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Global Warming’s Evil Twin

Although debate still rages over the true effects of carbon emissions and the increase of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, there is little doubt that the Earth’s climate is, indeed, warming.

Whether a part of natural cycles, or man-made pollution, or both, climate change is happening.

Most of us are familiar with the dire predictions that come with an analysis of a warming Earth: coastal flooding due to the melting of ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, increases in violent weather such as more powerful hurricanes, dangerous thunderstorms and, ironically, more debilitating snowfall.

But there is an “evil twin” to global warming, as Jane Lubchenco, the chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, was quoted as saying by the Associated Press recently.

The problem is the acidification of our oceans. Higher levels of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere are resulting in an increase in the acidity of the oceans. This acidification of our seas is, it turns out, posing a grave threat to coral reefs the world over.

Acidification is occurring as the oceans absorb more and more carbon dioxide from the air. This is done through acid rain, and through the work of myriad species of plankton floating along the surface of the ocean. This acidity, although somewhat diluted in open seas, is concentrated in shallow waters. And shallow waters are where coral reefs are located.

The higher levels of acid in the water work to dissolve the reef’s calcium carbonate branches and prevent new ones from forming. It eats away at the shells of bivalves such as mussels and clams and even affects the fish that inhabit these delicate ecosystems.

Coral reefs provide shelter for numerous species of fish but are generally only located along coastlines and in relatively shallow water. Because of the shelter afforded by the reef, fish tend to congregate there. The loss of coral reefs would be a major biological disaster because of the loss of associated marine life.

In addition, coral reefs buttress the shorelines and provide protection from erosion and storms. The economic impact of degraded or destroyed coral reefs would be enormous.

Coral grows very, very slowly, and most coral reefs as we know them today have taken millions of years to form. Yet the effects of climate change, including coral bleaching due to elevated ocean temperatures, and acidification, are undoing all these years of growth and having an immediate effect on these reefs. All around the world, coral reefs are damaged, dying and degraded. And while the general public focuses on higher temperatures, melting ice caps and coastal flooding, ocean acidification is very much like a “silent killer”.

The answers to global warming are not immediate; long term thinking and commitment is required to develop solutions to these problems. But we don’t have a long time to act. Getting our HOWs right environmentally means committing to preserving our planet for future generations and taking the steps necessary now to forge a long term path towards greater sustainability. It is troubling to see politicians, governments and interest groups drag out the debate while the world is changing around us. It is equally dis-heartening to know that in our short-attention span world long term commitment usually doesn’t survive the length of a presidential term in office. We need different thinking and greater resolve as a people. We need to act with urgency and with the long term view. That is what getting our HOWs right would look like in this case.

Topics: Sustainability