The fact that we are losing them so quickly is a sign of something even more terrifying. Ocean acidification has been implicated in at least 4 of the 5 mass extinctions in Earth's history. In every mass extinction, coral reefs have been the first to go down. They are considered a "canary in the coal mine" warning of what's ahead. If the destructive activities of industrial civilization continue, it's not just reefs that will be in jeopardy, but all life.
Plankton are tiny marine organisms who form the base of the ocean food web, and while we might not realize it, we depend on these creatures for our own survival. Two out of every three breaths we take come from the ocean. Most of the oxygen in the air we breath is produced by plankton. These organisms may be the most important species to the survival of life on Earth and they're threatened by ocean acidification. 40% of the world's plankton populations are already gone and it is estimated that we're losing them at a rate of 1% per year.
Ocean acidification was only discovered recently when chemists and biologists sat down together and left the room vomiting because they realized the implications of what they had found. Acidification is not as well-know as climate change but it is a much bigger and potentially devastating problem.
With carbon emissions accelerating, the acidity of the ocean is increasing faster than it has in previous mass extinctions.
The situation facing the ocean is unprecedented in all of Earth's history and it will require an equally unprecedented response from those of us who care about the natural world if we are going to turn things around and save life on earth.