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HomeLifeCoral Conundrum: A Boater’s Guide to Our Oceans’ Changing Chemistry

Coral Conundrum: A Boater’s Guide to Our Oceans’ Changing Chemistry

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Take a big breath and hold it. The oxygen you inhale is absorbed by the blood and carried throughout your body. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide is carried back to your lungs and is released. But wait – keep holding your breath. Your lungs will ache as you keep yourself from exhaling. Trigger impulses from your brain will signal your body to breathe again. This trigger – the urge to breathe – is not caused by the lack of oxygen in your body, but rather a build up in carbon dioxide and a change in your body’s pH.

Okay, you can exhale now. Breathe.

Much like your body just experienced – the oceans’ pH is dropping, their chemistry rapidly changing.

Sailors for the Sea is dedicated to educating boaters about this change in ocean chemistry, called ocean acidification, because it is the number one threat to ocean health. The effects of ocean acidification are immense, and like dominoes, as parts of the food chain disappear and coral reefs vanish, 20% of the world’s food supply will go with it.

Where is all that CO2 Going?

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Seawater is naturally alkaline, with a healthy pH around 8.2. But since the industrial revolution, this number has dropped 30% and seawater has become more acidic. In the last two centuries alone, the ocean has absorbed 525 billion tons of carbon dioxide emitted through the burning of fossil fuels. This recent change in chemistry is happening faster than any known change in ocean chemistry for the last 50 million years.

The oceans currently absorb 22 million tons of carbon dioxide per day, or one third of all carbon emissions. When carbon dioxide reacts with seawater it forms carbonic acid – the same acid that creates fizz in soft drinks. This fizz creates a problem for many creatures in the ocean that form shells such as lobsters, oysters, krill-like creatures call pteropods, and coral; many things that fish like to eat and need to survive.

Are the Coral Reefs in Trouble?

Bleached brain coral center surrounded by the global extent and severity of mass coral bleaching have increased worldwide over the last decade. Red dots indicate severe bleaching. Marshall and Schuttenberg 2006;15 Photo credit: NOAA
Bleached brain coral center surrounded by the global extent and severity of mass coral bleaching have increased worldwide over the last decade. Red dots indicate severe bleaching. Marshall and Schuttenberg 2006;15 Photo credit: NOAA

Why is coral so important?
Coral reefs are often described as the “rainforests of the ocean” and they contain over 25% of the world’s fish species. Unfortunately, increasing acidity significantly reduces the ability of reef-building corals to produce skeletons, putting the fish that live there and the many marine creatures eating these fish at risk.

Coral reefs also provide many coastal communities with a natural protection from storm surges and hurricanes. On top of that, coral reefs make up a large portion of the tourism industry in tropical destinations. In the United States, this includes revenue of $1.2 billion per year in the Florida Keys, and $360 million per year in Hawaii.

Over the last century, sea surface temperatures have risen 0.9°F — also a result of excess carbon dioxide. When waters get too hot, coral reefs expel the algae (zooxanthellae) that help nourish them and give them their vibrant color in a process commonly referred to as bleaching. This has caused Caribbean coral cover to decrease by 80% in less than three decades. Reefs can recover from bleaching, but scientists say they need to be in pristine condition prior to a warming event. Ocean acidification could be the second punch that sends them into extinction.

BUT there is hope!

Experiences of Marine Science Experts: Second in a Four-Part Series

The excess carbon dioxide in the oceans is manmade – and therefore we have the ability to stop it. But we need to change our habits individually and collectively to make a difference. For example, if 10% of registered vehicles in the United States (25 million cars) drove 1 mile less per day, it would eliminate 22 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions – the same amount the ocean absorbs everyday.

Sailors for the Sea have created the NT3 pledge – a promise to the oceans to leave No Trash, No Trail, No Trace. By joining the NT3 pledge, boaters join the fight to stop ocean acidification and reduce their carbon footprint by:

Reducing plastic trash such as water bottles, cutlery and grocery bags, which create carbon emissions during their manufacture.

Reducing a carbon trail by eliminating unnecessary chemicals on board, using copper-free bottom paint and using pump out stations.

Reducing carbon trace by efficiently managing engine use and switching to renewable energy.

Sailors and boaters have a special connection to the oceans – let’s show the oceans some love and ensure they are healthy now – and for generations to come! Take the pledge at www.sailorsforthesea.org/nt3

Take Action – Protect Coral Reefs
Human impact is the reason coral reefs are declining, but it easy for boaters to turn the tide with simple precautions:

• Use moorings wherever possible and if you must anchor, take extra precaution to ensure the anchor and its chain are not near coral.

• Touching coral when diving and snorkeling is damaging to the reef – take only photos, leave only bubbles!

• Chemicals used on boats end up in the water below. Protect your waters and your health by using eco-friendly cleaning products.

• Reduce your carbon footprint. Warming sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification could make coral reefs extinct by the year 2100. Both are caused by excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Sailors for the Sea is a leading conservation organization that engages, educates, inspires and activates the sailing and boating community toward healing the ocean.

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So Caribbean you can almost taste the rum...

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