AcidSeas – Near-term dolphin extinction from CO2 Acidification and Food Web Collapse

It’s terrible but true. If the seas acidify to the point of food web collapse, long-lived top carnivores like dolphins cannot be expected to survive.

Once the calcium carbonate dissolves from the seas, there will be huge and rapid changes.

The Species which survive that kind of change are the high-reproducing opportunists like jellyfish.

The Greatest Danger

There are many dangers dolphins face right now… direct kills, sold as fake whalemeat, entangled in invisible gillnets, targeted by tuna purse-seine vessels, harpooned as crab and shark bait, assaulted by the sounds of human industry and military sonar, poisoned by human industrial and agricultural effluent, starved as humans compete with them for food in the seas.

Taken together, these constitute a nearly overwhelming challenge to dolphin survival, which is why we have fought to overcome that challenge for over 30 years. We’ve succeeded, in that as of now there are still dolphins in the seas, even if at nothing like their historic populations.

However, there is an existential danger to dolphins which could make their survival literally impossible: the killing of the seas as humans have always known them, though acidification and heating.

Within many nations, in particular the USA, there have been campaigns of obfuscation funded by CO2-emitting industries causing many people to disbelieve that CO2 causes heating of the planet’s atmosphere and oceans. Although the science has been well-understood since the 1800’s, the time lag for greenhouse heating of the biosphere is long enough that most people choose to ignore it.

But the heating of the biosphere – as dangerous as that is – isn’t the most serious effect. The most serious and immediate effect of burning millions of years of fossil carbon is to acidify the seas – turn them more acidic. The seas are already 30% more acidic than they have been since humans evolved, and by the end of this century they are predicted to be 170% more acidic.

This fact – which is hugely more dangerous to the world and human interests than the much-touted “sea level rise” – has sobering implications. At that level of acidity, calcium carbonate will fizz away and be unavailable for use by animals. Coral reefs will dissolve and not come back for millions of years. The calcareous skeletons of plankton organisms will fail to form. Huge holes will be knocked in oceanic food webs, consigning a high percentage of living species to extinction.

Acid Seas and Dolphins

The species which go extinct will be those which are large, which are highly specialized, which have high-energy metabolisms requiring high-nutrient food, which have low reproductive rates, which require cold highly-oxygenated waters for their prey, and which are migratory, following existing migrations of prey species. There is no way to scientifically prove that any species will go extinct, but these are the factors which will determine the survivors.

Pretty much no marine scientist worth his or her salt will go out on a limb and state that dolphins will be alive on earth in 3100 in acidic, heated, anoxic seas. So as a scientific organization which has specialized in dolphins, let us be the ones to break the bad news: Acidified, heated seas have never supported dolphins and whales, and almost certainly won’t in the near future if we allow that to happen. The species which will survive are those that always do survive in those conditions: jellyfish, worms, bacteria. We are returning the seas to their condition of 55 million years ago, and worse, making the seas primitive again.

There is no place for dolphins in those seas. A dolphin would starve to death eating jellyfish. The nutrient density is simply too low.

Dolphins cannot be expected to long survive in the acidified seas we are creating. There are only a few decades to prevent it.

It’s not impossible that some coastal areas might allow some tiny remnant populations of some dolphins to survive, but frankly it doesn’t look good. Dolphins are highly specialized for seas which are going away. The ones which live near the coast are the ones subject to the highest impact from human predation, netting, pollution, and runoff-induced dead zones.

So if we want to save dolphins, we need to make sure that the seas they are evolved for, that WE are evolved for, don’t go away.

And that is a huge task, because it means drastically curtailing the burning of fossil carbon within decades. By all humans in the world. There is only one way to prevent the acidification: leave the fossil carbon in the ground. If we don’t, the price paid will be the loss of dolphins, the loss of whales, the loss of about every sea animal you may care about.

AcidSeas is a campaign that puts a dolphin face on the imminent destruction of the seas, the reversion of the earth’s oceans to slime. The cause is simple: adding CO2 to the air. About 30% of it ends up in the seas, and simple chemistry means that the seas turn acidic.

Reef or Madness? K species won’t be OK

A world without coral reefs and calcareous plankton, with seas rapidly changing, is incompatible with dolphins and most other “K-selected” species.

The reason we can know that dolphins cannot survive a rapid reversion of the ocean to primitive conditions is that there are very different sorts of species making up the world.

The rate of acidification of the seas today is the fastest it has ever happened in the history of the planet, perhaps by a factor of 10-1000. While it may seem slow to us, CO2 has never gone up this fast, this far, before. That means that no creature in existence has experienced seas that acidify this fast.

In rapidly-changing conditions, species like dolphins die out, and are replaced by species which are evolved to be opportunistic in tough times. These different strategies are termed r and K type species.

rK species

So seas of dolphins, tuna, seals, whales, and seabirds become seas of bacteria, algae, jellyfish, worms, and salps. Once it has happened, it will take millions of years for the type r species to be dislodged… if ever. Of course, animals which go extinct in the meantime will never displace them.

This means that the fate of dolphins and the seas depends directly on whether or not humans can drastically cut back burning fossil carbon in the next few decades.

And if the destruction of food webs wasn’t enough…

Scientists have just started to uncover the devastating effects of more acidic seas.  Here are a few of their findings and predictions. Please keep in mind that very little research has been done. This is  just the beginning of understanding the devastating effects that rapidly changing the acidity of the seas is causing..

This is a crisis which has not yet hit the threshold of dissolution for aragonite and calcite in most parts of the seas: that will be locked in with several more decades of business as usual carbon burning, and at that point will be essentially permanent on any scale relevant to human existence.

Changing the acid balance of the seas is probably causing millions of subtle changes which will never be researched. How could it not? The electrochemistry of life, the very creation of calcium structural parts, is affected. Never in the history of life have the seas acidified this fast, even during past mass extinction calamities.

However, effects that are already being seen  due to the Increasing Acidification of the oceans includes:

  • Algae – Coraline algae has already declined by 92% in acidic  areas  (1)
  • Cobia – a popular game fish grows larger ear bones in acid water – which may disrupt the detection of useful auditory information (3)
  • Corals- Larval corals of many species cannot find areas to settle in die off. (1)
  • Clownfish – go deaf in acid water and can’t hear predators coming (1)
  • Clownfish – can’t find their way back home in acid water (4)
  • Fish – the blood of fishes changes pH resulting in acidosis which depletes them of the energy needed to thrive (1)
  • Foraminifera – ( a species of zooplanckton- tiny organisms that are the critical to healthy oceans ) – their shells are dissolving in acid seas (6)
  • Jellyfish – appear to  thrive in acid seas and are beginning to dominate some ecosystems  (1)
  • Mussels- cannot cling by their byssal threads to rocks in the pounding surf very well in acid seas  (1)
  • Oysters – Larvae are failing to grow their shells as the acid seas eat away the shell layers before they can finish laying them. This has caused massive oyster die offs in the Pacific Northwest (1)
  • Sea Snails (pteropods) –  shells are  dissolving in the Southern Ocean (1)
  • Urchins –  larval urchins have trouble digesting their food in acid seas  (7)


Predicted Effects on cetaceans:

Dolphins and whales – Eventual Extinction. Eventually, after their food sources die off dolphins and whales will too.

Near-term effects until Extinction:

Dolphins and Whales –   Deafness.  Sound travels farther in acidic seas. Whales and dolphins could  effectively “go deaf”  and not be able to distinguish  sounds used  to navigate and find prey. (5) Note: Some scientists point out that the increase in sound theoretically will not be enough to affect whales and dolphins who are already affected by very loud shipping lanes and other man-caused noises. We do not find this reassuring.

Dolphins and Whales – Starvation. As OA increases, it will disturb the food chains that apex marine species depend on . Leading eventually to extinction.

Other Marine Species:

* Coral Reefs- many species will become weakened and vulnerable to predation and may dissolve, thus threatening the ocean ecosystems that depend on corals to be an important base of ocean food chains. (1)

* Foraminifera that live in tropical seas are predicted to become extinct by 2099 (6)

* Jellyfish – may be one of the few species to thrive in acid seas will out compete other predators, such as zooplanton and will eat baby fish (1)

* Mussels and oysters are expected to grow less shell by 25 percent and 10 percent respectively by the end of the century. (1)

The above are just a few of the known and potential effects. Scientists are continuing  to uncover new,  devastating consequences of man heedlessly allowing the oceans to be destroyed.

– Sharon White, Program Director, Flipper Fund

(7) (

Recommended reading…

Here are a few links you should check out…

Modern Ocean Acidification Is Outpacing Ancient Upheaval, Study Suggests

What do we mean by “Near-term Dolphin Extinction”?

This is a reality which is only now becoming clear.  The conservative scientific way to state it is to say that there is no reason to think that long-lived species at the top of the food chain, with very low reproductive rates and high reliance on existing food webs, will survive the utter collapse of ocean food webs which will occur if aragonite and calcite are removed from the seas as structural materials for plankton, molluscs, arthropods, shellfish, and many other classes of organism that are utterly basic to existing food chains from the bottom up.

It might well take several hundred years for marine dolphins to become extinct. (Or it might not.) What’s near-term about that? Well, it’s an eye-blink in evolutionary time. But more importantly, the levels of acidification which will “lock in” these food web changes will occur in the next several decades, and will get steadily worse as long as fossil carbon burning persists.  A person 50 years old today could easily live well past the dooming of the dolphins.

What is our plan to save them?

Here’s the thing. All the stuff that we need to do anyway to prevent CO2 from devastating the climate, destroying rainforests, melting polar ice and consigning our grandkids to a hundred thousand years of Hell on Earth…. we need to do it sooner.


Unlike the arbitrary notion, debated with assumed authority by cabdrivers and politicians, that some level of CO2 pollution like 350, 400, 450, or 500 parts per million “might be safe” for climate, there are absolute thresholds of doom in the seas. When the water gets too acidic for organisms to precipitate out aragonite, those organisms disappear. When it gets a bit more acidic, the organisms that use calcite disappear. Period. Life can evolve to deal with a lot, but no organism which has ever existed could evolve away from needing a skeleton in a hundred years. Certainly not one you could see without a magnifying glass.

Here’s the deal: the dolphins, whales, seals, penguins, etc are the new face of CO2 pollution. We’re making the point with Dolphins, since we’re dolphin-saving experts.

There’s no longer any rationale for arm-waving. If we continue to burn coal, we return the seas to primordial slimy conditions. Without dolphins.

We need to make the hard choices, because there’s pretty much no time to spare.  Again: all that stuff we need to do to keep our grandkids, and their grandkids, from suffering? We need to do all that stuff sooner for the dolphins.

And just maybe, doing it sooner will make our grandkids’ lifes better too… in addition to not having to carry the burden that their people killed the living seas.


The Campaign is Just Getting Started…

And already time is short.

We’re talking about pretty hard-core “end of growth” stuff.  Reversing the industrial inertia and powering down the fossil carbon economy. It won’t be easy. Some people  think the stock market is more important than are living seas.

What we have to offer is a clearer vision of the stakes and the timetable. Forget global heating: it’ll take care of itself if we save the seas from acidifying.

So let’s all take a giant step away from the psuedo- “debate” on the facts of greenhouse heating, and take two giant steps away from “adapting” to high CO2 conditions. We have no moral right to ‘adapt’, and our air conditioners won’t work for more than 100 or so years of the next hundred thousand years of heat anyhow.

We need to save the seas. Killing off large sea life for a million years, to keep the economy booming for a few more decades is Evil, with a capital E.

We propose to stand against that evil, in the most creative ways we can think of. If you’d like to stand with us, we welcome you.