Worsening Marine Carbon Bomb Effects Confirmed In 15-Year Study Of Northern Pacific Ocean


Banner for Urinomics Project, based on the Open Spectrophotometer design. Image credit:OpenWetware.org

Perverse as this sounds, it feels liberating to write about ocean acidification because harassing denialists are hard pressed to claim that acidification followed repeating natural cycles after green plants covered the earth. There is no climate model to lambaste. There are no ivory tower email scandals. And, happily, no apologies are needed for including a wildly speculative glacier melt story in a supposedly peer-reviewed IPCC report. No solar cycles or tree-ring-based record reconstruction to explain either.

Now we're having some real good fun. Per the Seattle Times: "The most extensive survey of pH levels in the Pacific Ocean confirms what spot measurements have suggested: From Hawaii to Alaska, the upper reaches of the sea are becoming more acidic in concert with rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere." Why do I call this a result of the "carbon bomb?"Carbon bomb is something of a cold-war metaphor. Like a neutron bomb detonated in the atmosphere, it leaves earthly infrastructure and objects outwardly as they were, wiping out only the living things below. I covered it in detail in "Carbon Bomb" Detonating Megatons Per Day, Acidifying The World's Oceans

In a nutshell:

the world's oceans have variously absorbed more than one-third of the last 150 years worth - roughly 130 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions - becoming, as IPS points out, "30 percent more acidic as the extra CO2 combines with carbonate ions in seawater, forming carbonic acid".
One telling comment I got on my first "carbon bomb" post was:
Now that the world is experiencing global cooling the wacko fringe is trying to create the next hysteria.
Acidification should more properly be our first hysteria. Carbon bomb effects could potentially be more immediately dangerous than the separate and longer term impacts of climate change. (Clue to news reporters: ocean acidification and climate change are separate problems sharing a root cause, the CO2 portion of all greenhouse gases. Specifically, ocean acidification is not affected by hydro-fluorocarbons or methane, for example, whereas climate is affected by them. There now...that's not so hard is it?)

Key point of differentiation.
The effects of climate change are long term and impossibly hard to measure, and thus left to projection, and continuing controversy.

With ocean acidification, on the other hand, historically increased atmospheric carbon dioxide dissolving in the ocean is the definitive cause; and acidification is a measurable, direct effect. Quibble all you like about precision of measurements and the scope of sampling surveys, but the fact is, direct impact is scientifically measurable, at reasonable cost.

Secondary impacts of ocean acidification - what I'll call biotic effects - need further exploration; and, much of what has been written about biotic impact is speculative. Given what is at stake - commercial fisheries which sustain a huge slice of humanity, the major source of earth's atmospheric oxygen, and the ongoing ability of the ocean to capture mankind's continuing carbon dioxide emissions - ocean acidification deserves immediate attention.

Break the ocean's capacity to assimilate C02 ,and its photosynthetic output of oxygen, and we are doubly at risk.

Possibly anticipating 'next-hysteria' accusations, the latest research on ocean acidification seems to have been based on the best possible sampling and testing procedures.

The team first measured acidity along the 2,800-mile sweep of ocean between Oahu and Kodiak in 1991. They returned in 2006 aboard the University of Washington research vessel Thomas G. Thompson, working around the clock in shifts to collect and analyze nearly 1,500 water samples over two months.

It's the first time measurements have been taken across such a wide area, said co-author Richard Feely, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle...Byrne and his colleagues developed a more precise way to measure pH, using a dye that turns from purple to bright yellow as acidity increases. On board the ship, they used instruments called spectrophotometer to measure the color change and nail pH levels 10 times more accurately than possible before...As expected, the researchers found acidification was strongest in the top layer of water, closest to the atmosphere. Normal seawater is slightly alkaline, with a pH value of about 8. Over the past 15 years, average pH levels in the top 300 feet of the ocean dropped 0.026 pH units. That sounds tiny, but is equivalent to a 6 percent jump in acidity, Byrne said.


Already detonated.
Here's the thing. Even if all CO2 emissions were immediately brought to zero, ocean acidification would proceed apace for centuries. The ocean's buffer is inadequate to the carbon bomb fragments being rained upon it from decades old emissions.

China is irrelevant. The financial stimulus is irrelevant. Political ideology and climate bills are irrelevant. Bush, Limbaugh, Luntz, Obama, Pelosi, Boxer, and the rest of the cheese mountain gang are irrelevant.

Making like a volcano and spewing sulfates into the atmosphere won't help. A flock of space mirrors won't help. Nor will dumping limestone powder into the seas: can't be done to scale without massive investment of energy and treasure..

There are other things, things not mentioned here, which may help shelter us from carbon bomb effects. But, what we're hearing from Think Tanks, NGO's, and treaty officials is mostly about denial and ethical hyperbole.

At a minimum, more research like the work cited is needed, as is more work on potential biotic effects. That's not a scare tactic; it's common sense.

I'd personally like to see complete rethink of iron seeding. Instead of looking for ways to internationally curtail and slow pilot scale research, cooking up treaties pushed by ethically-consumed NGO's, let's get in the waves.

And, finally, let's plant more trees.

More posts on ocean acidification.
Ocean Acidification Causing Some Shells to Grow Thicker
Ocean Acidification Conference: Acidity Up 30% Since Industrial ...
Ocean Acidification Means Hard Times Ahead For Shellfish
Procrastinator's Guide To Ocean Acidification: You Are The Alien ...

Best of TreeHugger 2014

WHAT'S HOT ON FACEBOOK