Earth Day 2013: Facing Ocean Acidification

Sure, it's easy to take a cheap shot at Earth Day. This is the day when companies roll out series of greenwashing claims and eco-pundits publish overlong pieces on what’s wrong with the environmental movement. No doubt it's a day that begs for cynical dismissal.

This year, however, the Earth Day Network has a clever retort: Okay, smart guy, what are YOU doing?

With this year's Faces of Climate Change theme, the goal is to clear up the "remote and hazy" nature of climate change by calling for submissions of photographs and stories from around the world; from people who are affected by, and who are working to address, the complex global changes already underway.

GRACE Program Director and Ecocentric contributor Kyle Rabin recently talked with our chosen Face of Climate Change, Dr. Chris Gobler, a biologist from Stony Brook University on New York’s Long Island. Dr. Gobler studies harmful algal blooms in coastal waters, but he also conducts important research on the impacts of increased carbon dioxide levels on marine life.

As Dr. Gobler says in our video interview, we often associate climate change and the ocean through increased temperatures, sea level rise and coastal storms, but acidification has emerged as a threat. Gobler sees ocean acidification as a "game-changer in the way we think about how climate change can affect the functioning of our oceans."

Since the industrial revolution, atmospheric carbon dioxide has risen by 40 percent thanks to polluting sources like power plants and automobiles. In a profound example of how our energy system impact the world's waters, the ocean has been quietly storing our increased CO2 emissions, and through a series of chemical reactions ocean pH has decreased 30 percent. In other words, the ocean has become more acidic.

It turns out that a lot of ocean life is sensitive to this swing in acidity. Clams and scallops, for example, create their shells by using calcium carbonate in the ocean water. However as the pH falls, so does the amount of carbonate, so these crustaceans have difficulty making their shells. Other crustaceans, like the blue crab, have been shown to feast on the extra CO2 in lab experiments, indicating that increased carbon could mean larger, thicker crab shells. Dr. Gobler's research has shown that smaller organisms appear to be more sensitive to lower pH, particularly at the earliest life stages.

As the Earth Day Network explains, "Every person who does his or her part to fix the problem is also a Face of Climate Change," and indeed Dr. Gobler is doing his part through scientific research.

Take a look at the gallery of people – from many nations and of all ages – who are working to combat climate change in myriad ways. Just try and remain cynical about Earth Day when you have so many inspiring faces staring back.