Posted by: Michael George Daniel | November 20, 2007

Ocean Acidification

Recently I watched an awful television show on CNN called something like ‘World in Peril’ with intrepid, helicopter hopping reports and doctors-turned-reporter jetting around the world and helicoptering into remote islands and frozen, ice-cap topped islands to investigate the state of decline of the natural world. These wonderful people told us they were doing it for us. They were burning all of this diesel and jet fuel on our behalf: to bring us the facts and to answer the hard questions. To be fair, they also acknowledged that ‘we don’t really know’, after of course traveling to these far flung places, making some video tape, talking with a few representative ‘peoples’ and applying their own superior deductive skills. They kept telling us they would get to the answer, and then kept falling short.

For example, a tiny south Pacific island that is suffering from rising waters. Where could this water be coming from? Sure, we just came from Greenland where the ice is all but GONE, but that couldn’t explain all this water. We don’t really know for sure. We do know that that water, when it warms up, expands. So that could be part of it. The water has warmed up a couple of degrees over the last few decades.

At the island, our intrepid reporter-turned-doctor, I mean doctor-turned-reporter showed us that he also has diving skills. This was very impressive, as he and a local native donned tanks and fins and dove on the reef surrounding the island. What they found? They found the coral reef dying. “It is a bleached out color”, they reported. -Break to commerical – “We’re here to answer the question, why is the island sinking? Why are the coral reefs dying? – Back after this.” Cut to divers returning from the ocean. This reef looks like it is dying. This could explain why the water is rising. Coral reefs function to buffer the island from storm surges and rough weather. With out a healthy coral reef, it is possible that the water level could rise on the island.

But we don’t really know why the reef is dying.

Recently, at this website, the UK publication, The Independent reported: “Scientists have found that the seas have already absorbed about half of all the carbon dioxide emitted by humanity since the start of the industrial revolution, a staggering 500 billion tons of it. This has so far helped slow global warming – which would have accelerated even faster if all this pollution had stayed in the atmosphere, already causing catastrophe – but at an increasingly severe cost. The gas dissolves in the oceans to make dilute carbonic acid, which is increasingly souring the naturally alkali seawater. This, in turn, mops up calcium carbonate, a substance normally plentiful in the seas, which corals use to build their reefs, and marine creatures use to make the protective shells they need to survive. These include many of the plankton that form the base of the food chain on which all fish and other marine animals depend. As the waters are growing more acid this process is decreasing, with incalculable consequences for the life of the seas, and for the fisheries on which a billion of the world’s people depend for protein. Every single species that uses calcium in this way, that has so far been studied, has been found to be affected. And the seas are most acid near the surface, where most of their life is concentrated.”

This main stream news show went out of its way to acknowledge that they really didn’t know. The key is the fact that they are experts. They have the technology – helicopters and camera men, doctors turned reporters. They are on the job and are going to get the answers. For us. But then, they are forced to admit, “we just don’t know, for sure”. We can relax. It may not be what we thought it was. These people are on the case, and when they know, we will know. They told us they went to get the answers. So maybe this is just a sinking island. Maybe that ice on Greenland was about to give way. Maybe the polar bears have chosen a difficult way of life and their struggle isn’t related to anything that you or I do. I know it has been suggested, but they just don’t know for sure. That’s what CNN said.

Ocean acidification is occurring. The data reflecting the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is incontrovertible. It is not difficult to model what happens to sea water when exposed to higher concentrations of CO2. It is not difficult to understand that the surface water is affected first. The reefs, like the one visited by CNN, surrounding these shallow, south Pacific islands, are near the surface. It is not hard to understand why they might be struggling.

I know this is cynical and sarcastic, and equally undocumented, cited, researched or properly organized. Logically. But the implications of the vast carbon absorption of the oceans waters, and the impact on all life if the marine environments fail, is staggering. More than even this direct threat, pay attention to our inability to really understand the meaning about what is going on. The thing that is particularly interesting to pay attention to, besides all the data and facts, is the list of possible negative effects from something like ocean acidification. Inevitably, the list will include the impact on our economy. I find this fascinating when we are discussing phenomena that are wiping out a third to half or more of all species on the Earth, we are focused on what that will do to the economy. Is there not a moral story in side of these trends? Are the newspapers and writers not allowed to discuss the moral imperative of mass extinction? Is it forbidden to include this as a consideration? It is the overriding consideration, yet strangely absent from most accounts of global warming, ocean acidification and other environmental disasters. The Independent article concludes thus: “”The UN Secretary-General, agreed. The effects of climate change have become “so severe and so sweeping” he said “that only urgent, global action will do. There is no time to waste.” Mr Steiner called the report “the most essential reading for every person on the planet who cares about the future”. He added: “The hard science has been distilled along with evidence of the social and economic consequences of global warming…”. I’m not immune to the hardship these changes will cause to people everywhere, especially people that are economically disadvantaged. But even in recognizing this distinction, it just doesn’t matter. Our definition of economically disadvantaged will be turned on its head as a result of the loss of species diversity. When the world economy falls apart, the currently economically disadvantaged people, to the extent that they are able to feed and house themselves outside of the current paradigm, will have the advantage. It is the rest of us, the ones doing fairly well, that won’t have a clue as to how to survive.

Maybe, if we could just invent a smaller car with a little better mileage, that pollutes less, then everything would be ok. Just get everyone to switch and we can relax and go on about our business as usual. Better yet, let’s go find some more of those scientists that will swear on a stack of bibles that climate change has nothing to do with human activity. That’ll make every one feel better.

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