Indicator Specification

Ocean acidification

Indicator Specification
  Indicator codes: CLIM 043
Published 20 Nov 2012 Last modified 04 Dec 2019
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Decline in ocean acidity

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)
  • No published assessments


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.

Scientific references

  • 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.

Indicator definition

  • Decline in ocean acidity


  • acidity (pH)

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013 the European Commission presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package ( 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, 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: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    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 in the future. This web portal 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 enhances 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.

Methodology references


Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

External data references

Data sources in latest figures



Methodology uncertainty

Not applicable

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 (

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

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.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Trine Christiansen


European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
CLIM 043
Version id: 1

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years


DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)


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