Even a casual observer of the news media must be struck by the increasing amount of coverage given in recent months to issues related to climate change. And to the increasingly sophisticated coverage climate science generally is getting from many reporters showing an increased resistance to giving climate science cynics a proportionate "balance" with most responsible scientists.
Along with the increased coverage of climate science naturally, some might say, comes increased coverage on oceans issues. One can hardly address climate without being aware of associated issues involving the oceans, after all.
But is there a needle in the haystack still awaiting the media eye and scrutiny? Is that needle "ocean acidification"?
The March 2006 issue of Scientific American carries an eight-page piece by that title, reported by Scott C. Doney.
In an overview sidebar, he reports that one-third of the carbon dioxide released by combustion of fossil fuels "currently ends up in the ocean," making oceans an important "sink" for the world's CO2 emissions. But the sidebar points out that those absorbed CO2 emissions form carbonic acid in seawater, "lowering the prevailing pH level [which is slightly alkaline] and changing the balance of carbonate and bicarbonate ions."
The resulting increased ocean acidity and resulting changes in ocean chemistry complicate things for marine creatures wanting to build hard parts out of calcium carbonate, Doney reports. "The decline in pH thus threatens a variety of organisms, including corals, which provide one of the richest habitats on Earth."
Look a century out, he writes, and the surface of the Southern Ocean "will become corrosive to the shells of tiny snails that form a key link in the marine food chain within this highly productive zone."
Reporting on the issue in the March 31, 2006, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reporter Lisa Stiffler found that she didn't have to look out nearly so far. She only had to turn to a research boat docking in Alaska to find "some frightening change taking place in the Pacific Ocean."
"The Pacific is getting warmer and more acidic, while the amount of oxygen and the building blocks for coral and some kinds of plankton are decreasing," Stiffler writes, based on initial results from NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and University of Washington findings. "Many of the most interesting results are tied to the ocean becoming increasingly acidic because of its absorption of carbon dioxide," she writes. "And it's alarming." Stiffler quotes oceanographer Joanie Kleypas, of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, as saying the process of increased acidification "is hard to alter. It's a slow-moving ship, and we're all trying to row with toothpicks."
According to Stiffler's article, "The pH of the saltwater has dropped 0.024 units since the early 1990s. The number seems unremarkable, but the pH scale is exponential, so a one-unit drop is a 10-fold increase. The new measurement also puts the ocean on track for a dramatic decline by the end of the century."
"That's a major issue," marine scientists John Guinotte of the Marine Conservation Biology Institute, in Bellevue, Wa., told Stiffler. "You're likely looking at serious effects throughout the marine food web across the board."
Stiffler reported that plans call for surveying 19 ocean routes worldwide and repeating the monitoring every 10 years.
Responding to news of research done in mid-2005 on ocean acidification, Thomas E. Lovejoy, president of the H. John Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, in its Crossroads newsletter said, "When I first heard this information I really considered it one of the most chilling environmental briefings I ever had." Media wanting a CD-ROM or DVD on a briefing on the issue to the Heinz Center can request it from Anne Hummer by e-mail.
Additional sources of information provided by Doney's Scientific American article:
- A 68-page 2005 study done by the Royal Society in London, "Ocean Acidification Due to Increasing Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide," available at http://www.royalsoc.ac.uk/displaypagedoc.asp?id=13314;
- A Nature article by Ken Caldeira and Michael E. Wickett on September 25, 2003, page 635. Caldeira, then with Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is one of the lead authors of the Royal Society study and is now on the staff of the Carnegie Institution Department of Global Ecology in Pittsburgh. His work at Carnegie is supported by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.
- A Nature article by James C. Orr and others on September 29, 2005, pages 681-686.