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Ocean Acidification Dangerous: World’s science academies

June 8th, 2009 · 2 Comments

This is a critically important item that I will be writing on, as well, but mwmwm has written a good piece that merits reading.   Simply put, we can put warming aside and acidification of the oceans provides more than enough reason for acting with alacrity to cut CO2 emissions and to begin to look for paths to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and out of paths where it would end up in the oceans.  This new joint report / statement brings much higher visibility and raises concerns to a higher level.

A strongly worded statement was released last week, signed by seventy science academies (including our own National Academy of Sciences) about ocean acidification.

From InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (PDF):

Ocean acidification, one of the world’s most important climate change challenges, may be left off the agenda at the United Nations Copenhagen conference, the world’s science academies warned today…. 70 national science academies signed the statement…. “The implications of ocean acidification cannot be overstated. Unless we cut our global CO2 emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050 and thereafter, we could be looking at fundamental and immutable changes in the makeup of our marine biodiversity. The effects will be seen worldwide, threatening food security, reducing coastal protection and damaging the local economies that may be least able to tolerate it.”

“Fundamental and immutable”: that’s stark.

Here’s the fundamental chemistry: ocean absorption of CO2 produces carbonic acid. The problem is acidic water prevents some shell-based life-forms (like coral, plankton, pteropods) from forming their calcium bits effectively.

From Nature, 2005 (PDF), “Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms”:

In our projections, Southern Ocean surface waters will begin to become undersaturated with respect to aragonite, a metastable form of calcium carbonate, by the year 2050. By 2100, this undersaturation could extend throughout the entire Southern Ocean and into the subarctic Pacific Ocean. When live pteropods were exposed to our predicted level of undersaturation during a two-day shipboard experiment, their aragonite shells showed notable dissolution. Our findings indicate that conditions detrimental to high-latitude ecosystems could develop within decades, not centuries as suggested previously.

I wrote on this earlier in a diary called All Hands On Deck: Acidifying Oceans, and some of the following words are self-plagiarized:

This is chemical. This is measured in decades. We may live to see an ocean that cannot support life as it has known it for millions of years.

From Times Online:
They are calling it “the other CO2 problem”. Its victim is not the polar bear spectacularly marooned on a melting ice floe, or an eagle driven out of its range, nor even a French pensioner dying of heatstroke. What we have to mourn are tiny marine organisms dissolving in acidified water. In fact we need to do rather more than just mourn them. We need to dive in and save them.

Suffering plankton may not have quite the same cachet as a 700-kilo seal-eating mammal, but their message is no less apocalyptic. What they tell us is that the chemistry of the oceans is changing, and that, unless we act decisively, the limitless abundance of the sea within a very few decades will degrade into a useless tidal desert.

On average, each person on Earth contributes a tonne of carbon to the oceans every year. The result is a rapid rise in acidity — or a reduction in pH, as the scientists prefer to express it — which, as it intensifies, will mean that marine animals will be unable to grow shells, and that many sea plants will not survive.

With these crucial links removed, and the ecological balance fatally disrupted, death could flow all the way up the food chain, through tuna and cod to marine mammals and Homo sapiens. As more than half the world’s population depends on food from the sea for its survival, this is no exaggeration.

It may be too late to stop some acidification. But the worst awfulness of a dead worldwide ocean may be preventable — where the phytoplankton have been acidified to death, so there’s no food for the planktivorous fish, which are at the “topsoil” level of the food chain, thereby creating an ocean death spiral of ecosystem collapse.

We can perhaps mitigate it, so that the ocean, over this century, has a chance to recover — if we radically decrease the CO2 we produce.

Global warming is dangerous too — but it’s been twisted into a discourse of competing complexities.

Ocean acidification, however, is more stark, and in some ways a more effective explanation of what we’re doing by our profligate CO2 spewage. There are few “deniers” of acidification (a recent “attempt” at doubt-casting notwithstanding).

So tomorrow, at the water cooler, at lunch, during the huggermugger before a meeting begins, mention ocean acidification. Go read Girling’s great piece in the TimesOnline, to be sure you understand it. Or go to the Wikipedia entry. Read the special issue (2009) of the Journal of Marine Education on the topic. Or take a look at 40+ news stories from the last year, with punchlines, on Apocadocs.

But let’s get the word out. All hands on deck.

And let’s get this undeniable, gut-wrenchingly scary meme out there in the world, and ensure that it’s part of the Copenhagen talks.

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Tags: carbon dioxide · climate change · environmental · Global Warming

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