A lot of the carbon that human civilization has been spewing into the atmosphere ends up being absorbed into the oceans. That, in turn, is rapidly altering the water chemistry, by reducing the pH level and turning the water more acidic — a change that threatens aquatic life.

Just how quickly ocean acidification is moving — and what its consequences may be — is illustrated by disturbing new In a disturbing new study just published in the journal Paleoceanography.

NEWS: Should We Close the Oceans to Save Fish?

University of California-Santa Cruz, Yale and Columbia researchers report that the process is proceeding 10 times more rapidly than it did during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, a period of drastic climate change 56 million years ago that killed off some aquatic species and forced others to evolve to survive. During that period, which lasted about 70,000 years, global temperatures rose by 11 degrees F.

Those increasingly acidic waters already threaten important parts of marine ecosystems, such a coral reefs. But humans who depend upon the oceans for food may suffer as well. In an article published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers reported that ocean acidity is eroding the shells of tiny free-swimming marine snails called pteropods, which provide food for the pink salmon, mackerel and herring that humans in turn eat.

VIDEO: Trash on the Ocean Floor

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated in a recent report that ocean acidification and other effects from climate change may result in reduced catches that may take as much as $41 billion out of the pockets of the fishing industry by 2050.

That’s one reason that ocean acidification is one of the main topics on the agenda at a U.S. State Department-sponsored conference on the health of the oceans, which is being held this week in Washington.

Photo: Thinkstock