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Ocean Acidification Could Cost the World its Coral... and a Trillion Dollars

Oct 08, 2014 05:07 PM EDT

Ocean acidification and coral reef damage is likely going to cost the world economy over a trillion dollars by 2100, according to a new report by United Nations (UN) experts.

The report was released on Wednesday by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, which has been assessing the economic impacts climate change and degrading biodiversity could have on the world.

The report, called "An Updated Synthesis of the Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Biodiversity," details how the ocean's acidity has seen a 26 percent increase over the past 250 years, resulting in a current pH of 8.0 - about 0.1 less basic overall than it was in the mid-18th century. The oceans are expected to go through the same net change again, dropping to a pH level of 7.9 by the end of the century.

And while this may seem like a pretty small change, the authors of the report are stressing that it could have some dire consequences for not only ecosystems, but economies too.

"When considering how ocean acidification will affect human society, the response of tropical coral ecosystems is understandably of great concern - since over 400 million people worldwide live within 100 km of coral reefs, with very many reliant on them for their livelihoods and food security," the authors of the report write.

According to the study, it is very apparent what a "small" and gradual change in oceanic climate - as seen so far - can do to coral reef populations.

Elevated ocean surface temperatures, like seen in Hawaii, are stressing the world's coral populations - as made evident by extensive bleaching events. Worse still, studies have shown that ocean acidification is eating away at the structural integrity of these unique marine animals, causing coral to become more susceptible to both predators and disease. In fact, the Great Barrier reef's growth rate has plummeted by 40 percent since the mid-1970s.

The NOAA even recently recognized 20 different types of coral as threatened species due to notable decline. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : pixabay)

To bring this issue to the attention of those not heavily committed to conservation efforts, the UN scientists paid special attention to how it would impact countries economically.

"If you're coming at ocean acidification as someone in government and you need to decide between investing here or elsewhere, you need something compelling to help you understand why this is important," Murray Roberts, who co-edited the report, explained to New Scientist.

That may sound particularly pessimistic about the priorities of government, but it's a moot point, as the experts quickly found that they have a LOT of persuasive data to work with.

"The global cost of ocean acidification impacts on molluscs [sp] and tropical coral reefs is estimated to be over US $1,000 billion annually by the end of the century," the authors write.

They detail how the beginnings of this damage can already be seen in US shell fishing economies on the East Coast (especially in the New York area) and in declining reef tourism for vacation spots across the globe.

Soon, other factors such as the loss in shore-protection, sedimentation, and disappearing medical resources only found in coral communities will also be felt.

The researchers add that it is also apparent that governments are just now realizing this threat and taking action to slow and mitigate its effects.

"This is a very positive step that has been accompanied by several international research consortia involved in addressing key questions to inform policy-making decisions," the report concludes. "However, even if [action is taken] now, anthropogenic ocean acidification will still last tens of thousands of years. Significant ocean ecosystem changes, and the need to learn to live with those changes, therefore seem certain. "

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