Changing ocean-carbonate chemistry caused by oceanic uptake of anthropogenic atmospheric carbon dioxide leads to the formation of carbonic acid, thus lowering the pH of the sea with predictions of a decrease from current levels at 8.15 to 7.82 by the end of the century. The exact measurement of subtle pH changes in seawater over time presents significant analytical challenges, as the equilibrium constants are governed by water temperature and pressure, salinity effects, and the existence of other ionic species in seawater.
Here, we review these challenges and how pH also affects dissolved inorganic and organic chemicals that affect biological systems. This includes toxic compounds (xenobiotics) as well as chemicals that are beneficial for marine organisms, such as the chemical signals (i.e. pheromones) that are utilized to coordinate animal behavior. We review how combining analytical, molecular and biochemical tools can lead to the development of biosensors to detect pH effects to enable predictive modeling of the ecological consequences of ocean acidification.