The process causing the world's oceans to acidify at ever-increasing rates is also killing foundational marine life species including corals, while destroying the delicate balance of ocean ecosystems.
"Our study confirms that humans are now a geological force capable of impacting the Earth's system, like a super-volcano or a meteoritic impact," Olivier Sulpis, an earth science researcher at McGill University and lead author on the study, told Motherboard via email last week.
Calcium carbonate, also known as calcite, is found on the ocean floor. When calcite reacts with carbon dioxide and water, calcium and bicarbonate ions are produced, causing ocean water to become less acidic over time. However, excess carbon dioxide produced by climate change reaching the ocean floor means that the rate that carbon dioxide is emitted is far greater than the rate that carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the calcium carbonate on the ocean floor.
Many ocean species, such as coral, can only live in environments with a certain pH level. When the pH levels are disturbed, species in the marine food chain, such as coral — and many species of fish, bacteria and mollusks that depend on the coral for survival — cannot survive.
"[The ocean] is doing its job just trying to clean up the mess, but it's doing it very slowly and we are emitting carbon dioxide very fast, way faster than anything we've seen since at least the end of the dinosaurs," Sulpis recently told Earther. "It's an efficient mechanism. The problem is we are putting too much pressure on the mechanism."
The study revealed that 40 to 100 percent of the seafloor has been dissolved in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, where waters are suffused with carbon dioxide from human activities. However, according to Sulpis, it is pricy and challenging to conduct a concerted assessment of carbon-dioxide caused dissolution of the seafloor.
"Real observations of calcite dissolving in-situ at the seafloor are very challenging to obtain because we would have to, first, reach the bottom of the sea and, second, stay there long enough so that we can measure some significant dissolution, which could take many decades," Sulpis told Motherboard. For that reason, it's only possible to get this type of information through oceanic modeling and analysis.
However, even though real-life samples have not been taken, our future looks bleak.
"Geologists in millions of years may look at the Anthropocene as a brown layer of sediments lost in the geological record," Sulpis said. "It's a bit mind blowing. So at the end of the day, when we do take a step back and contemplate these results, it becomes scary.