Butterfield: Hint from Heloise — It’s the pH, stupid!

Let’s say you are flat-out opposed to the notion that human activity is warming the climate. And let’s say that somehow your view gets vindicated as the objective truth.

Wrong. We still have to shut down coal plants whether or not they are heating our globe, because atmospheric CO2 is poisoning our oceans through a chemical pathway that’s devoid of mystery or controversy; it’s called ocean acidification.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated that the oceans have absorbed 118 billion metric tons of CO2, about half of the total we’ve released into the atmosphere, with 20 to 25 million more tons being added daily. While this has guarded us from worse climate impact, the absorbed CO2 has lowered the pH of ocean water a tenth of a unit. The oceans are roughly 30 percent more acidic now than has been true for millions of years, before our species started to specialize in transferring geological carbon into a gas.

Marine biologists are alarmed that sea creatures will not adapt to the sudden chemical change of their world as the oceans become progressively more acidic. Down the road this new seawater will prevent sea life from forming the calcium compounds needed for vertebrae, shells, plankton, and coral. Shells have literally dissolved off the backs of organisms under the ocean conditions predicted for 2050. Ocean water pH may drop catastrophically in a few decades, not centuries.

As sea life populations collapse they will be replaced by weeds and jellyfish, yielding ocean life composed mostly of slime.

It sounds like science fiction except that it’s not fiction. “Unlike the situation with other aspects of climate change, there is no controversy over ocean acidification,” writes Adrienne Sponberg of the American Institute of Biological Sciences. Also self-evident is the traffic jam effect: the acidity is most intense at the oceans’ lit up surface, which is where the edible goodies like shrimp, crab and lobster live.

The science is down to earth; even non-science majors can grasp the chemistry in the kitchen. Club soda, which is CO2 in water (aka carbonic acid), is great for getting stains out of carpets. This acid can be compared with vinegar, the kind you eat in your salad, which can in an hour cut through the shell-like calcium gunk that lines the saucers under our house plants. Or, consider sandstone patios that are marred by lime deposits that rise up like dandelions in the spring. A weak solution of hydrochloric acid (and water) that you can find at any hardware store gets it off — but if you need it to work really fast, mix a tiny bit of hydrochloric acid into club soda. The bubbles attack the calcium aggressively.

With terms like carbon forcing, isotopes, volcanic and solar activity, apogees, perigees and cosmic rays all taking part in a complete debate of climate change, most of us trying to figure it out realize, it’s too hard. As parents and citizens we are confronted with the call to respond to truly elite knowledge and we are outdone, like Indiana Jones cornered by a sword master majestically showing off his skill.

But Indiana’s got a gun and uses it, cutting through the foe’s sophistication with blunt force. That’s what ocean acidification does for our understanding: it’s a conceptual short cut that tells us bluntly that while we “can debate climate change,” we can’t adapt to the loss of our oceans’ food supply. (Nor can we risk topping off the oceans’ carbon sink services.) When it comes to ocean acidification at it fullest extent, there are no upsides, no mystery, no controversy, and no room for failure in how we act.

Anne B Butterfield, Daily Camera, 13 July 2008. Article.

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