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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 07/ 7/2008

Freedman: Ocean Acidification - The Sleeper Issue

By Andrew Freedman

If I were to rank climate change impacts in terms of sexiness or pizazz, ocean acidification would rank near the bottom of the list. The relatively slow, unseen process would be well behind the drama of highly visible shifts such as more intense hurricanes, severe droughts, and melting sea and glacial ice.

However, although ocean acidification isn't generating headlines as much as these other climate-related problems are, some scientists are regarding it as just as significant of a threat, if not more so.

Keep reading to learn why acid is bad for the ocean. For the short term weather outlook, see our full forecast.

According to a report published last week in the journal Science, ocean acidification is such a potentially damaging effect of climate change that it should be considered as a key element of any plan that sets carbon dioxide emissions reduction targets. In fact, the article states, avoiding damaging ocean acidification may require making more significant emissions cuts than what is currently deemed politically expedient.

In order to understand ocean acidification, one must know a little bit about the role of oceans in the climate system.

The oceans are the biggest carbon "sink" on the planet, since they absorb, through chemical processes, much of the CO2 that is emitted from land-based sources. The oceans have soaked up a staggering amount of carbon dioxide in the past 200 years -- about 40 percent of what humans have put into the air from the burning of fossil fuels and other activities, according to four researchers led by Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawaii. That's great for the atmosphere, which needs such a repository for carbon dioxide in order to prevent catastrophic warming, but it doesn't bode well for certain marine ecosystems.

As oceans take in more carbon dioxide, the pH value of the water is lowered. The study in Science magazine states that oceans have already become more acidic, by about .1 pH units since the start of the industrial revolution. If greenhouse gas emissions were to continue to increase, the study states the ocean's pH could drop by as much as .2 to .3 pH units, which is regarded as especially dangerous. The time frame within which such a drop would occur depends on the amount and rate of future carbon dioxide emissions. Such increasing acidity would potentially imperil many marine organisms such as corals, mussels, and oysters.

As water gets more acidic, it weakens the ability of certain marine organisms to build their protective shells and skeletons. Many of the organisms that lie at the base of the marine food web depend on calcium carbonate minerals to form their shells, but acidic water alters the quantity and endurance of these minerals.

Zeebe's article states that the public and decision makers need to be much more aware of the changing chemistry of the oceans, and may need to establish tougher emissions reduction targets to take into account the sensitivity of marine ecosystems to fluctuations in the pH level.

"Ocean chemistry changes, and not only climate effects, should be taken into consideration when determining carbon dioxide emission targets; such consideration is likely to weigh in favor of lower emission targets," the article states.

Much remains to be discovered about the sensitivity of different species to acidification, but scientists know enough to be worried.

"We know that ocean acidification will damage corals and other organisms, but there's just no experimental data on how most species might be affected," said co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology in a press release.

"Most experiments have been done in the lab with just a few individuals. While the results are alarming, it's nearly impossible to predict how this unprecedented acidification will affect entire ecosystems,"

Perhaps the fact that emissions of greenhouse gases from human activities are being seen everywhere from Arctic ice down to the molecular composition of the oceans will be enough to convince some people that climate change needs to be dealt with. But mounting an awareness effort around ocean acidification is a challenging endeavor, because at the end of the day unless a person's income depends directly from marine ecosystems, it would be difficult to show that it would affect them in more ways than just what they find on the menu the next time they go to Legal Seafoods.

For now, I'll keep it in the category of "dull but worrisome" on my list of climate-related calamities, unless any readers can convince me otherwise.

By Andrew Freedman  | July 7, 2008; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change, Freedman  
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Would you care to explain why all your articles are so negative? All of them seem to argue how we humans are screwing up our planet, which we may very well be. However, I have yet to see you wrote a positive piece on any topic. Have I missed anything?

Posted by: RM | July 7, 2008 1:49 PM | Report abuse

As a suggestion, why not write something constructive such as steps we can take to adapt to the inevitable incremental global warming that we are likely to see before mankind and/or nature starts to reverse the recent uptrend in global temperatures.

Posted by: RM | July 7, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

RM, thanks for your comment. I've covered climate and weather-related matters in a more lighthearted manner both here and elsewhere. Generally speaking, on this site I try to stay away from policy issues and advice as much as I can, and stick to climate science stories. One problem with climate science these days is that it is, more often than not, disconcerting. However, that doesn't mean my columns have to be that way. I'll think about your comment some more and see where it leads me.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | July 7, 2008 4:51 PM | Report abuse


Keep doing what you are doing It is good Keeps us awake

I go to beach in Sonora, Mexico every W/E. It amazes me how people are destroying their own environment future. Many people think that the beaches are their own backyard for all kind of waste. The so called "leaders" keep silent.

I have adapted a motto, whenever place I visit, it will be a little cleaner when I leave it

Posted by: ramiro | July 7, 2008 10:27 PM | Report abuse


That makes sense. Other ideas:
1. Address the scientific potential and pros/cons of different sequestration technologies: injection, ocean seeding, etc.
2. Address the current state of (legitimate) climate science on whether or how much anthropogenic warming may be offset and/or canceled out by any cooling as part of the earth's natural climate cycles. There are lots of papers/articles on this topic, but its hard to tell what is real vs. junk.

Posted by: RM | July 8, 2008 5:55 PM | Report abuse

RM, Sequestration is an interesting and emerging scientific issue for sure. On your second point, can you describe and/or provide links to any studies addressing natural cycle offsets? I'm not aware of much peer reviewed stuff in this area, and am curious to find out. Feel free to contact me offline if you'd rather.

Posted by: Andrew Freedman, Capital Weather Gang | July 9, 2008 12:33 AM | Report abuse


here is one I stumbled across the other day.

I don't have access to the original work, but this article summarizes it. the authors found that "the greenhouse effect of CO2 in the atmosphere on global temperature variation is mainly the century scale trend. And CO2 concentration in the atmosphere has little effect on periodical variation on the rest of the timescale." They also concluded: "the contribution of CO2 concentration to global temperature variation is no more than 40.19%, or in other words, 59.81% of the weight of global temperature variation is caused by non-greenhouse effect."

Finally, they report that "Despite the increasing trend of atmospheric CO2 concentration, the components IMF2, IMF3 and IMF4 of global temperature changes are all in falling" and that "the effect of greenhouse warming is deficient in counterchecking the natural cooling of global climate change in the coming 20 years. Consequently, we believe global climate changes will be in a trend of falling in the following 20 years."

Interesting work if its sound.

Posted by: RM | July 9, 2008 8:43 AM | Report abuse

I disagree with Mr. Freedman. I don't believe the "sleeper issue" is ocean acidfication. I believe the sleeper issue is the emotional and physical damage being done to people in the effort to advance the agenda of the global warming activists.

The one that personally upsets me the most is the psychological damage being afflicted on our children. I have stated before that I truly hope that those who either advocated or inflicted the damage get their just rewards one day.

---begin SHORT quote---
PSYCHIATRISTS have detected the first case of "climate change delusion" - and they haven't even yet got to Kevin Rudd and his global warming guru.

Writing in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, Joshua Wolf and Robert Salo of our Royal Children's Hospital say this delusion was a "previously unreported phenomenon".

"A 17-year-old man was referred to the inpatient psychiatric unit at Royal Children's Hospital Melbourne with an eight-month history of depressed mood . . . He also . . . had visions of apocalyptic events."

(So have Alarmist of the Year Tim Flannery, Profit of Doom Al Gore and Sir Richard Brazen, but I digress.)

"The patient had also developed the belief that, due to climate change, his own water consumption could lead within days to the deaths of millions of people through exhaustion of water supplies."

But never mind the poor boy, who became too terrified even to drink. What's scarier is that people in charge of our Government seem to suffer from this "climate change delusion", too.
---end SHORT quote---

source of quote -,21985,23991257-25717,00.html

The alarmist crowd have a poor kid afraid to drink water.

The physical harm to humans will come from starving the third world as a result of us putting our food supply in our fuel tank. Dumb, dumb,dumb policy. Stupidest thing I have ever seen in my entire life.

A new report released by the World Bank shows that bio-fuels are responsible for 75% of the recent increase in food prices.

How many people will need to starve and die before this moronic policy is reversed?

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | July 9, 2008 1:55 PM | Report abuse

A piece on the Today show this morning noted that new polling found that stress associated with the shock at the cost of filling up their car's gas tank can have digestive problems, migraines, and even a heart attack.

This in turn, especially when combined with increasing food costs, can have negative consequences on the entire family, including children.

The energy crisis alarmist crowd, thus, may now have little kids afraid for parents to take them to their soccer games and reluctant to eat to avoid their family from having to foreclose on the home and move into a tent.

Or worse: How many people will need to starve and die before this country's moronic energy policy is reversed?

BTW: A rational energy policy will go a long way to reducing emissions that may or may not be contributing to global warming. If it does, icing on the cake. If it does not, we are still very much better off.

Posted by: L-Anna | July 9, 2008 2:51 PM | Report abuse

I routinely tell my wife that we are living in an upside down, mad, mad world.

The global warming alarmists want bio-fuel to "prevent" CO2 from the evil petroleum fueled car.

Only one small, minor detail: using bio-fuel actually results in INCREASED greenhouse gases.

And, it results in an increase in food prices and food shortages in some countries. Even food riots in some places. But do we stop? Heck no! That would make too much sense.

We take food away from the third world in the name of reducing greenhouse gases, which actually results in INCREASED greenhouse gases, and we refuse to stop doing it! If I read this in a novel, I would accuse it of being unbelievable.

But have no fear, third world. PM Brown to the rescue! He will insist on continuing bio-fuels, enjoy an 8 course meal, and then promptly lecture Britains on their food consumption/waste.

You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr. Q. | July 9, 2008 3:20 PM | Report abuse

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