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Ocean Acidification: Another Failing Scare Story?

As projections of catastrophic climate changes are being beaten down by the far less than catastrophic actual climate response, other calamities that may result from our untoward use of fossil fuels are being offered up for our consideration. Besides the well-worn pitfalls of our failure to achieve energy independence, or to be the first to grasp green technologies, a new problem is being worked into the mix—ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification. Sounds bad doesn’t it. Much worse than say, “the oceans are becoming less basic” which is a more accurate, but less worrisome-sounding description. In either case, it is used to describe the situation in which the oceans absorb an increasing amount of carbon dioxide as the atmospheric partial pressure of CO2 increases. The dissolution of CO2 in the oceans has the net effect of increasing the hydrogen ion concentration which drives the ocean’s pH lower. The pH of the global oceans averages about 8.1 so it is considered a base rather than an acid (acids have pH values less than 7.0) and has perhaps dropped by 0.1pH units (a logarithmic scale) since the Industrial Revolution.

The reason we are being told that this is bad, is that it potentially disrupts some ocean ecosystems, primarily coral reefs and other calcifying organisms. The idea is that a lower pH interferes with the production of shells and/or causes the shells of some organisms to dissolve—leading to thinner, weaker defenses and other detrimental effects increasing the vulnerability of these organisms and jeopardizing the livelihood of other organisms that depend on them leading to a downward spiral of ever-increasing breadth.

Eager to bring this to the attention of the general public and shore up the public’s waning concerns about global warming (and rally them behind anti-greenhouse gas legislation), the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) produced a 21-minute movie titled “Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification” narrated by Sigourney Weaver. Here is taste of what is inside:

Carbon dioxide pollution is transforming the chemistry of the oceans, rapidly making the water more acidic. In decades, rising ocean acidity may challenge life on a scale that has not occurred for tens of millions of years. So we confront an urgent choice, to move beyond fossil fuels or to risk turning the ocean into a sea of weeds.

Scary scenario. But as with most good horror movies, the real world proves to be a much more benign locale.

The folks over at the Science and Public Policy Institute have taken it upon themselves to look a bit more closely into the ocean acidification story and see just what the scientific literature has to say about how organisms are actually responding to changes in ocean pH rather than just talk about how they may respond.

What SPPI finds is neither newsworthy nor catastrophic, simply that, as has always been the case, the aquatic organisms of the world’s oceans are very adaptable and are able to respond to environmental changes in such a way as to avoid large-scale detrimental impacts.

The SPPI conclusions are derived from the body of peer-reviewed articles published in the scientific literature. SPPI has described and summarized the literature on the subject of ocean acidification in a series of thoroughly referenced publications, including two books published within the past year, CO2, Global Warming, and Coral Reefs , and CO2, Global Warming, and Species Extinctions: Prospects for the Future , both written and compiled largely by Dr. Craig Idso after a tedious amount of time spent surveying the peer-reviewed literature.

Additionally, SPPI has just announced its release of a strong critique of the NRDC documentary (also based upon Dr. Idso’s efforts). Here is the summary:

So what’s the story here? Are coral reefs really in their last decades of existence? Will the shells of other calcifying marine life also dissolve away during our lifetimes? The NRDC film certainly makes it appear that such is the case; but a little scientific sleuthing reveals nothing of substance in this regard. In fact, even a cursory review of the peer-reviewed scientific literature reveals that an equally strong case – if not a more persuasive one – can be made for the proposition that the ongoing rise in atmospheric CO2 concentration will actually prove a boon to calcifying marine life. Sadly, however, the NRDC chose to present an extreme one-sided, propagandized view of ocean acidification; and in this critique we present the part of the story that they clearly don’t want you to know.

From there the SPPI report goes on the describe the results of well over 100 articles that together do not paint an overly dire picture of the future of the world’s oceans as a result of the increasing atmospheric CO2 burden. Neither corals nor other calcifying organisms seem to display an overall negative response, and in fact, there is some evidence that some responses may in fact be positive as atmospheric CO2 levels increase.

The SPPI report concludes:

In conclusion, based on the many real-world observations and laboratory experiments described above, it is clear that recent theoretical claims of impending marine species extinctions, due to increases in the atmosphere’s CO2 concentration, have no basis in empirical reality. In fact, these unsupportable contentions are typically refuted by demonstrable facts.

And further,

Finally, if there is a lesson to be learned from the materials presented in this document, it is that far too many predictions of CO2-induced catastrophes are looked upon as sure-to-occur, when real-world observations show such doomsday scenarios to be highly unlikely or even virtual impossibilities. The phenomenon of CO2-induced ocean acidification is no different. Rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations are not the bane of the biosphere; they are an invaluable boon to the planet’s many life forms.

Overall the SPPI report makes for a fascinating (although quite technical) read. I recommend it to anyone who wants to get into the nitty-gitty details of how marine organisms from corals, to phytoplankton, to fish respond to changes in the ocean’s chemistry as a result from atmospheric CO2 enrichment. By the end, after turning page after page full of examples from the scientific literature that seem to run counter to the ocean-acidification-is-most-certainly-going to-be-bad mantra, you really begin to wonder whether ocean acidification is any more than much ado about nothing.

11 comments

1 pj { 12.07.09 at 4:09 am }

I’ve never heard anyone mention the impact of the softdrink industries on CO2 levels. Isn’t the fizz in one’s soda CO2? How many carbon credits for a case of Coke?

2 Mary { 12.07.09 at 8:08 am }
3 tmtisfree { 01.06.10 at 10:46 am }

This is my reference site about the ocean (bio-)chemistry:

http://www.seafriends.org.nz/issues/global/acid.htm

4 Gary Novak { 01.06.10 at 7:32 pm }

Having a microbiology background and doing research on mushroom physiology, I find that biology responds vary easily to large scale pH variations–large scale meaning several pH units, not the 0.l unit being discussed for the oceans. There are several reasons for this. Every biochemical reaction influences pH in some way. This not only requires nature to cope with pH but provides a huge amount of options or tools for doing so.

Eukaryotic organisms use membranes to filter solutes including hydrogen ions going into cells and moving them around within cells. The cytochrome system for respiration pumps hydrogen ions across membranes as a method of generating ATP. Every shelled organism in the oceans does this. In other words, they have no problem handling acid.

Then, shells of sea creatures are not just calcium carbonate; they are living tissues with complexity, just like teeth. That complexity is used to cope with pH changes among other adversities.

5 Charles Higley { 01.06.10 at 10:26 pm }

The pH of the oceans vary and have varied up and down over the centuries more than the current small change, which is well within normal range.

Warmer waters allow the corals to extend their geographic ranges. In the cold waters off New England, shells dissolve relatively rapidly as calcium carbonate, CaCO3, is more soluble in cold than warm water.

Another point this article does not make, but should, is that CO2 is at one end of a long equilibrium – CO2 to carbonic acid (H2CO3) to H+ and bicarbonate (HCO3-) to H+ and carbonate (CO3-2) to CaCO3.

In warm waters, this equilibrium favors active precipitation of calcium carbonate and serves to concrete shells together and strengthen the reefs. Adding more CO2 to one end of this equilibrium pushes the whole equilibrium chain towards CaCO3 and favors more precipitation.

Furthermore, the acidity (as free H+) released by this equilibrium can have no effect on the equilibrium as it is part of the equilibrium. Only an addition or removal of H+ by some other source (a strong acid or a strong base, respectively) can affect this equilibrium.

Thus, acidification by CO2 dissolution in the oceans is irrelevant to calcium carbonate deposition. And corals see more CO2 as a great resource!

6 Stas Peterson { 01.07.10 at 4:08 pm }

I like your referenced post but, On the topic of one of those studies.

http://www.whoi.edu/page.do?pid=7545&tid=282&cid=63809&ct=162

I think the reference is very trustworthy, but it is also an example of the subtle brain washing conducted by the AGW community. And also it duplicity and demonizing dating to 1958. It was taken as verbatim, in the reference, that the ‘pre-industrial’ level of atmospheric CO2 was 280 ppm.

But the AGW proponents, demonized the past chairman of the IPCC committee and an world reknown expert in Ice cores analysis, when he objected to their publication. He said that Vostok ice core bubble anlysis is biased, if not corrected for the tendency of CO2 to form hydrates under moderate pressures of a few meters of compacted ice. The remaining air in the bubbles is then uniformly depleted to 280 ppm CO2, then hydration stops. But that is not necessarily what it was, originally. IPCC continues to publish uncorrected ice core samples as reading 280 ppm and do not correct it.

Dr. Jaworowski also points out the laboratory measurements recorded and published by 18th and 19th century chemists, who published and tracked CO2 in the atmosphere. These old records were surfaced by scientist Georg Beck and catalogued.

Why look at proxie ice bubbles when you have scientific lab measurements instead? And then why beleive them over the lab measurements, if different?

Those lab measurements reveal that CO2 varied in these pre-industrial centuries from 320 to 440 ppm and averaged 340ppm NOT 280 ppm. Beck attributes the shenanigans to demonization by early AGW proponent, Dr. Callandar in the 1950s who supposedly studied these records of over 93,000 measurements, conducted by hundreds of teams of scientists, including 4 Nobel laureates, in several different countries, and dismissed them all as useless.

In this, the article writer had absorbed and accepted this patent fabrication. Pre-industrial levels of CO2 were uncorrected. Vostok ice core samples at steady 280 ppm, were cataloged And the founder of the Moana Loa CO2 Observitory participated in the scam, with Dr. Callandar. His familiar, oft reproduced chart chart of rising CO2 is a carefully constructed fake, in its early years. While marrying of Vosatok ice core readings and atmospheric measurements taken at Moana LoaObservatory is familiar to all. It is a carefull marrying of Vostok uncorrected data and and atmospheric data separated by some 80 years of time and joined with with data taken at the mouth of and on, an active Volcano but supposedly isolated in mid-Pacific, to create a smooth rising curve of atmospheric CO2.

It is no such thing. But it is a demonstration of far the corruption has gone.

7 Richard W. Fulmer { 01.07.10 at 5:55 pm }

As I understand it, there are two offsetting processes at work. First, as atmospheric CO2 levels rise, more CO2 dissolves into the oceans. However, if rising atmospheric CO2 levels raise average global temperatures, the temperature of the oceans will also rise, driving CO2 out of solution.

Do these offsetting processes keep the CO2 levels in the oceans roughly in balance? Could the balance shift as water temperatures increase or as CO2 levels rise?

Currently, global temperatures are falling, apparently due to decreasing solar activity. If this continues and the oceans cool, could this lead to increasing levels of CO2 in solution? If so, could the increase reach a point at which it would threaten marine life?

8 Gary Novak { 01.08.10 at 4:31 pm }

The tendency to use the word “precipitation” in regard to sea shells forming from calcium carbonate is absurd. It’s an attempt to apply physical chemistry to the subject so computer models can be used. Physical chemistry is vastly different from biochemistry. There is nothing resembling precipitation anywhere in biology.

Every atom and molecule in biological systems is controlled through enzymes, structures and environments to produced a defined and complex result. Shells include oxides, zinc, magnesium and other exotic elements in addition to calcium carbonate, to control hardness and resistance to acids, combined with proteins and other organics for structure and protection (similar to paint). The result is nothing resembling precipitated calcium carbonate.

9 Robert Bradley Jr. { 01.11.10 at 9:58 pm }
10 Chip Knappenberger { 01.12.10 at 11:16 am }

Thanks for posting that link, Rob.

Here is another, to a recent finding that the response to acidification is not universally bad:

http://wattsupwiththat.com/2009/12/01/oh-snap-co2-causes-ocean-critters-to-build-more-shells/

-Chip

11 Marc de Piolenc { 04.05.12 at 3:21 am }

Claims of ocean acidification don’t require profound scientific knowledge to refute. The simple fact is that in past eras, the earth’s atmosphere had a much higher carbon dioxide content, and life was prospering on both land and sea.

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