Ocean acidification: How much is too much?

Over at Skeptical Science we (Doug Mackie, Christina McGraw, and Keith Hunter) have started a long series (18 parts) about ocean acidification (Introduction , 1, 2). We all deride blog science. Blog science is what happens when people try to get a complex message across in 800 words or less. Real science takes time to explain. There is too much et voila in writing about climate change in general and ocean acidification in particular. Denialists have not touched ocean acidification because they don’t understand it. The chemistry is very subtle and even posts on normally reliable blogs like Skeptical Science have made errors.

A local Dunedin denier sent me ‘proof’ that ocean acidification was not real and even if it was then it wasn’t a problem. The ‘proof’ was a document published by the SPPI. The document was previously ‘published’ (cough) in Energy and Environment. Really, they very best argument the denialists have is “acid means pH less than 7 but ocean pH is greater than 7 so there is therefore no acidification”.

In this document (which I am not linking to because they don’t need the traffic) 5 of the 12 points for policy makers are variations on the pH greater than 7 argument. At first I puzzled at this: Do they really think policy makers are so dumb they won’t notice the same thing said 5 ways? Then I remembered Don Brash and had to concede the point. Yes, many policy makers are that dumb. (6 more points in the summary for policy makers are variations of ‘the gravy train’ meme and the last point says that measurements to date agree with IPCC projections – while mangling the terminology).

So, even the SPPI accept that the average pH of the ocean has dropped by 0.1 pH unit since the start of the industrial revolution. They even accept that this represents a 30% increase in “acidity” of the oceans. (It is actually more like 26% – but what is a little accuracy between friends?) But they harp on that the process is not acidification?

The OED gives the following definition for acidification:

acidification, n.
The action or process of making something (more) acidic; conversion into an acid; addition of acid. Cf. acidify v.

Then, as always the OED gives some historical quotations, finishing with this one:

2006 New Scientist 5 Aug. 30/1 Most scientists think it is correct to describe any process that lowers pH as acidification.

I was motivated to write the series because I have seen a lot of well intentioned comments and posts about OA. But most of the posters and commentators plainly don’t really understand and are hiding that by pasting in chunks of big words. That isn’t good enough.

At the start of writing the series we briefly thought about a series of debunking but quickly realised that: a) what was missing was the basic science to explain the debunking, and b) there are very few claims to debunk. Atmospheric temperature is easy – you can sow confusion by talking about urban heat islands and the like. But ocean acidification is different. Marine chemistry is complex.

In this series we have presented the bare minimum entry level chemistry needed to understand the concept of OA. This is the stuff required to even understand half the words in the stuff that gets posted elsewhere.

The series is not for the faint hearted.

  • Are you brave enough to SEE equilibrium arrows and find out what happens when they are perturbed?
  • Do you want to SEE chemical equations do battle with each other?
  • Do you want to SEE androids fighting Brad and Janet?

Then head over to Skeptical Science for the start of an 18 part series about Ocean Acidification. Intro, part the first, part the second.

16 thoughts on “Ocean acidification: How much is too much?”

  1. Here is one of the best graphs on the OA issue:
    http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/file/pH+Time+Series

    Generally the http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/ website has some very well prepared info on the matter.

    OA is perhaps the most disturbing aspect of it all. While there is room for adaptation to some degree to higher temperatures on land, this is not so if you are an ocean dweller and the chemistry in which you sit is becoming unlivable.

    On the PMEL site is an instructive image showing the dissolution of a shell in sea water in 2100 within 45 days:
    http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/files/pteropodpics1_med.jpg

    Imagine some hypothetical air pollution that by 2100 would dissolve the human skeleton in 45 days and make it impossible for humans to survive…. The outcry would be unanimous and everything possible would be done today to avert this catastrophe!
    What many do not grasp is that killing the food chain from the bottom up in our oceans this way will have catastrophic effects for the entire planet just as well.

    And no matter how warm it will get due to atmospheric CO2 or if we spray sulfur into the atmosphere to cool the climate: the CO2 balance in the oceans is going up relentlessly as we add CO2 to the atmosphere. There is simply no mechanism to prevent this at all!

    1. I wouldn’t worry about that. There is lots of oxygen. But the calculation is (if you like biogeochemical calculations) QI. I feel another post coming on to explain this idea in detail.

      1. True Doug, but maybe not the case for the ocean. The continued de-oxygenation of the ocean as it warms, eutrophication of coastal waters, and overfishing seem to be turning the oceans into ‘Jellyfish Heaven’.

  2. As I mentioned in my little web sitehttps://sites.google.com/site/globalwarmingsimplified/ , The big action is going on in the oceans. It soaks up most of the heat and most of the CO2 and as a consequence hides the terrible damage that we are doing to our World. 390 ppm of CO2 is a massive diversion from the norm and when the results finally become apparent we are going to be in a real fix.

  3. Doug, Keith, Christina:
    Thanks for the time and effort, and for the excellent articles so far. I’m really enjoying the challenge. And the Androids.. (Are they the ones at the dinner table?)
    You’re not afraid that R2 might pop by to “destroy” your analogy? – I’m sure he has something to say about people who throw peanuts! 😉

    1. “I think it’s well understood – though I can’t provide a reference for it – that the Nazis started out by throwing peanuts. Or was that the Chimpanzees? I get them confused.

      Anyway, the analogy is clearly false, because peanuts are small, brownish, and oily, and the ocean isn’t. I’m sure I heard once that the pH of the ocean goes up and down in 1500 year natural cycles, though I won’t accept any other claims of paleo-anything.

      You people are rude. That’s how the Chimpanzees started out…”

      1. Here is an interesting thought:
        How will the Young Earth nutter crowd that denies Evolution survive the battle with the AGW deniers who think that anything can adapt or evolve to the challenges of a changing planet? I always wondered when the Goldilocks empire of the Religious-Right in the US will start a civil war amongst themselves!
        Anyway lets not worry to much about OA and AGW, nothing that some 50 to 100 million years of evolution won’t fix I’d think. We survived mega impacts and other mysterious mass extinctions too. The planet is soooo resilient…. 😉

        1. I’ve wondered that, too, Thomas. And then there’s the One World Government theory, that seems to have its roots in a misinterpretation of the Book of Revelation (in the Bible) – as per this letter to the Southland Times yesterday …

          “I have noticed over the past three years in this column that any man who even dares to doubt the ‘climate doctrine’ of Carol Cowan receives one of her signature expostulations and insolent rebuttals.
          This is, in my view sir, and other men’s, insolent and condescending.
          Mrs Cowan seems to be obsessed with selected websites that are all made by the false prophets; the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change; Potsdam; Nasa etc which are all controlled by the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and are heavily government-financed.
          Their subversive purpose is to disseminate propaganda from a tiny brazen minority of false prophets and evangelists to deceive the world via a controlled print and TV media.
          It is a universally accepted and heralded truth among all truth-speaking scientists with integrity that catastrophic anthropogenic global warming conspiracy has been analysed and systematically shown to be an immense, complex, highly-integrated, heavily-financed and deviously planned and executed global conspiracy employing the weapon of False Evidence Appearing Real (FEAR) to depress the populace.
          The secret subversive objective of this globally integrated climate-change cult is first to intimidate us, and then financially ruin us then force on us a one-world government.” (Abridged – can you imagine what more this man could have said??)

          Man, you couldn’t make this stuff up! Shades of Ian Wishart, eh? Anyway, he’s done me a big favour, because he’s shown the readers of the Times the looniness underpinning the “global warming ain’t happening” brigade in our neck of the woods.

          But, me, insolent? LOL. I sense a touch of chauvinism. The only thing he got right is that I am Mrs Cowan (I’ve only been writing to the paper for 2 years, 3 mnths).

          1. Oh. My. Giddy. Aunt.

            Still, it does save some poor exhausted comedian from having to write their own material. The only work required is to practise the various possible voices to use when reciting these lines.

          2. can you imagine what more this man could have said?

            What I really can’t imagine is why anyone would publish this!

            Particularly at such length. Is there any chance it was a case of giving them plenty of rope to hang themselves?* Or is the reality considerably sadder than that?

            (‘*Warmist Website Advocates Hanging Skeptics Shock!’ 😉 )

            1. I really hope so, Bill. It had been headed “Conspiracy Theory”. I am not planning on replying to this one, I think the reading public can make up their own minds on it.
              And I see ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ is on telly tonight, so there will be a rash of letters in the paper next week about that – I need to conserve my strength for the onslaught.

            2. Actually, that’s at least a little bit encouraging!

              Wait for it – ‘Al Gore is fat!’

          3. I almost revisited the contents of dinner when reading the Southland Times quote!
            Ouch…. arghhh makes me feel as you might feel when realizing that you belong to one of the gazillions of species in the cosmos later regarded as an evolutionary side branch gone horribly wrong….

            Battle on dear Carol! There are more people out there agreeing with you than you think.

  4. hello. if i can add my tuppenceworth.

    I was at a dinner last week, in Wellington, one of those table for X things, where people get together on a Saturday night.

    I kinda blotted my copy book, sigh.

    There was a farmer there, and a ‘supposed’ biology scientist, now working in ESOL.

    I had the old shibboleths spouted, “Scientists in england, caught fudging and lying’, and “you can’t trust scientists”, ;and “it’s all a con”.

    It didn’t make for a happy night. However, i took great pleasure in pricking their bubbles.

    It’s amazing how people wish to keep themselves willfully uninformed.

    Or maybe it’s that i’ve been captured by the new world order?

    yours aye

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