UN: Oceans are 30 percent more acidic than before fossil fuels

Since I began taking interest in global warming, I’ve heard scientists say “beware of surprises.” In the esoteric field of climate research, a surprise is bad: a dangerous unanticipated change to Earth’s climate, weather patterns, ocean currents and other “Earth systems,” or life on the planet. We usually expect that if a cause produces an effect, a little more of the cause will produce a little more effect. Many scientists worry that sometimes a little more cause might instead be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. A big unexpected effect. A surprise.

On Monday, the Convention on Biological Diversity, an international scientific organization, and the United Nations Environment Programme jointly issued a report raising new concerns about a serious problem of the suprise kind that climate researchers weren’t even aware of until about 5 years ago. Ask just about anybody about the consequences of putting too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and most likely they will say the gas causes Earth to grow warmer. That’s true. But the extra carbon dioxide causes another problem: it dissolves in the ocean’s waters, creating carbonic acid. The new report says this effect, called ocean acidification, has already made sea water 30 percent more acidic since before industrial burning of coal and oil began about 150 years ago. The problem is that over-acidic sea water prevents some species from forming and retaining their shells. And these animals cannot live without protective shells.

I asked Thomas Lovejoy, who wrote the preface to the new report, what its findings mean. Until recently Lovejoy was president of the Heinz Center on Biodiversity in Washington. Before that he was the chief biodiversity advisor to the World Bank. I first met him about 25 years ago when I worked briefly at the World Wildfe Fund, where he was on staff at its Washington, D.C. headquarters. He had recently created an ingenious experiment for figuring out how clear-cutting in the Amazon affects wildlife in the forest that remains. He convinced loggers to leave patches of various sizes untouched in regions they cut down. At his request, the timber companies essentially created huge biological laboratories consisting of squares of virgin forest in the middle of cleared wasteland. Researchers are still making important discoveries about how much untouched woodlands different species need to thrive.

Daniel Grossman, National Geographic, 15 December 2009. Article.

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