The Frontal Cortex

Acidic Oceans

This is the most depressing story I’ve read in a while. I normally don’t worry about the fate of my future grandchildren, but Elizabeth Kolbert’s new New Yorker article kept me up late last night, fretting about their dismal world. The article isn’t on-line, but here’s an excerpt:

Since the start of the industrial revolution, humans have burned enough coal, oil, and natural gas to produce some two hundred and fifty billion metric tons of carbon. The result, as is well known, has been a transformation of the earth’s atmosphere. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the air today is higher than it has been at any point in the past six hundred and fifty thousand years, and probably much longer…

When carbon dioxide dissolves, it produces carbonic acid. As acids go, carbonic acid is relatively innocuous – we drink it all the time in Coke and other carbonated beverages – but in sufficient quantities it can change the water’s pH. Already, humans have pumped enough carbon into the oceans – some hundred and twenty billion tons – to produce a .1 decline in surface pH. Since pH, like the Richter scale, is a logorithmic measure, a .1 drop represents a rise in acidity of about thirty percent. The process is generally known as “ocean acidification.” This year alone, the seas will asborb an additional two bilion tons of carbon. Every day, every American, in effect, adds forty pounds of carbon dioxide to the oceans.

It gets worse and worse. An acidic ocean means that pteropods and other zooplankton can’t form shells, which means they die, which means the ocean food chain disintegrates.