The Grey Lady tonight, in true “newspaper of record” fashion, has an article that manages to acknowledge some of the effects of ocean acidification, and its links to global warming, while sidestepping how grim the implications are.
The article, titled “Scientists Adopt Tiny Island as a Warming Bellwether,” does point out, via recounting how the number and health of various species on Tatoosh Island, Washington, have declined over time, and that the culprit is rising CO2 levels.
But the story is written as if the intent is to anesthetize readers. Tellingly, it mentions “huge declines in Ph” first, and used the word “acidic” sparingly, a mere three times. 14 of its 24 paragraphs are travel narrative, with soothing images of crashing waves and rugged vistas. Some examples, starting with the opening paragraph:
From a stretch of rocky shoreline on this tiny island, one can, on any given morning, watch otters floating on their backs, elephant seals hauling out of the water and a bald eagle flying past murres huddled along a cliff face. The startled birds perform a synchronized dive into the sea, their ovoid black-and-white bodies resembling miniature penguins….
While their parents are out counting barnacles or collecting water samples, the children, Anna, 9, and Ben, 12, lie in their bunks and read. Or they head out to try to catch a fish for dinner, hopping and skipping their way across slippery rocks and past several dark caves to a perch on the island’s north end.
What the researchers call “happy time” comes in the afternoon when the tides return and they gather — along with a rotating cadre of graduate students — outside the Winter Palace on an old dock laid out on the lawn to compare notes, gossip and have a snack.
Everyone gets a brownie, courtesy of Dr. Pfister, but only one — and everyone keeps close watch.
“Being a graduate adviser is like doing a second round of parenting,” Dr. Paine said.
And even when impact on marine life and the species that depend on them are mentioned, the story focuses on the impact on the island, rather than reverting to the typical journalistic device of using the anecdotes to leaven a serious, detailed discussion of the issues, which in this case would be the data and the science. But to the extent the article provides it, it’s in minimalist, dumbed down form:
Among the declines the researchers are noticing: historically hardy populations of gulls and murres are only half what they were 10 years ago, and only a few chicks hatched this spring. Mussel shells are notably thinner, and recently the mussels seem to be detaching from rocks more easily and with greater frequency.
Goose barnacles are also suffering, and so are the hard, splotchy, wine-colored coralline algae, which appear like graffiti along rocky shorelines.
While not entirely understood, the declines are not entirely mysterious. Biologists suspect that the shifts are related to huge declines in the water’s pH, a shift attributed to the absorption of excess carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere in ever-greater amounts by the burning of fossil fuels for energy.
As the carbon dioxide is absorbed, it alters the oceanic water chemistry, turning it increasingly acidic. Barnacles, oysters and mussels find it more difficult to survive, which can cause chain reactions among the animals that eat those species, like birds and people.
No where does the article clearly describe that acidification threatens all crustacea, as well as coral reefs. By mentioning the particular species (“barnacles, oysters and mussels”) it makes it sound like the casualties will be comparatively few and ones can we live with (well, I suppose some people can’t get by without moules et frites, but you get the picture).
One of the most startling effects is the acidification of the oceans. Since 1750, the oceans have become increasingly acidic. In the oceans, CO2 forms carbonic acid, a serious threat to the base of the food chain, especially on shellfish of all sizes. Carbonic acid dissolves calcium carbonate, an essential component of any life form with an exoskeleton. In short, all life forms with an exoskeleton are threatened: shell fish, an important part of the food chain for many fish; coral reefs, the habitat of many species of fish….
And, as readers of my last thread might remember, we are accelerating our creation of CO2 at an alarming rate. According to the Energy Bulletin, China alone is planning of 562 new coal plants by 2012.
By 2012, the plants in three key countries – China, India, and the United States – are expected to emit as much as an extra 2.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide, according to a Monitor analysis of power-plant construction data. In contrast, Kyoto countries by that year are supposed to have cut their CO2 emissions by some 483 million tons.
According to one estimate, between 1750 and 1994, oceans absorbed 118 billion tons of CO2—and we were just starting serious CO2 production. As anyone with a fish tank knows, as the Ph falls, the water becomes more acidic. Fish life becomes more and more problematical.
This absorption has made the world’s oceans significantly more acidic since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Research published last year by Mark Jacobson, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, indicated that between 1751 and 2004 surface ocean pH dropped from approximately 8.25 to 8.14. James Orr of the Climate and Environmental Sciences Laboratory further estimated that ocean pH levels could fall another 0.3 – 0.4 units by 2100.
In fact, by 2050,
…there may be too little carbonate for [in the Pacific] organisms to form shells as soon as 2050.
Since 1990 alone, Ph levels in the Pacific have dropped .0025. Such a drop may not seem significant until one understands Ph levels.
Both of the articles cited above are well-worth reading in full. The first article is perhaps the most germane, touching, as it does, on the causes of the Permian extinction, the largest mass die-off in the earth’s history. Yes, the oceans became acidic, far more so than ours will by 2100, I think, I hope.
Yves here. In case you think Stormy was being unduly alarmist, consider this section of a post we published in March of this year:
Consider the scope of the paper in Science, per a very good discussion in ars technica:
A new paper in Science examines the geologic record for context relating to ocean acidification…The research group (twenty-one scientists from nearly as many different universities) reviewed the evidence from past known or suspected intervals of ocean acidification…They find that the current rate of ocean acidification puts us on a track that, if continued, would likely be unprecedented in last 300 million years.
There is an important driver of this process that this overview mentions only in passing further on, and it’s useful to have it in mind when you review the discussion of the historical record: ocean acidification depends primarily on the rate of atmospheric CO2 increases, not the absolute concentration. Look at how attenuated the rate of past CO2 changes was in the past versus the speed now:
The first period the researchers looked at was the end of the last ice age, starting around 18,000 years ago. Over a period of about 6,000 years, atmospheric CO2 levels increased by 30 percent, a change of roughly 75 ppm. (For reference, atmospheric CO2 has gone up by about the same amount over the past 50 years.) Over that 6,000 year time period, surface ocean pH dropped by approximately 0.15 units. That comes out to about 0.002 units per century. Our current rate is over 0.1 units per century—two orders of magnitude greater, which lines up well with a model estimate we covered recently.
The last deglaciation did not trigger a mass extinction, but it did cause changes in some species…
During the Pliocene warm period, about 3 million years ago, atmospheric CO2 was about the same as today, but pH was only 0.06 to 0.11 units lower than preindustrial conditions. This is because the event played out over 320,000 years or so. We see species migration in the fossil record in response to the warming planet, but not ill effects on calcifiers…
Next, the researchers turned their focus to the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (or PETM), which occurred 56 million years ago. Global temperature increased about 6°C over 20,000 years due to an abrupt release of carbon to the atmosphere (though this was not as abrupt as current emissions). The PETM saw the largest extinction of deep-sea foraminifera of the last 75 million years, and was one of the four biggest coral reef disasters of the last 300 million years…
The group also examined the several mass extinctions that defined the Mesozoic—the age of dinosaurs. The boundary between the Triassic and Jurassic included a large increase in atmospheric CO2 (adding as much as 1,300 to 2,400 ppm) over a relatively short period of time, perhaps just 20,000 years. The authors write, “A calcification crisis amongst hypercalcifying taxa is inferred for this period, with reefs and scleractinian corals experiencing a near-total collapse.” Again, though, it’s unclear how much of the catastrophe can be blamed on acidification rather than warming.
Finally, we come the big one—The Great Dying. The Permian-Triassic mass extinction (about 252 million years ago) wiped out around 96 percent of marine species. Still, the rate of CO2 released to the atmosphere that drove the dangerous climate change was 10-100 times slower than current emissions…
In the end, the researchers conclude that the PETM, Triassic-Jurassic boundary, and Permian-Triassic boundary are the closest analogs to the modern day, at least as far as acidification is concerned. Due to the poor ocean chemistry data for the latter two, the PETM is the best event for us to compare current conditions. It’s still not perfect—the rate of CO2 increase was slower than today…
The authors conclude, “[T]he current rate of (mainly fossil fuel) CO2 release stands out as capable of driving a combination and magnitude of ocean geochemical changes potentially unparalleled in at least the last ~300 [million years] of Earth history, raising the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”
Translation: “We’re probably fucked, but the data is so far outside of historical parameters, we can’t say anything with a high degree of certainty.”
Back to the current post. It’s not hard to find this sort of discussion on the grim effects of ocean acidification, yet the Times chooses to gloss over it as if the potential impact isn’t known. Get a grip: scientists are looking at mass species die-offs as the closest comparable. By contrast, what we get from the Times is a narrowly accurate but substantively misleading bromide of the “no one knows for sure” sort. This is how the article concludes:
He speaks of the calcareous sponges that live in the caves of Tatoosh and, like hard-shell species, use dissolved calcium carbonate, in this case to form their skeletons or spicules, thus making them vulnerable in more acidic waters.
“Almost nothing is known about this species,” Dr. Paine said.
“No one in their right mind has the time to sample calcareous sponges, let alone recognize them,” he added. “They’re likely to disappear.”
While some species may be able to adapt to new oceanic conditions, many will not.
“You can predict change,” Dr. Paine said, “and most of the changes are going to be in a direction we don’t want.”
So what is the coded message here? Yeah, we’re gonna lose some species, but they are so obscure most scientists don’t recognize them. The fact that acidification can and likely will make the ocean hostile to many forms of life, either directly or second hand, by diminishing their habitat or food supply, is acknowledged in “many will not adapt to new oceanic conditions,” a remarkably bloodless formulation.
There have probably been other examples of this sort of news treatment that I’ve missed, but this story comes off as a new form of propaganda. Rather than run a Big Lie, and say something isn’t happening when it is, or try agnotology, in claiming the research around an issue is inconclusive when it isn’t, this piece ‘fesses up to the existence of a Big Problem and presents it as something not to be worried about, a threat to fungus and sponges and mollusks, not to Life As We Know It.
Stormy’s conclusion from March 2007 is still apt:
I like my old metaphor—and will again trot it out: We are all subprime borrowers. Right now our credit seems good. Life seems good. We look around and behold the miracle of our civilization, on its capacity to grow and on the energy it has harnessed.
But all things have their price; nothing is free…. Repayment may be sooner than we think.