This is Your Ocean on Acid
The oceans covering our planet are so vast and deep that for much of human history we thought they were capable of swallowing as much stuff as we could dump into them. It turns out we were wrong.
Even the stuff we dump into the air is making the oceans "sick." The proliferation of atmospheric carbon dioxide due to industrial emissions, deforestation and other human activity is now affecting the health of our oceans. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported that the ocean absorbs approximately a quarter of the carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere every year, which has caused an increase in acidity of about 30 percent since the start of the Industrial Age through a process known as "ocean acidification." It could have significant biological, ecological, and societal implications, affecting economies and societies on a global scale.
A growing number of studies have demonstrated the negative effects of higher ocean acidity on marine life. If left unchecked, we could lose many invaluable ecosystems in 20 to 30 years, with another possible mass extinction on the horizon. According to The Natural Resources Defense Council, ocean acidification is expected to have a significant impact on commercial fisheries worldwide, threatening a food source for hundreds of millions of people as well as a multi-billion dollar industry. In the United States alone, ocean-related tourism, recreation and fishing are responsible for more than two million jobs.
To date, the rising acidity of the oceans has received little public attention. One reason for this is because it is has only recently become the subject of serious study; more than 60 percent of the research papers on ocean acidification were not published until after 2004. Another is the scope of the problem; the oceans are so enormous that to individuals, and even nations, the problem seems too big to fix.
Combating ocean acidification will require reducing carbon dioxide emissions and improving the overall health of the oceans. In the long term, that means adopting policies and practices that will accelerate our transition to clean energy. We can also help the ocean defend itself by doing everything we can to keep its systems as healthy as possible, including the development of new technologies to mitigate the effects of ocean acidification.
First, we need more data, because we cannot begin to solve what we cannot measure. That is where the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE can help. This $2 million prize, launched September 2013, is designed to inspire innovators from around the world to improve upon the sensor technologies that will profoundly enhance our understanding of ocean acidification.
The free market has so far failed to meet the growing demand for ocean pH sensors.The sensors currently available are either not accurate enough for use in the open ocean, or they are expensive and difficult to use. Affordable, advanced ocean pH sensors that are capable of robust measurement with the accuracy needed to monitor global change have not yet been developed.
In order to bring about significant change, we must also organize to create greater awareness of the issue. XPRIZE is working with a global network of partners, including industry, governments, research institutions, educational and nonprofit organizations to build an unstoppable community that can tackle this Grand Challenge.
You can find out more about ocean acidification and what we need to do to combat it, or to submit your intent to compete for the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE, visit oceanhealth.xprize.org. This is an unprecedented opportunity for professionals and amateurs alike to contribute to solving one of the biggest environmental threats of our time.
We invite you to dive in and help preserve the oceans. There's room for everyone.
Paul Bunje is senior director, Oceans, for the XPRIZE Foundation. A biologist, he has conducted scientific research throughout the world, gaining first-hand insight into the diverse challenges we face in protecting critical habitats.