Published (reviewed and quality assured)
Justification for indicator selection
Across the ocean, the pH of surface waters has been relatively stable for millions of years. Over the last million years, average surface-water pH oscillated between 8.3 during cold periods (e.g. during the last glacial maximum, 20 000 years ago) and 8.2 during warm periods (e.g. just prior to the industrial revolution). Human activities are threatening this stability by adding large quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere, which is subsequently partially absorbed in the ocean. This process is referred to as ocean acidification because sea water pH is declining, even though ocean surface waters will remain alkaline.
When CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, it reacts with water, producing carbonic acid. The role of the carbonate ion is special because it acts as a buffer, helping to limit the decline in ocean pH; however, it is being used up as we add more and more anthropogenic CO2 to the ocean. As carbonate ion concentrations decline, so does the ocean’s capacity to take up anthropogenic CO2. Currently, the ocean takes up about one fourth of the global CO2 emissions from combustion of fossil fuels, cement production and deforestation. Hence, the ocean serves mankind by moderating atmospheric CO2 and thus climate change, but at a cost, namely changes in its fundamental chemistry.
It has been shown that corals, mussels, oysters and other marine calcifiers have a more difficult time constructing their calcareous shell or skeletal material as the concentration of carbonate ions decreases. Most, but not all, marine calcifying organisms exhibit the same difficulty. Furthermore, pH is a measure which affects not only inorganic chemistry but also many biological molecules and processes, including enzyme activities, calcification and photosynthesis. Thus, anthropogenic reductions in sea water pH could affect entire marine ecosystems. A comprehensive recent study suggests that all coral reefs will cease to grow and start to dissolve at an atmospheric CO2 level of 560 ppm due to the combined effects of acidification and warming. This CO2 concentration would be attained by 2050 under high business-as-usual emissions scenarios. Other organisms and ecosystems are likely to have different thresholds.
- IPCC, 2013: Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Stocker, T.F., D. Qin, G.-K. Plattner, M. Tignor, S.K. Allen, J. Boschung, A. Nauels, Y. Xia, V. Bex and P.M. Midgley (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, 1535 pp.
- Decline in ocean acidity
- acidity (pH)
Policy context and targets
In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package (http://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/adaptation/what/documentation_en.htm). This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change /* COM/2013/0216 final */ and a number of supporting documents. One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which should occur through Bridging the knowledge gap and Further developing Climate-ADAPT as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Further objectives include Promoting action by Member States and Climate-proofing EU action: promoting adaptation in key vulnerable sectors. Many EU Member States have already taken action, such as by adopting national adaptation strategies, and several have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation.
The European Commission and the European Environment Agency have developed the European Climate Adaptation Platform (Climate-ADAPT, http://climate-adapt.eea.europa.eu/) to share knowledge on observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health; on relevant research; on EU, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans; and on adaptation case studies.
No targets have been specified.
Related policy documents
Climate-ADAPT: Mainstreaming adaptation in EU sector policies
Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
Climate-ADAPT: National adaptation strategies
Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives later. This webportal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
EU Adaptation Strategy Package
In April 2013 the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it will enhance the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.
Key policy question
What is the trend in the acidity of ocean water?
Methodology for indicator calculation
The time series shows both direct measurement data from the Aloha station pH as well as calculations for gap filling (see methodology reference below).
A trend line has been added.
Methodology for gap filling
The methodology for gap filling is described in the reference below.
- Dore et al. 2009: Physical and biogeochemical modulation of ocean acidification in the central North Pacific. Dore, J. E., Lukas, R., Sadler, D. W., Church, M. J. and Karl, D. M. (2009) Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 106, 12235–12240. doi:10.1073/pnas.0906044106
EEA data references
- No datasets have been specified here.
External data references
Data sources in latest figures
Data sets uncertainty
In general, changes related to the physical and chemical marine environment are better documented than biological changes because links between cause and effect are better understood and often time series of observations are longer. Ocean acidification occurs as a consequence of well-defined chemical reactions, but its rate and biological consequences on a global scale is subject to research.
Further information on uncertainties is provided in Section 1.7 of the EEA report on Climate change, impacts, and vulnerability in Europe 2012 (http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/climate-impacts-and-vulnerability-2012/)
No uncertainty has been specified
Short term work
Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.
Long term work
Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.
Responsibility and ownership
EEA Contact InfoTrine Christiansen
Frequency of updates
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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