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Seashells by the Seashore

Frances Beinecke

In the midst of the July heat, I found myself enjoying a quintessential summer experience: strolling along a Cape Cod beach looking for seashells. It reminded me of my childhood summers. Next to swimming in the ocean, my favorite activity was collecting shells. Each fall I returned home with a glass jar full of the summer's treasures.

Combing for seashells may seem far removed from my day-to-day work grappling with environmental crises. But even on the Cape's bright, sandy beaches, global warming will soon make its presence known. Within just the past few years, scientists have concluded that the high level of carbon dioxide in the world's oceans could seriously endanger oysters, clams, crabs, starfish, and all the other marine species that make shells.

We have known for some time that oceans are like giant sponges that absorb carbon dioxide. Scientists used to think this was a good thing, since it reduced the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But the pace and volume at which carbon dioxide is being pumped into the seas have grown so dramatically that the oceans are becoming overburdened. High carbon dioxide levels are changing the ocean's pH and making the water more acidic. As water becomes more acidic, it causes a drop in the amount of carbonate -- a key component of shells. When carbonate levels fall, it is more difficult for organisms to make their shells, which become thinner and more brittle.

Corals will be especially hard-hit. Coral reefs are already suffering a death of a thousand cuts from pollution, warming temperatures, and overfishing. Many scientists worry that more acidic water will deliver the final blow that pushes corals into extinction. But solutions exist. Marine biologists have noticed that coral reefs undamaged by pollution and fishing are still thriving despite warmer water and lower pH levels. This means ocean life that remains healthy has a better chance of weathering the onslaught of global warming than species weakened by other environmental impacts.

NRDC is pushing Congress to ensure that ocean protections are included in any global warming legislation it passes. We must act now to cut carbon dioxide emissions, which will protect all life on the planet, including in our vast oceans.NRDC is also pressing federal agencies to help revive ailing ocean ecosystems by halting overfishing, reducing pollution, and creating marine reserves -- the equivalent of national parks in the oceans.

Whether you are a shell collector, a surfer, a fisherman, or simply someone who enjoys the vastness of ocean vistas, you can help put these solutions in place. Visit NRDC's new Web site, oceans.nrdc.org.

image of Frances Beinecke
Frances Beinecke is the president of NRDC and has worked with the organization for more than 30 years. Prior to becoming the president in 2006, Frances was the executive director for eight years, during which time NRDC's membership doubled and the st... READ MORE >