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A Caustic Shift Is Coming for the Arctic Ocean


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Imagine, for a moment, that you are standing on a pier by the sea, grasping, somewhat inexplicably, a bowling ball. Suddenly you lose your grip and it tumbles down into the waves below with a decisive plonk. Now imagine that the bowling ball is made of gas—carbon dioxide, to be specific, compressed down into that familiar size and weight. That’s approximately your share, on a rough per capita basis, of the human-caused carbon emissions that are absorbed by the sea every day: Your bowling ball’s worth of extra CO2, plus the 8 billion or so from everyone else. Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have sucked up 30 percent of that extra gas.

The reason so much CO2 ends up in the oceans is because that molecule is extremely hydrophilic. It loves to react with water—much more than other atmospheric gasses, like oxygen. The first product of that reaction is a compound called carbonic acid, which soon gives up its hydrogen ion. That’s a recipe for a caustic solution. The more hydrogen ions a solution has, the more acidic it is, which is why as the CO2 in Earth’s…

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