The pH scale, which measures acidity in terms of the concentration of hydrogen ions, runs from zero to 14. At the low end of the scale are strong acids, such as hydrochloric acid, that release hydrogen readily (more readily than carbonic acid does). At the high end are strong bases such as lye. Pure, distilled water has a pH of 7, which is neutral. Seawater should be slightly basic, with a pH around 8.2 near the sea surface. So far CO2 emissions have reduced the pH there by about 0.1. Like the Richter scale, the pH scale is logarithmic, so even small numerical changes represent large effects. A pH drop of 0.1 means the water has become 30 percent more acidic. If present trends continue, surface pH will drop to around 7.8 by 2100. At that point the water will be 150 percent more acidic than it was in 1800.
The acidification that has occurred so far is probably irreversible. Although in theory it's possible to add chemicals to the sea to counter the effects of the extra CO2, as a practical matter, the volumes involved would be staggering; it would take at least two tons of lime, for example, to offset a single ton of carbon dioxide, and the world now emits more than 30 billion tons of CO2 each year. Meanwhile, natural processes that could counter acidification—such as the weathering of rocks on land—operate far too slowly to make a difference on a human time-scale. Even if CO2 emissions were somehow to cease today, it would take tens of thousands of years for ocean chemistry to return to its pre-industrial condition.
Acidification has myriad effects. By favoring some marine microbes over others, it is likely to alter the availability of key nutrients like iron and nitrogen. For similar reasons it may let more sunlight penetrate the sea surface. By changing the basic chemistry of seawater, acidification is also expected to reduce the water's ability to absorb and muffle low-frequency sound by up to 40 percent, making some parts of the ocean noisier. Finally, acidification interferes with reproduction in some species and with the ability of others—the so-called calcifiers—to form shells and stony skeletons of calcium carbonate. These last effects are the best documented ones, but whether they will prove the most significant in the long run is unclear.
In 2008 a group of more than 150 leading researchers issued a declaration stating that they were "deeply concerned by recent, rapid changes in ocean chemistry," which could within decades "severely affect marine organisms, food webs, biodiversity, and fisheries." Warm-water coral reefs are the prime worry. But because carbon dioxide dissolves more readily in cold water, the impact may actually show up first closer to the Poles. Scientists have already documented significant effects on pteropods—tiny swimming snails that are an important food for fish, whales, and birds in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. Experiments show that pteropod shells grow more slowly in acidified seawater.
Will organisms be able to adapt to the new ocean chemistry? The evidence from Castello Aragonese is not encouraging. The volcanic vents have been pouring CO2 into the water for at least a thousand years, Hall-Spencer told me when I visited. But the area where the pH is 7.8—the level that may be reached oceanwide by the end of the century—is missing nearly a third of the species that live nearby, outside the vent system. Those species have had "generations on generations to adapt to these conditions," Hall-Spencer said, "yet they're not there.
"Because it's so important, we humans put a lot of energy into making sure that the pH of our blood is constant," he went on. "But some of these lower organisms, they don't have the physiology to do that. They've just got to tolerate what's happening outside. And so they get pushed beyond their limits."
Fifty miles off the coast of Australia and half a world away from Castello Aragonese lies the equally tiny One Tree Island. One Tree, which actually has several hundred trees, is shaped like a boomerang, with two arms that stretch out into the Coral Sea. In the crook of the boomerang there's a small research station run by the University of Sydney. As it happened, just as I arrived one spectacular summer afternoon, an enormous loggerhead turtle heaved herself up onto the beach in front of the lab buildings. The island's entire human population—11 people, not including me—gathered around to watch.
One Tree Island is part of the Great Barrier Reef, the world's largest reef complex, which stretches for more than 1,400 miles. The entire island is composed of bits of coral rubble, ranging from marble to basketball size, that began piling up after a peculiarly violent storm about 4,000 years ago. Even today, the island has nothing that could really be called dirt. The trees seem to rise up directly out of the rubble like flagpoles.
When scientists first started visiting the island in the 1960s, they posed questions like, How do reefs grow? Nowadays the questions are more urgent. "Something like 25 percent of all species in the oceans spend at least part of their life in coral reef systems," Ken Caldeira, an expert on ocean acidification at the Carnegie Institution, said one evening before heading out to collect water samples on the reef. "Corals build the architecture of the ecosystem, and it's pretty clear if they go, the whole ecosystem goes."
Coral reefs are already threatened by a wide array of forces. Rising water temperatures are producing more frequent "bleaching" events, when corals turn a stark white and often die. Overfishing removes grazers that keep reefs from being overgrown with algae. Agricultural runoff fertilizes algae, further upsetting reef ecology. In the Caribbean some formerly abundant coral species have been devastated by an infection that leaves behind a white band of dead tissue. Probably owing to all these factors, coral cover in the Caribbean declined by around 80 percent between 1977 and 2001.
Ocean acidification adds yet another threat, one that may be less immediate but ultimately more devastating to hard, reef-building corals. It undermines their basic, ancient structure—the stony skeleton that's secreted by millions upon millions of coral polyps over thousands of years.
Coral polyps are tiny animals that form a thin layer of living tissue on the surface of a reef. They're shaped a bit like flowers, with six or more tentacles that capture food and feed it to a central mouth. (Many corals actually get most of their food from algae that live and photosynthesize inside them; when corals bleach, it's because stress has prompted the polyps to expel those dark symbionts.) Each polyp surrounds itself with a protective, cup-shaped exoskeleton of calcium carbonate that contributes to the collective skeleton of the whole colony.
To make calcium carbonate, corals need two ingredients: calcium ions and carbonate ions. Acids react with carbonate ions, in effect tying them up. So as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, carbonate ions become scarcer in the water, and corals have to expend more energy to collect them. Under lab conditions coral skeleton growth has been shown to decline pretty much linearly as the carbonate concentration drops off.
Slow growth may not matter much in the lab. Out in the ocean, though, reefs are constantly being picked at by other organisms, both large and small. (When I went snorkeling off One Tree Island, I could hear parrotfish chomping away at the reef.) "A reef is like a city," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, who used to direct the One Tree Island Research Station and now heads the Global Change Institute at Australia's University of Queensland. "You've got construction firms and you've got demolition firms. By restricting the building materials that go to the construction firms, you tip the balance toward destruction, which is going on all the time, even on a healthy reef. In the end you wind up with a city that destroys itself."