The Growing Problem of Ocean Acidification and How the Shipping Industry is Tackling it

By Vicky Harris, Vice President Marketing on September 18, 2018
Vicky Harris
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Life is both fragile and resilient. On the one hand, thriving organisms―from algae to us―rely on a delicate balance in their ecosystem. A long chain of connected conditions sustains this gentle balance; altering it can disrupt life in unpredictable ways. This is the fragile side of life. On the other hand, life is resilient and sprouts almost anywhere on Earth given the right conditions. From the vast microbes living inside boiling vents at the bottom of the ocean to a small flower blooming from a crack on a busy city sidewalk, life finds a way and takes hold.

At some point in the last century, our civilization gained the capability to affect life on a global scale. Our impact on the planet is unprecedented. Not only can we thrive alongside the flora and fauna that share nature with us, but we also can affect the delicate ecosystems on which life depends. One such ecosystem that we are affecting on a global scale is our oceans. Today, we explore the causes of the problem and how one industry intimately associated with oceans, shipping, is stepping up to create a more sustainable future.

Carbon emissions are disturbing the delicate marine balance on which the health of the planet depends. Shipping is coming to the rescue.

Highest Acidic Level in 14 Million Years

This summer, the scientific community reached a consensus that they expect the oceans to become more acidic than at any point in the past 14 million years. An article in Forbes in July indicated that the CO2 released into the atmosphere since the beginning of our use of fossil fuels at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution has impacted the world’s oceans―which have been “acting like a massive sponge by absorbing up to half of this CO2.” Two centuries of emissions have made oceans approximately 30% more acidic. If current trends persist, they may reach an acidity level that has not been seen since the Miocene epoch (which ended 5 million years ago) or a period equivalent to 70-times longer than Homo sapiens have been around.

Scientists concluded this by performing chemical analyses of fossilized calcium carbonate shells of organisms called foraminifera, which are especially vulnerable to acidic levels in seawater. The analyses enabled them to “compare our modern ocean to those that existed in Earth’s past and contextualize their findings within the various emissions scenarios put forth by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

The Consequences of Unbalance in the Oceans

The Forbes article explains one of the immediate consequences of ocean acidification: “The rising acidity of the oceans is especially threatening for sea life with structures made from calcium carbonate, such as shells. As ocean pH drops, carbonate becomes less readily available and causes these hard components to dissolve.” This means the populations of shelled organisms can massively decline since a few hundred years is not enough time for them to adapt through evolution. Corals, also made of calcium carbonate, are already declining because of acidification. Corals are the rainforests of the oceans with thousands of species depending on the ecosystems created around them.

The Smithsonian published a paper on ocean acidification that goes into detail on the consequences of acidic oceans, calling it “a significant and harmful consequence of excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that we don’t see or feel because its effects are happening underwater.” The article explains that “at least one-quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) released by burning coal, oil and gas doesn’t stay in the air, but instead dissolves into the oceans.” They estimate that we are dumping “22 million tons of COinto the oceans per day” and “since the beginning of the industrial era, the ocean has absorbed some 525 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere.” To put this unfathomable number into perspective, it is equivalent to almost five Great Walls of China―the heaviest object ever built, measuring 13,000 miles and weighing more than 116 billion pounds.

Sustainable Shipping on the Horizon

Shipping, the industry responsible for moving 90% of all goods, uses low-quality bunker fuel. Marine bunker is the residue left over from oil refineries. It’s loaded with mercury, lead, and other heavy metals that affect the ocean ecosystem as much as they do the air. This is on top of the industry’s carbon emissions, which the International Maritime Organization (IMO) estimates at more than 3% globally.

Fortunately, the industry is stepping up to take decisive action. Earlier this year, the UN published an article on a major agreement among the world nations to halve shipping emissions by 2050. They reported, “at a historic session in London of the IMO’s Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC), 173 Member States adopted an initial strategy to reduce the carbon emissions of global shipping by at least 50% in 2050 compared with 2008.” This is big news, as shipping continues to grow rapidly, driven by the growing Asian economies and the economic resurgence of many regions of the world.

Such an aggressive treaty would not have been feasible if the industry did not have existing and new technologies emerging to help them get there without economic compromises. Technological innovation on several fronts promises to make ships more efficient and sustainable. For instance, the work we are doing at Joi Scientific around Hydrogen 2.0 is advancing the role of water-based hydrogen production as a carbon-free source of energy. Having Hydrogen 2.0 production capabilities on-board would be particularly useful for ships since they are surrounded by water, allowing them literally to navigate in their own fuel.

It’s encouraging to see the shipping industry steaming ahead to create a sustainable future for maritime transport and our oceans.


Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
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