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Coral reef. (USFWS/Jerry Reid)

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Could Trigger a Trillion-Dollar Coral Reef Problem

New UN report outlines threat of 'geologically unprecedented rate' of ocean acidification 

Andrea Germanos

Greenhouse gas emissions' impacts on the world's oceans have caused a growing and expensive problem.

The issue is ocean acidification, oulined in a Convention on Biological Diversity report launched Wednesday in Pyeongchang, Republic of Korea, at the twelfth meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (COP 12).

The report, An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity, explains how the oceans' absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide has driven a change in ocean chemistry that lowers ph levels, meaning the waters are more acidic.

This acidification has increased 26 percent since pre-Industrial times, the report says, and it is occurring at a "geologically unprecedented rate." While the increase happened quickly, historic evidence, the report states, shows that recovery could take 100,000 years.

The executive summary states that "it is now nearly inevitable that within 50 to 100 years, continued anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions will further increase ocean acidity to levels that will have widespread impacts, mostly deleterious, on marine organisms and ecosystems, and the goods and services they provide."

Tropical coral reefs will feel these impacts, because reefs are constructed of calcium carbonate, but the lower ph levels lower their calcification ability, making it harder for reefs to produce their skeletons. This is a great concern, the report states, as roughly 400 million people depend depend on them for their livelihoods.

Ocean acidification's impacts on coral reefs alone could trigger as much as $1 trillion in global losses annually by 2100, one study cited in the report found.

That does not take into consideration economic losses to reefs as a result of other threats, such as rising ocean temperatures or over-fishing, nor losses from ocean acidification's impacts to other areas like oyster hatcheries.

“When ecosystems stop delivering the way they should, they essentially deliver less services and less benefits. In the case of coral reefs, those systems are essential for people’s livelihoods in many regions of the world and they will be significantly affected,” stated Salvatore Arico, Senior Programme Specialist, Natural Sciences Sector at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The only solution to the problem of ocean acidification, the report notes, is to lower atmospheric CO2.

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