IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Ocean Acidification by Carbon Dioxide

The uptake of anthropogenic carbon by the ocean changes the chemical equilibrium of the ocean. Dissolved CO2 forms a weak acid.[1] As CO2 increases, pH decreases, that is, the ocean becomes more acidic. Ocean pH can be computed from measurements of DIC and alkalinity. A decrease in surface pH of 0.1 over the global ocean was calculated from the estimated uptake of anthropogenic carbon between 1750 and 1994 (Sabine et al., 2004b; Raven et al., 2005), with the lowest decrease (0.06) in the tropics and subtropics, and the highest decrease (0.12) at high latitudes, consistent with the lower buffer capacity of the high latitudes compared to the low latitudes. The mean pH of surface waters ranges between 7.9 and 8.3 in the open ocean, so the ocean remains alkaline (pH > 7) even after these decreases. For comparison, pH was higher by 0.1 unit during glaciations, and there is no evidence of pH values more than 0.6 units below the pre-industrial pH during the past 300 million years (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003). A decrease in ocean pH of 0.1 units corresponds to a 30% increase in the concentration of H+ in seawater, assuming that alkalinity and temperature remain constant. Changes in surface temperature may have induced an additional decrease in pH of <0.01. The calculated anthropogenic impact on pH is consistent with results from time series stations where a decrease in pH of 0.02 per decade was observed (Figure 5.9). Results from time series stations include not only the increase in anthropogenic carbon, but also other changes due to local physical and biological variability. The consequences of changes in pH on marine organisms are poorly known (see Section 7.3.4 and Box 7.3). Change in Carbonate Species

The uptake of anthropogenic carbon occurs through the injection of CO2 and causes a shift in the distribution of carbon species (i.e., the balance between CO2, carbonate and bicarbonate). The availability of carbonate is particularly important because it controls the maximum amount of CO2 that the ocean is able to absorb. Marine organisms use carbonate to produce shells of calcite and aragonite (both consisting of calcium carbonate; CaCO3). Currently, the surface ocean is super-saturated with respect to both calcite and aragonite, but undersaturated below a depth called the ‘saturation horizon’. The undersaturation starts at a depth varying between 200 m in parts of the high-latitude and the Indian Ocean and 3,500 m in the Atlantic. Calcium carbonate dissolves either when it sinks below the calcite or aragonite saturation horizons or under the action of biological activity.

Shoaling of the aragonite saturation horizon has been observed in all ocean basins based on alkalinity, DIC and oxygen measurements (Feely and Chen, 1982; Feely et al., 2002; Sabine et al., 2002; Sarma et al., 2002). The amplitude and direction of the signal was everywhere consistent with the uptake of anthropogenic carbon, with potentially smaller contributions from changes in circulation, temperature and biology. Feely et al. (2004) calculated that the uptake of anthropogenic carbon alone has caused a shoaling of the aragonite saturation horizon between 1750 and 1994 by 30 to 200 m in the eastern Atlantic (50°S–15°N), the North Pacific and the North Indian Ocean, and a shoaling of the calcite saturation horizon by 40 to 100 m in the Pacific (north of 20°N). This calculation is based on the anthropogenic DIC increase estimated by Sabine et al. (2004a), on a global compilation of biogeochemical data and on carbonate chemistry equations. Furthermore, an increase in total alkalinity (primarily controlled by carbonate and bicarbonate) at the depth of the aragonite saturation horizon between 1970 and 1990 has been reported (Sarma et al., 2002). These results are consistent with the calculated increase in CaCO3 dissolution as a result of the shoaling of the aragonite saturation horizon, but with large uncertainty. Carbonate decreases at high latitudes and particularly in the Southern Ocean may have consequences for marine ecosystems because the current saturation horizon is closer to the surface than in other basins (Orr et al., 2005; see Section 7.3.4).

  1. ^  Acidity is a measure of the concentration of H+ ions and is reported in pH units, where pH = –log10(H+). A pH decrease of 1 unit means a 10-fold increase in the concentration of H+, or acidity.