Ocean acidification is a direct consequence of the increased amount of dissolved carbon dioxide in the oceans. As the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases (primarily as a result of burning fossil fuels), the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide in order to maintain an equilibrium with the atmosphere. The exchage of carbon between the ocean and atmosphere is called the Carbon Cycle, and it is a natural process that has always occured; however, as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere increases, the ocean has had to absorb more and more to maintain equilibrium. When carbon is absorbed into the ocean, it reacts with water molecules to form carbonic acid. The carbonic acid then dissociates into a hydrogen ion and a bicarbonate ion. Since acidity is measured by the concentration of hydrogen ions in a solution, the addition of these hydrogen ions increases the acidity of the ocean water.
The main problem with ocean acidification is that it makes more hydrogen ions available to bond with carbonate ions, which leaves less carbonate available for the production of calcium carbonate. Calcium carbonate is created and used by many marine invertebrates, such as coral and molusks, as a structural material. Without the available carbonate ions, these invertebrates can not build or maintain their shells and plates. It is not entirely clear what the long term effects of this will be, but the outlook does not look good for these creatures, or any who rely on them as a food source.
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