The Guardian Gets It Wrong

The Guardian:

Human pollution is turning the seas into acid so quickly that the coming decades will recreate conditions not seen on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs, scientists will warn today.

Say what?! Look, ocean acidification is a VERY real threat to our planet. That said, the seas are not turning to acid! (But gee, way to scare folks into envisioning the demise of the wicked witch!) This demonstrates a lack of taking the time to explore and understand what ocean acidification means--the term is used to describe the way the pH of oceans is becoming less basic as they absorb excess CO2. Yes, it is an enormous and extremely frightening problem because of potential implications for organisms that depend on calcium carbonate like corals, algae, oysters and on... Scientists are already observing changes in survival and behavior of aquatic animals and because we are all connected through trophic interactions, humans will feel the effects too.

Misinformation is no way to introduce a topic as serious as acidification. We need to foster broader public understanding if we hope to change policy and human behavior in order to mitigate the threat. While I would be pleased to see acidification making news, I fear hyberbole and misleading statements are counterproductive. The Guardian can do better.

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OK, so about a movie called "The Day After That" in which a character dives into the water and emerges as an acid-burned corpse? What gory good fun! Later on, we could a single droplet of spray reduce some poor victim to a bubbling puddle of goo. Even more fun!

By Erasmussimo (not verified) on 10 Mar 2009 #permalink

The Guardian may be able to do better, but I suspect part of the problem may be that the majority of readers (and indeed journalists) lack the basic chemical knowledge to appreciate the difference. Most people simply don't know what "basic" means in this context. Heck, most people don't actually understand what "acidic" really means, either.

It may be high school stuff to you and me, but to most people it's a complete mystery.

@ Dunc

I don't know. I give the average person more credit than that. Most who've had a fish tank know a little about pH. Have some faith in the intellect of nonscientists. People at large are smarter than we expect.

Oh come on... might we be any more pedantic or banal... Acid, in this case, refers to a relative concept that being that things are either more or less acid... the concept of more or less basic doesnt convey the message as well and that is the point to get the message across.

As for science needing to be precise, NIT picking does not define precise save in school and thankfully all but a very few always leave school and grow up.

The idea that oceans are "turning to acid" has become a very popular misconception. There IS a big difference and we have to do a better job at getting the correct information out to the public.

The real problem with this is that such overly broad assertions will end up being more grist for the denier's information mill, a grand example of how those "scientists" are trying to scare us all into Socialism with their wild exaggerations.

In the meantime, I have not heard that our wonderfulof-it Senate has dropped the holds on the Holdren and Lubchencho appointments.

I guess that this is how we "make scientific decisions based on fact and not ideology."

I don't know. I give the average person more credit than that. Most who've had a fish tank know a little about pH. Have some faith in the intellect of nonscientists. People at large are smarter than we expect.

And what percentage of the population have kept fish properly? It's not their intellect I doubt, it's their education - a completely different matter. It simply doesn't matter how smart you are if you haven't received the necessary education. My intelligence may be genetic, but my understanding of chemistry certainly isn't.

I disagree. Yes, it is a lot more complicated that just "turning more acidic," but the fact remains that pH is dropping and therefore the oceans are less basic than they used to be, by about 0.1 pH.

Given how much dumbing down of such a subject is necessary for popular media, I can live with, and do in fact employ, this shorthand. If you have a concise and simple way to explain what's going on without using the language of pH, let's hear it.

What is incorrect about this extract?

* Human pollution is turning the seas into acid

Well, isn't it? A very weak acid to be sure, but if it has a PH less than 7, it has free hydrogen ions and is an acid.

* the coming decades will recreate conditions not seen on Earth since the time of the dinosaurs

Well, arguably this could mean that "the acidity will be such that it hassn't been ...", or it might mean "the acidity will *cause* stuff thay hasn't been seen ..."

But again - what's actually false about this? I was under the impression that we did indeed face a doomsday scenario where acidity and the shutting down of deep ocean currents will turn the ocean into stagnant acid, and all life on earth except for anerobic bacteria will die.