Animals in Therapy | Deep Dive

Ommm… crustaceans are going (with it)

Is zoning out the answer? You know carbon dioxide (CO2) levels are rising, that the earth and oceans are getting warmer, the climate’s changing. The news can be overwhelming, and it can seem futile wondering if there’s anything to be done. Why stress it? Better perhaps to meditate. Find your inner calm, a space where you can temporarily lose yourself. 

Except that crustaceans, molluscs, corals, and a heap of tiny floating shelled creatures called zooplankton really are losing themselves. For them, the impacts of a less well known but equally serious process called ‘ocean acidification’ go way beyond some feel good wellness exercise.

A bit gassy?

Over the past two and half centuries that we’ve been mining and burning coal, oil, and gas, 400 billion (metric) tons of CO2 has been released into the atmosphere. At least 25% of this is absorbed by the ocean. 

Initially, folks concerned about global warming reasoned that the more CO2 dissolving in water, the better. It would mean less wrapping the planet like a blanket, making it hotter. The logic seemed sound. But it turns out that when it mixes with seawater, CO2 reacts with it in a way that isn’t so great for shelled creatures, or even fish, for that matter.

Swimming in acid

Water and carbon dioxide combine to make carbonic acid, and this dissolves the calcium carbonate shells of some underwater species. It’s a big deal. The shells of a whole group of super-small crustaceans known as Foraminifera are already breaking down because of the decrease in ocean pH levels. It’s predicted they could go extinct by the end of the century. 

At the same time oysters, mussels, crabs, and shrimp find it harder to build their shells, and that has a knock-on effect. Who cares? Well, everyone should as what’s happening affects the food cycle. At the salty sharp end are a heap of bigger fish who regularly munch these Foraminifera micro-dudes and, in turn, get munched on by bigger fish. 

Stressed-out corals

Then there’s corals. Astonishing animals you could mistake for wacky underwater foliage. Corals provide food and shelter for a quarter of the ocean’s critters, but they’re already under stress from the effects of ocean warming. Rising water temperatures mean they’re kicking out algae buried in their tissues and saying sayonara to their fabulous colours. 

With ocean acidification thrown into the mix, their skeletons are also deteriorating; many aren’t growing as fast. By 2080, it’s predicted that otherwise healthy specimens will be disintegrating faster than they can rebuild. Precisely what this could mean for ocean communities is impossible to say.

Change like never before

Of course, ocean acidification isn’t just affecting shelled creatures, corals and fish. All are important sources of food and livelihood for millions of humans, too. Around the world, people living beside the sea and surviving on its riches are noticing changes. Shellfish industries in places like the Pacific Northwest of the US are at risk as oyster larvae and other species unable to form their shells, dwindle. 

We know there were mass extinctions caused by ocean acidification in the past. But the ocean is 40% more acidic than it was at the start of the industrial revolution when we began our relationship with fossil fuels. That’s the fastest change in 50 MILLION YEARS. By 2,100, that increase could be 150%.

Yet there is still time to protect our ocean’s incredible biodiversity.

Every action helps

The good news is that the technology to do so already exists. It’s called trees and other natural ecosystems, like wetlands. Restoring these terrestrial environments will help save our oceans, as will re-establishing coral reefs. Reducing our use of fossil fuels is critical, too. On top of all this, we need to advance carbon capture and storage technologies.

As individuals we can help, simply by paying attention to the way we live; the collective impact of small choices we make every day. If you feel strongly about what’s happening in our oceans, please repost this video or infographic. You can learn more by signing up to our newsletter and checking out organizations that we think are doing a great job: 

  • Click here to sign up to our On the Edge newsletter. Once a month we’ll send you great stories about endangered species and the natural world.

  • Captura is a company that uses its patented electrodialysis technology to remove CO2

    from seawater before pumping the decarbonized water back into the ocean.

  • Nature-based Solutions Initiative An interdisciplinary team of scientists collaborating with policymakers and practitioners on nature-based solutions, such as planting initiatives. 

  • Natural State works with communities, industry, and governments to protect, restore and rewild large landscapes.