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What is ocean acidification? We asked ‘Sea Sick’ creator Alanna Mitchell

Mitchell and state Rep. Dylan Fernandes discuss the environmental impact of the ocean’s shifting pH

Alanna Mitchell's play "Sea Sick," which she's shown performing here, was nominated for outstanding new play at the 2014 Dora Mavor Moore awards.Photo by Alejandro Santiago, courtesy of ArtsEmerson

Ocean acidification is one of the many environmental topics that Alanna Mitchell tackles in her solo show, “Sea Sick.” To better understand its impact, we asked Mitchell and state Representative Dylan Fernandes, who sits on the House Committee on Global Warming and Climate Change, to break down the causes and consequences of the ocean’s rising pH levels.

What is ocean acidification?

Mitchell: What happens globally is that as we put carbon dioxide up into the atmosphere, roughly a third gets dissolved into the ocean where it [has a chemical reaction to] the water to make carbonic acid. Effectively, what that does is change the pH of the ocean. The global ocean is roughly 30 percent more acidic than it was before we started burning fossil fuels, which is what puts the carbon into the atmosphere. The reason that matters is that the acidity of the ocean affects how some creatures make their shells. It has a disproportionate effect on young marine creatures. It has an effect on fish, too. Some of them become stupid; they swim towards the creatures that want to eat them instead of away.

Fernandes: It’s [ocean acidification] a global commons issue. It’s going to have massive impacts on Massachusetts because we’re a coastal state and have some of the highest rates of ocean acidification worsening in the country. We have a lot of land-based nutrient pollution that’s causing plants to grow at an unnatural rate. So when plants are growing in the water, they’re sucking out the oxygen from the water and then when they die, they’re releasing CO2 into the water, which increases ocean acidification locally.


Mitchell: If you look back to the five extinction spasms we’ve had in the billions of years of life on the planet, each one has been connected to a change in the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which has changed the chemistry in the ocean. [Ocean acidification] has big implications for life as we know it.


If we don’t make an effort to combat this, what’s going to happen in future years?

Mitchell: Over time, creatures in the ocean, some of them at least, will not be able to make their shells, and that’s happening locally already. The larger issue is that it’s not just pH, it’s also that the ocean is warming up and parts of it have less dissolved oxygen. Scientists talk about that as the ocean becoming warm, breathless, and sour, and that combination is really toxic. What you’ve got, over time, is an ocean that is less able to support life.

What do you hope audience members take away from seeing the play?

Mitchell: That it’s not game over yet. We have choices to make here. This is a hinge moment in human history, in fact, in the history of our planet. … This is our moment to decide, and I find it just endlessly fascinating, endlessly messy, but endlessly fascinating to see where we go with this.

“Sea Sick” plays at the Liebergott Black Box Theatre through May 22. Tickets are $60 for adults, $55 for seniors, and $15 for students and children. artsemerson.org

Sam Trottenberg can be reached at sam.trottenberg@globe.com.