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Study: Avoiding Damage from Ocean Acidification May Require Deeper Cuts in CO2 Emissions Than to Mitigate Climate Change

Zeebe
The white contour lines illustrate the expected maximum pH decrease of average surface ocean waters in the future (in pH units) as a function of total anthropogenic CO2 emissions (in petagrams of carbon) and release time (in years). Click to enlarge

Several studies conducted previously explored the detrimental impact of increasing levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide on ocean chemistry by causing a drop in pH—called “ocean acidification”. (Earlier post.)

Writing in the 4 July issue of the  journal Science, a team of researchers led by Richard Zeebe of the University of Hawai’i at Manoa warns that the ecological and economic consequences of ocean acidification are difficult to predict but possibly calamitous, and that halting the changes already underway will likely require even steeper cuts in carbon emissions than those currently proposed to curb climate change.

Projected changes in ocean carbonate chemistry should serve as a guideline for policy protocols that identify CO2 emission targets to reduce the effects of human-made ocean acidification. For example, to avoid a surface ocean pH decline by more than 0.2 units, total emission targets would have to range from ~700 Pg [700 billion metric tons] C over 200 years to ~1200 Pg C [1,200 billion metric tons] over 1000 years...Such scenarios would be difficult to achieve, however, because they require immediate reductions in global emissions. If emissions can be reduced after the year 2050 and capped at 1500 Pg C, surface ocean pH would decline by ~0.35 units relative to preindustrial levels. The aragonite saturation state in the warm surface ocean would drop from ~3.5 to ~2.1 under this scenario...Substantial reductions in coral calcification have been reported over this range.

...Ocean chemistry changes, and not only climate effects, should be taken into consideration when determining CO2 emission targets; such consideration is likely to weigh in favor of lower emission targets.

—“Carbon Emissions and Acidification,” Zeebe, et. al.

Unrelated to climate change, ocean acidification is an issue of basic chemistry: atmospheric CO2 is absorbed by and reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid (H2CO3).

Increasing the amount of CO2 dissolved in the ocean lowers the pH, decreases the availability of carbonate (CO32-) ions, and lowers the saturation state of the major shell-forming carbonate minerals. Carbonate ions are building blocks for the calcium carbonate that many marine organisms use to grow their skeletons and create coral reef structures.

Researchers have determined that with emissions of anthropogenic carbon dioxide continuing to rise, the partial pressure of CO2 (pCO2) dissolved in the surface ocean is likely to double its pre-industrial value within the next 50 years. Oceans are naturally alkaline, and they are expected to remain so, but the interaction with carbon dioxide is making them less alkaline and more acidic.

Zeebe; Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology; James Zachos, of the University of California Santa Cruz; and Toby Tyrrell of Southampton University (UK) note that the oceans have absorbed about 40% of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by humans over the past two centuries—roughly 500 billion metric tons (500 Pg) of carbon dioxide.

This has slowed global warming, but at a cost: the extra carbon dioxide has caused the ocean’s average surface pH to drop by about 0.1 unit from pre-industrial levels—a 25% increase in hydrogen-ion concentration. Small changes in the pH value can make a big difference because pH is measured on a logarithmic scale (analogous to the Richter scale). For example, a drop by one pH unit means a ten-fold increase in acidity .Depending on the rate and magnitude of future emissions, the ocean’s pH could drop by as much as 0.35 units by the mid-21st century.

In contrast to climate model predictions, such future ocean chemistry projections are largely model-independent on a time scale of a few centuries mainly because the chemistry of CO2 in seawater is well known and changes in surface ocean carbonate chemistry closely track changes in atmospheric CO2.

—Zeebe, et. al.

Experiments have shown that changes of as little as 0.2-0.3 units can hamper the ability of key marine organisms such as corals and some plankton to calcify their skeletons, which are built from pH-sensitive carbonate minerals. Large areas of the ocean are in danger of exceeding these levels of pH change by mid-century, including reef habitats such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.

Most marine organisms live in the ocean’s sunlit surface waters, which are also the waters most vulnerable to CO2-induced acidification over the next century as emissions continue. To prevent the pH of surface waters from declining more than 0.2 units, the current limit set by the US Environmental Protection Agency in 1976, carbon dioxide emissions would have to be reduced immediately.

Although the ocean’s chemical response to higher carbon dioxide levels is relatively predictable, the biological response is more uncertain. The ocean’s pH and carbonate chemistry has been remarkably stable for millions of years—much more stable than temperature.

If we continue with business as usual and don’t cut carbon dioxide emissions, carbonate reefs will ultimately start to dissolve. This is basic chemistry. The biology is a bit trickier. Most lab and field experiments show that calcifying organisms struggle under high-CO2 conditions but it’s very difficult to predict their long-term reaction, let alone responses of entire marine ecosystems.

—Richard Zeebe

Reduced calcification will surely hurt shellfish such as oysters and mussels, with big effects on commercial fisheries. Other organisms may flourish in the new conditions, but this may include undesirable “weedy” species or disease organisms.

We need to consider ocean chemistry effects, and not just the climate effects, of CO2 emissions. That means we need to work much harder to decrease CO2 emissions. While a doubling of atmospheric CO2 may seem a realistic target for climate goals, such a level may mean the end of coral reefs and other valuable marine resources.

—Ken Caldeira

Resources

  •   Richard E. Zeebe, James C. Zachos, Ken Caldeira, and Toby Tyrrell, “Carbon Emissions and Acidification”, Science 4 July 2008 doi: 10.1126/science.1159124

Comments

Neil

I find this evidence of a need to lower CO2 levels far more compelling than computer model driven climate change predictions. This is just basic and very predictable chemistry.

Manny

Info missing from this post, from Wikipedia: Between 1751 and 1994 surface ocean pH is estimated to have decreased from approximately 8.179 to 8.104

Less than 0.1 pH unit in 250 years. Those who write about this have an agenda to sell, and those who worry about it are idiots.

ejj

1,2,3, FO - global warming alarmism has got to go.... hey, hey, ho, ho - don't listen to the garbage hype no mo...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEJ5pHVKjiI

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-OdnfwhiJOg

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ldXRB4U3vW0&feature=related

Sulleny

Manny: you should know better than to attack the veracity of CO2 science. It's killing us. Period.

"Unexpected consequences of increasing CO2 and ocean acidity on marine production of DMS and CH2ClI: Potential climate impacts"

http://www.agu.org/pubs/crossref/2007/2006GL028139.shtml

And science like the above peer reviewed paper be damned!

litesong

Why do deniers think that 30 billion tons of AGW carbon dioxide emissions per year(1 trillion tons in 33 years or 2000 thousand thousand thousand thousand pounds) magically has no effect on anything? Lets dump 5, 10 & 100 trillion more tons into the air...let's make that 1 quadrillion tons & briskly stir & cook that recipe.

Rick

Those numbers are really meaningless to most of us litesong - I mean if you are going to quote some big scary numbers about CO2 that is released by us, how about some context? How many tons of CO2 naturally exist in the biosphere apart from that caused by human industry. I'm going to go out on a limb and say your numbers are a drop in the bucket.

ejj

Al Gore Warming is a great vehicle for kook left socialism and the expansion of government - new agencies & jobs filled with a bunch of idiots and kooks. It's too bad he's actually smearing the scientific community with this fuzzy statistical junk science & jumping to conclusions - instead of using pure science & math to advance the profession.

"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics." - Mark Twain

aym

It should be noted that pH is a logarithmic scale. A pH 8.14 is about 30 percent more acidic than pH 8.25 for instance. What we are seeing is basically the ocean's reaction from approximately 50 years ago CO2 levels.

Try this. Growing Ocean Acidity May Erode Coastal Ecosystems from may 2008, National geographic site.

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/05/080522-acid-oceans.html

There is only one good bit of background. Due to the presence of buffering chemicals, the ocean will recover given the opportunity. It is the time period of the CO2 spiking which is causing a short interval to which the oceans are trying to come to a new equilibrium point. In the past, the oceans were able to cope with much higher CO2 levels and maintain a more akaline state.

To ejj, this has zero to do with global warming except that it is caused by increased CO2. You can't serious try to debate that CO2 is not rising and this has nothing to do with climate but with chemistry.

As for the youtube stuff, you must be kidding. There are equally as many if not more videos espousing the pro GW side. I think of these videos as Marshall McLuhan's premise that it reinforces prejudices rather than being informative in any fashion. Very stunty, derogatory, staged and edited. Makes it look like the anti-GW is the intelligent side and the opposing side is moronic. Does nothing to create dialogue or exchange ideas or even to get ideas across. Very sophmoric and childish. It panders to some of the worst characteristics of people. It certainly doesn't represent scientific evidence.

Manny: "Less than 0.1 pH unit in 250 years."

Well, that wikipedia article goes on to say:

"it is estimated that it will drop by a further 0.3 - 0.5 units by 2100 as the ocean absorbs more CO2."

Those who write about this have an agenda to sell, and those who worry about it are idiots.

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v454/n7200/abs/nature07051.html

Neil

Rick: You might want to pick a stronger limb. Humans have increased atmospheric CO2 concentrations by 35% since the beginning of the industrial age.

Manny says: "Less than 0.1 pH unit in 250 years" ... very misleading.
In 1751 total CO2 emissions didn't exceed 4 metric tons a year and didn't hit the triple digits until the 1860s, at the turn of the last century we were still only at about 500 tons per year. After WWII things really got cooking until now we're dumping well over 7,000 tons into the air each year, and still accelerating. A quick calculation tells me that in that entire 250 year period we put just over 300,000 tons (almost all of that in the last 50 years of the period to 2000) into the air. At our current rate (even if that rate remains steady) we'll equal that amount in just over 40 years.

meanandgreen

There are so many "right wing, put your head in the sand, let's all drive SUVs, and burn coal, oil, and gas everywhere on this little bluish green planet" websites available for those that believe an Ice Age and the 2nd Coming are around the corner, why do these folks all congregate here at the GreenCarCongress? I guess since they can control the acidity of their swimming pools, they assume the Big Pool Man in the sky will do the same for the world's oceans. G_d help us all!

What's really disheartening here is that so many people basically refuse to believe science if it doesn't suit them. Shows that many of us haven't come very far since the dark ages. Science should be the most important subject at school after learning the language basics.

G.R.L. Cowan, H2 energy fan 'til ~1996

Reducing net emissions is a good strategy.

martinb

S. A. Wooldridge
Australian Institute of Marine Science, PMB #3, Townsville MC, 4810, QLD, Australia

Abstract. Enzymes are often referred to as the "agents of life" – a very apt term, since essentially all life processes are controlled by them. Typically, these enzymes only function across a narrow band of environmental conditions, particularly temperature and pH. Ambient conditions that challenge these operating conspecifics trigger enzyme dysfunction. Here, it is proposed that the pH-dependent inactivation of a single enzyme, urease, provides a unifying kill-mechanism for at least four of the "big five" mass extinctions of the past 560 million years... For a wide range of oceanic and terrestrial ecosystems, this pH threshold coincides with an atmospheric CO2 partial pressure (pCO2) of ~560 ppmv – a level that at current CO2 emission trajectories may be exceeded as early as 2050.

http://www.biogeosciences-discuss.net/5/2401/2008/bgd-5-2401-2008.html

Treehugger

eji

denial is just going nowhere at this point, global warming is pretty serious, so you should better use your energy in looking for solutions rather than praizing idiots like Stan Peterson

arnold

One fish says to the other "hows the water?" the other fish replies "water?" "Whats that?"

Some are just unaware some bury their heads in the sand.
If you aren't aware that there is a problem.

There is nothing new about catastrophic ocean water issues. Mostly we don't give it a second thought.

That is a problem.

John Taylor

Both denier's and understander's of ocean acidification have missed the core of this issue.

The point is that we are killing the worlds life by using fossil fuels negligently.

So what is the answer?
Just demanding cuts fails to work, that brings out the deniers in spades thinking their lives will end, their jobs will be gone and it will become illegal to drive their SUV's while they swelter in the dark. (yes'm they do have problems sorting priorities).

What we need to do is demand targets for implementing new "earth friendly" technology, and a tax structure to make this possible. This gives everyone an assurance of new jobs, and co-ordinates the path forward.

litesong

Hi Neil...The #'s are so big, even some AGW believers are boggling at the quantity of carbon dioxide we are dumping into the air. Man doesn't produce 7000 tons of carbon dioxide per year. Man produces ~4.3 million times 7000 tons or 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year!

Yes, natural sources produce even more carbon dioxide per year, but natural cycles extract the same amount of carbon dioxide each year. That's one of the reasons why its called the balance of nature.

Deniers use natural sources of carbon dioxide production to confuse the real issue of man-made carbon dioxide production which isn't in balance with nature. Each year man produced carbon dioxide is added to previous years.

Yes, 1 trillion tons of man-made carbon dioxide is produced in thirty three years(~3 trillion tons in one century), totally out of whack with nature. Yes, Rick. I know the #'s are vicious to comprehend & you're reacting against them. Some of that carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere & as this article points out, some of the carbon dioxide is in the ocean...totally out of balance with nature.

You went out on a limb, even tho the 1(3?) trillion tons of carbon dioxide argument I had mentioned previously had already cut your branch off.

You are mentally falling, while the Earth & its inhabitants are physically falling into an ever deepening well of heat trapping carbon dioxide. Deniers have denied that 1(3?) trillion tons of carbon dioxide does anything at all. That is a lot of magic denial. It is too much denial. It is too much denial with out a source of money pushing the denial buttons. Industries that cause carbon dioxide have lots of money to push denial buttons. Rick, the carbon dioxide manufacturers have pushed your buttons.

@liteson

Because the 70 million metric tonnes of excess CO2 that may (or may not) be attributed to Man is dwarfed by the 24,000 times as much in the natural annual flux.

How does the 70 parts in 24,000 have any of these devastating consequences? This post deplores the "acidification" of the oceans.

What is the equilibrium point from basic to acidic? What would you call a solution that has a rating of 8.1+?

Besides this all based on the theoretical harm to species who have evolved on the planet when the oceans were much less basic. They have lived on the Earth a lot longer than us, some hundreds of millions of years.

Meanwhile we should be cheering that the plant kingdom is growing so lushly, up by some 30% due to man's liberation of the carbon dioxide sequestered into inaccessible places to plants, like coal beds and oil pools.

We are merely repairing, restoring,and removing the stunting effect of too low CO2 levels. Levels created by the Plants, as the plant kingdom ate out too much of the CO2 in the atmosphere reducing it from what at one time was 40% to a mere trace gas.

Besides its a transitory thing that will change naturally as Mankind graduates from burning fossil. We will do that simply because its not too efficient, there is not enough to do so much longer. Besides we are finding and have found better sources, electricity generated with fission, fusion, and yes even some ridiculous so-called renewables.

Renewables that have major warts. Warts that you just don't recognize yet. Solar alters the albedo, and windmills consume land, kill birds. Both disrupt power grids with their instaneous variability, and intermittentcy.

Beside they don't last long at an average life expectancy of only 9 years for windmills. Their power up time is only 24.1% based on the experience with an entire 2000 units in the UK. Besides planned outages they must be shutdown when the wind is too low (<8mph) and too high(>33mph).


fakebreaker

From the peer reviewed Science article:

"Although seasonal upwelling of the undersaturated waters onto the shelf is a natural phenomenon in this region, the ocean uptake of anthropogenic CO2 has increased the areal extent of the affected area."

Which is to say the ocean, in its natural and infinite wisdom, absorbs the marginal difference between .0378 and .0379 ppm CO2. Whoa! And zero, 0.000% change in Ph.

Children, the bamboozlers are hard at work trying to engineer not technology, but your acceptance of social reforms that THEY believe are best for you. Who are they? Are they elected? Do they have any social science credentials? Or are they simply people who need to make YOU do THEIR bidding? Lazy fanatics who embrace the false idol of "greengod."

There are many good, engineered and social reasons to discard fossil fuels - these CO2 myth makers cannot accept that their bluff has been busted and must now tell the truth.

"Exaggeration leads the coalition of disbelief."

George

The denialists are really at it tonight. Must be the fireworks smoke. And the Earth is 6000 years old, and Adam and Eve had a pet dinosaur.

David Ahlport

==Those numbers are really meaningless to most of us litesong - I mean if you are going to quote some big scary numbers about CO2 that is released by us, how about some context? How many tons of CO2 naturally exist in the biosphere apart from that caused by human industry. I'm going to go out on a limb and say your numbers are a drop in the bucket.==

Well in general, it means we've increased ambient CO2 levels by about half. Compared to the absolute highest level achieved in 650,000 years, spanning 6 iceages.

Here's a video with further explanation to put it all into context.
http://greyfalcon.net/carbon2

Mark_BC

It's amazing to see all the people denouncing GW theory based on a few biased youtube videos. Sorry ejj, I'm not going to waste my time watching your youtube videos. Show me a peer-reviewed article or something approaching that quality and I'll give it some time.

I am astounded by the lack of understanding the AGW deniers here have of basic math and science. As mentioned above, many people really haven't developed much beyond the dark ages; they just have fancy modern toys and clothes to play with that make them look modern. Fortunately, however, if you tally up all the posts on this article, it seems that overall, sanity is prevailing.

From the article, quote: "the ecological and economic consequences of ocean acidification are difficult to predict but possibly calamitous"

Basic common sense dictates that this is an issue of concern.

ejj said ==It's too bad he's actually smearing the scientific community with this fuzzy statistical junk science & jumping to conclusions - instead of using pure science & math to advance the profession.==

So where's your pure science and math ejj?

anonymous said: ==Besides this all based on the theoretical harm to species who have evolved on the planet when the oceans were much less basic. They have lived on the Earth a lot longer than us, some hundreds of millions of years.==

Can you provide some evidence demonstrating that they are adapted to lower pH levels please?

anonymous also said: ==Because the 70 million metric tonnes of excess CO2 that may (or may not) be attributed to Man is dwarfed by the 24,000 times as much in the natural annual flux.==

As you will see in this graph, the yearly flux is demonstrated by the zigzag from year-to-year, caused by the greater land mass in the northern hemisphere. You will also note the steady increase over time -- due to our emissions.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Mauna_Loa_Carbon_Dioxide.png

As mentioned before, our contributions represent about a 35% increase in the CO2 concentration, which is significant, and more than anything seen on Earth in the last half-billion years.

For those who didn't read the above article, and are trying to belittle the significance of the apparently minor change in pH, I'll quote it again ==the extra carbon dioxide has caused the ocean’s average surface pH to drop by about 0.1 unit from pre-industrial levels—a 25% increase in hydrogen-ion concentration. Small changes in the pH value can make a big difference because pH is measured on a logarithmic scale (analogous to the Richter scale).==

Mark_BC

correction, I should have said that "... more than anything seen on Earth in the last half-MILLION years."

Mayer Goldstein

These people are not deniers, they are pathological contrarians:

http://www.dailykos.com/story/2007/10/1/121456/809

I think we should stop calling them AGW Deniers and refer to them accurately as AGW Contrarians. They are not interested in debate, discovery, advancement. They simply wish to satisfy their pathetic pathological need. Pity them.

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