Scientists are warning that the world's oceans are becoming acidic at an unprecedented rate, which could have a detrimental impact on marine life and the hundreds of millions of people who depend on fishing for their livelihoods.

In a report released Friday, scientists said since the start of the industrial revolution, rising carbon dioxide levels have led to a 26 per cent increase in the acidity of the ocean.

Oceans have historically absorbed about a quarter of all carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by humans. But as acidity increases, scientists say the ocean's s capacity to absorb CO2 decreases, weakening its role in moderating climate change.

"The far-reaching effects of ocean acidification are predicted to impact food webs, biodiversity, aquaculture and hence, societies," reads the report, which follows a 2012 gathering of more than 500 of the world's leading experts on ocean acidification during the Third Symposium on the Ocean in a High-CO2 World.

By 2100, researchers expect the ocean will become 170 per cent more acidic than it was before the industrial revolution. That change, scientists expect, will increase the speed of climate change.

"People who rely on the ocean’s ecosystem services are especially vulnerable and may need to adapt or cope with ocean acidification impacts within decades," the report reads. "Tropical coral reef loss will affect tourism, food security and shoreline protection for many of the world’s poorest people."

Scientists also warn that ocean chemistry may be changing too rapidly for many species to adapt.

The effect of acidity is currently being felt most profoundly the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, where the cold waters hold more carbon dioxide. The more acidic the waters become, the more damaging they are to the shells and skeletons of marine organisms.

"Parts of the Arctic are already corrosive to shells of marine organisms, and most surface waters will be within decades," the report reads.

Ocean acidification in numbers:

  • There's been a 40 per cent increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels since the start of the industrial revolution.
  • Ocean acidity has increased 26 per cent from preindustrial levels to today
  • A 170 per cent increase in ocean acidity is projected by 2100, compared to preindustrial levels
  • The ocean absorbs 24 million tons of carbon dioxide every day
  • The current rate of acidification is more than 10 times faster than any time in the last 55 million years

Oceanographers say there is little known about the direct effects of ocean acidification will have on commercial fishing, but it will be a key area of research going forward as economically, fisheries support about 540 million people, or 8 per cent of the world's population.

Early estimates show a potential $130 billion economic loss to due to declines in shellfisheries by 2100.

The report says substantial economic losses are also likely to occur due to the loss of tropical coral reef from ocean acidification, which could cost as much as $1 trillion within the century.

The study will be presented at global climate talks in Poland next week.