Changing ocean chemistry: the poem

A study published earlier this month indicated that due to manmade emissions of carbon dioxide, the earth’s oceans are tipping toward acidity faster than at any time in the last 300 million years. It made world headlines, and this week the study was the subject of Sunday New York Times editorial, “Changing the Chemistry of Earth’s Oceans.” And now, the poem.

Each week, Katherine Allen, a student of lead author Baerbel Hoenisch, organizes a coffee for the geochemistry division at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, where they both work. The emailed invitation customarily comes with a poem about some big news in science that week. Samples: “The Lunar Dynamo“; “Malarial Mechanisms“; “Arsenic … yum!”; “Old Pond Scum.”; and “Story of a Boulder.”  (See them all at the Coffee Poems page.)

In honor of the landmark ocean study, Allen treated of long-term ocean history in nine stanzas of mostly iambic tetrameter. (Note: a double major in English and geochemistry is not required for understanding, but could help with some more subtle turns.)

ACID OCEAN

I am a wild carbon atom,
To others I’ve sometimes been bound,
Not locked in some hard, rocky stratum,
I’m telling you: I get around!

As carbon dioxide I spewed
Forth during floods of basalt
The P-T, some folks have been rude:
They say that it’s partly my fault!

About 50 million years passed;
The air got too crowded for me.
My buddies and I then in-gassed
Down into the salty sea.

There, we broke up some water
Stole an H and an O.
The leftover H found C fodder,
It was hot, reefs struggled to grow.

Oh baby, the early Cretaceous,
Now that was a happenin’ time.
Plankton were rife and bodacious;
I left the party with lime.

On the seafloor I rested, just chillin’,
Then my neighbors and I were dissolved!
They’re still on the hunt for the villain;
Some say methane was involved.

 I’ll tell you, if you want to learn
Of acidifications now past:
For sea bugs to feel that harsh burn,
The pH change has to be fast.

If acid’s more rapid than base
(if it beats out the weathering flux)
Then carbonate shells lose the race …
For some critters, that really sucks.

So what? pH’s varied since life began;
Many things drop it or spike it.
I’ve seen crazy things, but this modern world, Man …
I’ve never seen anything like it!

 

Kevin Krajick, The Earth Institute, Columbia University, 12 March 2012. Article.

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