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Ocean Acidification is a Misnomer

BY JACK DINI--A good way to excite people is to tell them that something is becoming more ‘acid,’ as ‘the oceans are undergoing acidification and this is a potential environmental catastrophe.’

The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the leading proponent of the doom of global warming, states that the mean pH of surface waters ranges between 7.9 and 8.3 in the open oceans, so the oceans remain alkaline. It is dishonest to present to a lay audience that any perceived reduction in alkalinity means the oceans are turning to acid. (1) Since the pH of the oceans is higher than neutral (pH = 7), this means the oceans are alkaline. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14; pH 6 is ten times more acid than pH 7 and pH 5 is a hundred times more acid than pH 7. (2)

Unfortunately, as Scientific American points out, ‘acidification’ means a drop in value, anywhere along the scale. (3) So the term ‘ocean acidification’ is misleading. The oceans are not acidifying. They are undergoing a process known as neutralization, but the term ‘acidification’ sounds scarier than talking about the oceans becoming slightly less basic or a little more neutral.

At least one university is equating seawater with vinegar in an on-line presentation for schools. Vinegar (acetic acid) has a pH of 2.5, almost a million times more acidic in terms of hydrogen ion activity than seawater. This is deliberate disinformation to present to young people. (1)

What about pH variation?

The Economist talks about pH measurements in Hawaii; “The pH difference from one year to the next is frequently greater than the change in average pH levels over 20 years. All of this suggests that the effects will be far from uniform.” (4)

Chris Jury, Center for Marine Science, Biology and Marine Biology, University of North Carolina, reports, “On some reef flats pH values have been measured to vary from as low as 7.8 to as high as 8.4 in a single 24 hour period. In some lagoons, pH has been measured to vary as much as 1 pH unit in a day (e.g., 7.6 to 8.6). (5)

USF researchers raised a warning flag upon finding that upper-ocean pH had, over the preceding one-and-a-half decades, decreased by approximately 0.026 units, equivalent to an average annual pH change of -0.0017, over a large section of the northeastern Pacific. “The pH decrease is direct evidence for ocean acidification,” said Richard Feely. “These dramatic changes can be attributed, in most part, to anthropogenic CO2 uptake by the ocean over a 15 year period.” (1) Pretty hefty words for a pH change of 0.0017 per year. Have you ever tried to measure pH? How do you get a value as low as 0.0017?

What about the effects on corals and various species?

“Experiments with seawater are flawed because they are done in laboratories removed from the ocean floor rocks, sedimentation from continents and flow of river waters into the oceans. It is these real processes that have kept the oceans alkaline for billions of years. Laboratory experiments have to provide results in a short time to be reported in scientific journals. Processes over geological time cannot be that easily replicated. Computer simulations that ignore observations and natural processes that have taken place over billions of years end up with a result unrelated to reality. Reality is written in rocks, not models based on incomplete information,” notes Ian Plimer. (6)

Proof of this statement can be found in a recent Scientific American article by Marah Hardt and Carl Safina, “If small pH changes occurred gradually over tens of thousands of years, a species might evolve adaptations, for example, by retaining chance genetic mutations that result in greater production of buffer molecules. But species generally cannot adapt to changes occurring over mere hundreds of years or less. Similar changes produced in the lab over days to weeks are lethal.” (3) There it is; short time experiments are lethal. Lab experiments persist for weeks to months. Climate change occurs over decades and centuries. We have no way of predicting how species will adapt over long periods of time.

There are many contrary peer reviewed papers challenging the claims about the impact of CO2 on the oceans. One survey highlights some one hundred and fifty such papers, most of them showing that we cannot possibly acidify the oceans. (1)

Iris Hendriks of the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies recently analyzed data from a wide sample of research into how individual organisms respond to increased carbon dioxide in their seawater. She found that the range of responses was wide, with some seeming to prefer the lowered pH. She also found that the effects to be expected in the 21st century were, on average, comparatively modest. (4)

Recent research published by Elisabetta Erba in Science says corals are not threatened by lower pH. The study contradicts the assumption that ocean acidification leads to species die-offs, surprising scientists. (7)

Hugo Loaiciga and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that a doubling of CO2 from 380 ppm to 760 ppm would increase the seawater acidity approximately 0.19 units (e.g., from a pH of 8.2 to 8.0). This paper’s result concerning average seawater salinity and acidity shows that on a global scale and over the time scale of hundreds of years, there would not be accentuated changes in either seawater salinity or acidity. (8)

What To Do?

Here’s the suggestion from Hardt and Safina, “The EPA should move forward with including CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Water Act, giving states the authority to enforce CO2 emissions limits. Establishing marine protected areas would allow species to recover from overexploitation; higher numbers would give their populations and gene pools more resilience in responding to climate changes.” (3) Sounds great, but what about the 80% of the world’s people who want to catch up to us. We can’t make any durable dent in global emissions because emissions from the developing world are growing too fast. Any proposed CO2 controls would increase production costs while giving a ‘free pass’ to underdeveloped countries. Guess were the most energy intensive industries will relocate? To the lowest cost producers who will not have to worry about controlling emissions.

The bottom line on pH measurement is that to pretend there is an accurate long-term record of pH over the oceans—or that a single reading from Hawaii or anywhere else is typical of all oceans—is nonsense. The simple answer is we don’t know. But what we do know is that in the past, creatures in the ocean have survived and thrived under conditions that were less alkaline than those existing right now. (4)

References

1. Dennis Ambler, “Acid Seas- Back to Basic,”, SPPI Original Paper, February 11, 2010
2. Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, (New York, Taylor Trade Publishing, 2009), 331
3. Marah J. Hardt and Carl Safina, “Threatening Ocean Life From the Inside Out,” Scientific American, 303, 66, August 2010
4. “The other carbon-dioxide problem,” The Economist, July 1, 2010
5. Chris Jury, “Aquarium Chemistry: The Carbonate System in the Aquarium, and the Ocean, Part I: The Components of the Carbonate System,” http://www.advancedaquarist.com/2008/12/chemistry/view?searchterm=.
6. Ian Plimer, Heaven and Earth, 338
7. Elisabetta Erba, et al., “Calcareous Nannoplankton Response to Surface-Water Acidification Around Oceanic Anoxic Event 1a,” Science, 329, 428, July 23, 2010
8. Hugo A Loaiciga, et al., “Modern-age buildup of CO2 and its effect on seawater acidity and salinity,” Geophys. Res. Lett., 33, L10605, i:10.1029/2006GL026305

Jack Dini is a resident of Livermore, CA

Short URL: http://www.hawaiireporter.com/?p=19900

2 Comments for “Ocean Acidification is a Misnomer”

  1. “If small pH changes occurred gradually over tens of thousands of years, a species might evolve adaptations, for example, by retaining chance genetic mutations that result in greater production of buffer molecules. But species generally cannot adapt to changes occurring over mere hundreds of years or less. Similar changes produced in the lab over days to weeks are lethal.” (3) There it is; short time experiments are lethal. Lab experiments persist for weeks to months. Climate change occurs over decades and centuries. We have no way of predicting how species will adapt over long periods of time.

    Your inference of conclusion is completely erroneous or false: It is not short term experiments that are at issue, it is the rate of adaptation of species. We know that species are able to adapt to changes in pH over very long time scales, but not shorter ones. This occurs through long term changes such as genetic selection and shorter term adaptation at the organism level. THe whole point is that the shorter the period ( ie the greater the rate of change ) the less able a species is able to adapt and therefore die. As with climate change, it is not just the amount of change but its rate. Acidification ( which is the correct term term not a pejorative one ) is a probalem because of the rapid rate cuased by rapidly increasing CO2 emissions.

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