A second guest-post from Ocean Scientist Boussinesque!
Continuing this Balloon-Juice 5-year mission to share new insights and new topics of conversation, Science Officer Boussinesque has returned with a new post (I may or may not have watched Star Trek: Beyond this week, which could be impacting some things…).
You may have heard the words “Ocean Acidification” before, but chances are that unless you’ve actively researched the topic, you don’t know much beyond what the words themselves imply. It’s one of the scarier consequences of global climate change, but it gets less mainstream media attention because it’s not as easily understood as sea level rise or increasing global mean temperatures. Whether you’re a committed environmentalist, a member of an industry that interacts with the ocean, or a member of an industry that needs/wants to cut emissions and energy use, this is important to understand, as well as to act on in any way you are able.
I’ll be glossing over a lot of the chemical specifics, but to start by framing the scope of the problem, it’s important to realize two things–(1) that the ocean is HUGE (~71% of the planet’s surface), and (2) that phytoplankton (microscopic ocean plants) collectively produce about as much oxygen as all of the land-based plants. The ocean is also in chemical equilibrium with the atmosphere (over the time scales we care about), which means that the gasses in the air and those dissolved in the ocean have reached a stable point. If concentration of a gas like CO2 in the atmosphere goes up, more of it will dissolve into the ocean to restore that balance. Because of fun fact (1), it takes a huge amount of a gas being dissolved into the oceans to change the concentration noticeably. In practice, this means that the ocean “buffers” changes in the chemical composition of the atmosphere. The flip side of this is that, when the concentrations of those chemicals in the ocean measurably increase, we already have a very large problem to mitigate.
The big problem here comes with what CO2 does once it’s in the ocean; dissolved CO2 is used in photosynthesis by phytoplankton (which is good), and reacts with water to form carbonic acid, which then dissociates into carbonate and hydrogen ions (not so good). Increasing CO2 concentrations drive up the hydrogen ion concentration, which in turn lowers the pH. Lower pH impacts the availability of carbonate negatively, and this is where the biology starts getting involved. A large number of species of phytoplankton (as well as corals, shellfish, and a number of organisms higher in the food chain) use calcium carbonate (CaCO3) to make shells. As carbonate availability goes down, these organisms have a harder time maintaining their shells and skeletons to keep them from dissolving. Imagine trying to build a sandcastle while the tide is coming in, and you’ll have an idea of why this is a losing proposition long-term.
The end result of all this is that a number of species at the base of the oceanic food chain stand a risk of going extinct if this continues, leading to a collapse in the ocean food web that effectively turns large swathes of the ocean into an acidic wasteland. The main takeaway is that it’ll be hard to predict exactly what the final state may be–there are other species that may thrive in a more acidic ocean, but they probably won’t be the ones that we’re willing/able to eat, and an overall decrease in ocean productivity ALSO decreases the effectiveness of the ocean’s ability to serve as a “sink” for carbon (dead organics sinking into the deep ocean, sedimentation, and some other processes are ways that the ocean removes carbon from circulation for long periods of time), which will accelerate the overall process.
I’d like to note that none of this cares about where the CO2 originally came from–it’s a simple chain of chemical reactions, which then interact with the biology of the ocean–and it’s an inevitable consequence of atmospheric CO2 levels continuing to rise. This is why it’s so important to reduce emissions as much as possible–to go carbon neutral, or carbon negative if at all possible. The ocean touches all of us, economically and environmentally, whether we realize it or not.
There’s a lot more to the issue overall than I’ve been able to cover here, so if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend checking out PMEL’s website: http://www.pmel.noaa.gov/co2/
There was also an excellent op-ed in the New York Times about this a couple years ago: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/16/opinion/our-deadened-carbon-soaked-seas.html?_r=0
(Image credits: pmel.noaa.gov)
I’d also like to poll the jackal pack about the format for these types of posts going forward–would you prefer more frequent, shorter snippets about requested topics, or slightly-less-frequent-but-more-meaty posts in the style of the first one?
I’d like to continue doing the “introduction to oceanography”-style posts, I’m just not sure how regularly I’ll be able to belt them out, and wanted to see what would be best to keep the slavering hordes from picking my bones clean.
Alain the site fixer
Speaking for me only, I’d love to see longer, every once in a while – perhaps once a quarter? Just kicking in my opinion. Thanks for doing this and have a great holiday weekend everybody, I’m off to make some burgers and prepare for the weekend.
I’m here to answer questions for a couple hours, then I’ll be checking the comments sporadically for the rest of the day after that.
Alain, you appear to have double-copied two paragraphs of the post.
Gin & Tonic
So is this the same phenomenon which is leading to the reported damage to coral reefs?
Le Comte de Monte Cristo, fka Edmund Dantes
I’m assuming that the acidification works hand in hand with temperature rise to exacerbate bleaching on reefs. I have a pretty raw data PDF report on a memory stick at home showing Australian Navy measurements all along the GBR. Shocking, and I personally saw bleaching on my own dives as far as Osprey Reef in the Coral Sea.
Alain the site fixer
@Boussinesque: My sincerest apologies, not sure how that happened when I did this a few days ago! It should be fixed now.
@Gin & Tonic: @Le Comte de Monte Cristo, fka Edmund Dantes: Temperature rise is the proximate cause of coral bleaching, but acidification certainly plays a role in damaging coral reefs directly (through the impact on calcification) and indirectly (through other pH-related impacts on the polyps and associated organisms living in the reefs).
@Alain the site fixer: Thanks Alain, I imagine it was just a slip of the finger, or FYWP expressing its displeasure over the updates you forced on it this past week or so =p
On the other hand, if the slavering hordes pick your bones clean, then this will free up a source of calcium, amirite?
West of the Rockies (been a while)
So when it comes to the desired pH of the oceans, it’s all about that base, ’bout that base, no acid… (sorry, I couldn’t resist).
The complex symbiosis of the ecosystem is stunning. It’s not a perfect metaphor, but it is a bit like child-rearing. The child’s environment, nutrition, sleep time, playtime, exposure to media messages, quality of care, family, friends… all interact. Early mistakes loom large later, and undoing errors takes time.
But her emails!!!
I hope everyone likes jellyfish.
@oldster: this is a fair point. However, the problem lies with the availability of carbonate (CO_3^2-)–the ocean is actually pretty much saturated with calcium (Ca^2+) ions, so my pitiful skeleton would make very little difference. I beseech you, be merciful!
@West of the Rockies (been a while): Indeed. That’s actually what drew me into ocean science from physics–I liked the systemic nature of the discipline. You have to learn about the physics, chemistry, biology, and geology in concert to really understand the ocean system as a whole, because they’re all feeding back on each other. Added bonus in that standard physical intuition can generally be of service in understanding (as opposed to graduate quantum mechanics, which relied a lot more on a type of mathematical intuition I wasn’t as strong in. “These operators anticommute, so we can see that…” “Yeah, but what does it MEAN that they anticommute?!?”)
West of the Rockies (been a while)
Is there a list of things we can do to address this issue? Certain products or packaging to avoid, certain agencies we should better support, certain government agencies we should be writing?
Obviously, when (taken as a monolithic group) Republicans don’t believe in the science, we’re in trouble, but beyond that…
Are there any solutions?
@But her emails!!!: I know there’s been some work with drying out jellyfish and grinding them up to use as a base for…food staples? fish food? I can’t quite remember. But yeah, jellyfish are one of the few winners in the acid-bath ocean, so learn to love it early!
Love the longer formats myself — especially as they make a change from so much of the interwebs surface. Short highlights stuff is easily googled, but good sources of in-depth (indepth plus introductory a distinct bonus!) stuff on topics we’re not familiar with is harder to find and evaluate as to quality.
I just got out of the water at the manhattan beach pier! No wetsuit and 64 degree water so I’m shivering but happy.
@West of the Rockies (been a while): In this particular case, all you can really do is take it as another potential lever to use to convince people to take action on the overall problem–it’s basically impossible to add enough chemicals to the ocean to try to rectify the pH imbalance just by direct human action (and that would be a massive geoengineering feat, with all the problems and issues that entails). The one solution is really to just bring down atmospheric CO_2 as much as possible–that’ll get CO_2 in the ocean to outgas, shifting the balance back towards what we consider “normal”.
As far as organizations go, marine sanctuaries do a pretty job of educating the public, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, MBARI) and NOAA both are involved with programs monitoring the issue. MBARI is part of an initiative called SOCOM to monitor the pH of the southern ocean around Antarctica, for example.
West of the Rockies (been a while)
@West of the Rockies (been a while):
I know there are no easy answers.
We find out first that there is a problem. Then we look for causes of that problem, then (politically and commercially-speaking), the causes of those causes.
Maybe then we can ponder solutions.
I think what makes any concept of informing people about this is that so many people think that humans are at the top of the food chain and that we decide what goes on in the world. Add in that a lot of the same people have no idea what you are talking about when you say acidification or molecules or…….. And worse, don’t want to know. If they can’t see it or hold it, they have no concept of the problem.
But her emails!!!
Maybe we can figure out a way to make jellyfish the new corn. If we devise ways to profitably make everything from dog food to car tires out of them, maybe it will give other species a fighting chance.
@Ruckus: Yeah, this is a primary example of bottom-up control (availability of food) in an ecosystem. I think that most people are more familiar with top-down control (predation by higher trophic levels on otherwise-unconstrained growth by lower trophic levels).
Could there be catastrophic climate events caused by a massive die off of ocean species? Extinct level events for land species? you know, mammals, us?
Unfortunately, humans tend not to pay attention to stuff unless we see it in a disaster movie.
@But her emails!!!: Good! It’s time we went back to the good old days…of the Ediacaran! (~600-541 million years ago.)
@artem1s: Aside from the die-off of half of Earth’s oxygen production and the subsequent acceleration of the overall warming cycle? I get what you’re saying–it’s not something that can be as viscerally understood as a rain of fire or tidal wave…it’s more of an insidious silent killer, like a spaceship running out of oxygen in a hard-SF story =/
@Citizen_X: brings a new meaning to the term paleoconservative (rimshot).
Manhattan Beach! I’ll be there Monday getting ready for the 4th. A great beach!!
…and count me in as both slavering and wanting more as you see fit and time allows. I assume this acidification is related to the demoic acid thing I spoke of last time that impacts female sea lions. Well, that I witnessed, anyway.
I vote for the longer, meatier posts on whatever schedule works for Boussinesque and other subject experts.
May I also suggest collecting these posts under “Ocean Science” or some such, and putting them under Quick Links so we can easily find them all.
And Boussinesque, at some point I’d love it if you could devote a post to the effects of noise on ocean life. Marine mammals (and maybe other species?) rely on sonics to communicate, mate, nurture and teach their young, find food sources, and gauge distance and direction. In other words, to survive. Would be most interested in seeing what some of the most recent research is on the impact of underwater blasting, drilling, etc.
@SiubhanDuinne: You’re quite right that ocean noise can have a large impact on the higher trophic levels. That’s more in the Marine Biology segment, rather than my wheelhouse, but one of the people I went to graduate school with was actually doing her thesis research on some aspect of hearing in pinnipeds–haven’t talked to her in years, but if I can track her down and contact her, I may be able to get a decent overview written up at some point.
Just as a note.
Train ridership in Japan in 2014 was over 7 1/4 billion with just over a third of the population of the US.
Last year in the US it was around 1/2 a billion
US used 8682 thousand barrels of gasoline, per day.
Japan used 978 thousand barrels of gasoline, per day.
Just a couple of examples.
Terrific! I did realize that it wasn’t your own specialty, but I figured you’d either know an expert or have a sense of current research on the topic.
Thanks, hope you can find your grad school friend.
Thank you for this very educational post. As others have said I too enjoy the long form format.
@Ruckus: Japan has the virtue of being much smaller than the US, and of having modernized in a more organized fashion, but I certainly agree with you. One of my favorite parts of all my trips to Japan is being able to get wherever I want without having to take a car–haven’t gone much north of Tokyo, but I’ve ridden the rails down as far as Kumamoto and Nagasaki on Kyushu. Japan’s public transportation system is definitely something we should strive to emulate. I also think that their general city-planning strategy needs to be more widely adopted, especially here in the Bay Area of California–build up, not out, and zone for mixed-use to reduce the need to travel and increase safety through the presence of “eyes on the street” at more hours of the day.
@The Dangerman: I have a funeral tomorrow but ill still get down here for s couple of hours. I flew in yesterday and went to the angel-dodger game. We sat in traffic for over an hour trying to get in. My nephew bought 2 tables behind the plate and I have no idea what it cost but i felt awful that we got there so late.
Just as a potential topic along the way, would you care to share about extracting electricity from the ocean? I’ve read a little about extracting energy mechanically from waves and tides, but I understand there’s other potential out there (maybe WAY out there,if you know what I mean) of a chemical potential available.
Yes Japan is a lot smaller but it’s not as much the size as it is that Japan realized that public transportation is a vital need. We’ve decided that only the street in front of our house needs to have the potholes fixed.
I’ve ridden the LA Metro train system quite a bit over the last year and the ability to schedule reasonably using that is, to be charitable, not good. A lot of that is that it uses a lot of mixed use routing and that affects scheduling a lot. But on the one line, gold, that uses little mixed use routing it can be off by 20 minutes. The schedule boards will tell me that my next train will be at a station in 9 minutes and 20 minutes later not one train has gone by going my way, but the schedule board tells me that 2 trains have passed. And yet at peak times I’ve had to wait for 3 trains to find standing room only. No one on the platform with white gloves pushing us in but still packed like sardines. People want to use the train, but the radiating structure supporting the trains just isn’t up to the task. Don’t have any answers but this to me is tied into the ocean stuff because we don’t want to think about what is going on, how can we mitigate problems, that in a large way we cause, because we can do no wrong. I think politics has shown us rather forcefully, if nothing else will, that is not true.
@The Dangerman: Just off the top of my head, I recall there being some kind of generator plan that could utilize temperature differences between the surface and depth to drive a current on a wire connecting the two levels, but I’ll have to poke around before I could say anything more.
As far as tidal generation goes, there’s always the Bay of Fundy experimental station. Less sure about tidal power in more general use (the Bay of Fundy has the largest tidal range on the planet).
I’ll definitely put it on the list of topics I have to look into–more renewable sources of energy are always good, and since the tides are caused by gravity, that’s about as renewable as it gets. Question will be whether we can tap that energy in a way that isn’t disruptive to the ocean ecosystems, and in a way that doesn’t result in too much inadvertent pollution (materials shed from floats into the ocean, for example).
Q: do you find it useful to look at paleo data, e.g. the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum
(Nature was a plodding slow slow slacker compared to us humans.)
Or are things too different now (different biology, slight hotter sun, ocean/landmass configurations different, humans faster, etc) for easy mapping of models?
Lots of papers related to the event, e.g. Rapid and sustained surface ocean acidification during the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (2014) (another, recent, 2017)
@Alain the site fixer:
Agree with preference to fewer, longer posts. For one thing it’s easier to bookmark fewer of them for future reference.
My comically small, local experience with pH crash is my koi pond, which was continually having dramatic dips towards acid. Finally figured out the tap water while moderate in general hardness is very low in carbonate hardness (KH) but if I buffer it with baking soda (sodium bicarbonate) the pH stabilizes at about 8.2 and the fish are much happier. More hard-core hobbiests suspend mesh bags of oyster shells to do this in a more natural and stable fashion.
ETA worth adding that pH remains stable while carbonate is present but as soon as it’s depleted it crashes dramatically.
From the top post:
As an interested amateur, I have no reliable sense of what work is good/respected in this area. In particular, is there any modeling work related to ocean surface acidification/warming that you respect?
Either/or? Why not both!
Seriously, I’ll read them all, whenever and however long you care to write them.
The trains themselves are barely up to the task today, and it’s going to be very hard to increase capacity in the future. I’m most familiar with the Gold Line, but I’ve taken the Blue and Expo lines enough to see they aren’t any better. The big problem is there’s very little spare capacity in the system. We can’t run the trains a lot more frequently than they’re running right now because more frequent service would completely screw up cross traffic in the many areas where they aren’t grade separated. We can’t increase capacity by running longer trains, either, because the platforms can’t handle them. Solving either of those problems is going to be very expensive, possibly more expensive than building the system in the first place, because it would involve replacing a lot of the existing system without disrupting the existing service.
Traffic in LA is a complete crap shoot and there’s no margin for too much to happen before things go to shit.
Hope you got to see Kershaw as much as possible; he is one helluva pitcher. I’ve never seen him in person; I was fortunate along the way to see Nolan Ryan in Anaheim Stadium long, long ago, which was a treat, but seeing Kershaw should be done whenever possible … and he got fucked by the Ump or would have had an Immaculate Inning (9 pitches, 3 strikeouts) around the 5th inning. It’s only been done 85 times in the history of the game so you almost saw some history (and DID, as pitch #9 was a high strike and the Ump choked).
The world of baseball has its curiosities and one of them must surely be Madison Bumgarner starting tonight for the local AAA club.
@Bill Arnold: @Bill Arnold: Insofar as Earth itself is the only laboratory we have for testing our hypotheses about how the planet system works, yes, I think that paleoclimatology studies are one of the best shots we have at understanding in broad strokes what the overall responses will be.
As the second piece you linked mentions, the real problem with drawing direct parallels lies in the rapidity with which we are effecting change. Accounting for what might be different from historical events on account of that rapidity is the real issue–we can project physical changes into the future reasonably accurately, but the biogeochemical impacts are thornier because we only know how a fraction of ocean species might respond to the predicted changes.
As far as current work on ocean acidification goes, this article seems like a good collection/summary of more recent research–pulling the references might be a good way to dive deeper on any particular aspect that interests you. Carol Turley, the first author on it, is kind of a big deal in this particular sub-field.
(Thanks for linking those two pieces above–I scanned the abstracts, and have added them to my reading list for the weekend)
J R in WV
When we were in rural France, there were little trains everywhere, through little villages. These were two-car electric, maybe with a capacity of 50 or 60 people on a crowded day.
The inn-keeper told us she hoped the train’s noise wouldn’t bother us – I immediately thought of 120 gondola unit trains of coal moving 70mph, but not so. The biggest noise was the bell on the traffic warning when the tiny train crossed the road outside the little hotel.
They ran every two hours up until around midnight.
We obviously need to rebuild our railroad passenger service, which when I was a little boy in the 1950s covered every little town in WV, with steam engines smoking and blowing white steam. I don’t recommend a return to steam, but sleek small electric trains running often all day long would be great.
Unfortunately, many tracks were taken up after the mines were depleted, and so now are rail-to-trail paths both in towns and out in the wilderness. But Surely it’s possible to run small trains along with bikers safely somehow. They could provide bike racks on the trains… like the community bus service does in Kanawha county.
I like this series of posts a lot. I have always loved the ocean, swimming with mask and fins to watch the seaweed and fish. I was posted to Key West in the 1970-72 era, actually got a tank and regulator ($75 used, got a USN diver to check it out for safety) to do small scale diving out on the reef down there. No certification, couldn’t be down deep enough or long enough to require decompression, just able to move slowly among the shelves of coral and brightly colored fish.
If only there was some way to run the excess CO2 into limestone really quickly!! I know that isn’t chemically either possible nor desirable, but it’s a clean fantasy!
Keep up the good work of educating people about the magnitude of our problems! Maybe this is why the Fermi Paradox? We don’t hear from other alien civilizations because they too filled their environment with something that destroyed their bio-environment?
O/T Pete Souza continues his compare-and-contrast campaign with five Obama photos tagged “Respect for women.”
@J R in WV: thanks for the votes of confidence. Seems like the general consensus is that longer posts are good, so I guess that means I’m free to lecture without much worry about driving off readers!
As far as next topics go, I was considering continuing a discussion of the large-scale ocean circulation and its drivers (I touched on this in the comments on the first post when I mentioned western intensification and oceanic gyres). Other potential options would be to jump to talking about phytoplankton biology or the overall chemical composition of the oceans, so if you have a preference, make it known!
@The Dangerman: I did but I was really to wiped out to enjoy it.
@Boussinesque: Your comments are valuable also. Thank you.
Sorry to hear that…
…if you have any travel plans that involve ANY proximity to Irvine, even remotely, leave now; that plane crash is going to ruin traffic for the duration of this Holiday Getaway day.
ETA: I mean massively; this should ruin the 5, which will ruin everything else.
@But her emails!!!: With a crash genetic mod program we may be able to produce peanut butter and jelly fish. Win/Win!
@J R in WV:
It’s not obvious that trains would be an improvement over something like electric buses for rural and small-town America. A lot of the local rail that you’re talking about was put in before automobiles were practical and rail was really the only option for travel faster than horseback. It doesn’t make much sense to put in new rail today for low-volume traffic. That’s most true in a place like West Virginia, where rail’s problems with steep grades and tight turns are going to be especially acute.
Thanks for this post Boussinesque. Please keep these coming (to the extent your personal circumstances permit)! I also vote for more substantial posts, even if it means less frequent posts.
On a somewhat relevant note:
@sharl: Goody indeed.
means they cannot find enough climate denialists who are actual climate scientists working for the government.
So Mobster Kushner was the one who threatened that if Joe didn’t apologize to Trump, the National Enquirer would spill the beans about Joe’s relationship with Mika. This is what happens when you elect a sleazy bigot. I guess Trump was right when he said that he could shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose support because he appears to be doing the most obnoxious things he can think of.
@trollhattan: I love Pete Souza and can’t wait for his book to come out. You can tell he really loved President Obama (and hates the current White House Occupant). Love the shade he throws every time Trump’s foolishness erupts in public. There is no doubt that President Obama is heads and shoulders above the Bigot-in-Chief and it kills Trump every day that he is bested by a Black man on so many levels.
Yes, this aspect is what terrifies/saddens me.
BTW, google scholar is great (and free) for searching forward for citations of a well-known paper:
e.g (safe link) for your ref
e.g. at random, developing world budget science (124 pg thesis, haven’t read), Preliminary Studies on Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Diversity of Fish Species Landed by Artisanal and Semi-Industrial Fisheries and Coastal Community Livelihoods in Ghana
That is the first thing I thought as well. I’m thinking a bunch of Abe Simpsons with technical degrees and younger mercenary types with econ and poli-sci backgrounds will get those appointments. Groups like the Heartland Institute should be positively orgasmic about this. From 2012, Inside the dark Heartland of climate denialism
This might actually backfire on the administration by drawing much larger numbers of real climate scientists into the public discussion/education space.
FWIW I’ve tried poking at the denier literature and found that it almost always crumbles intellectually when poked. Even disregarding agenda/conflict of interest/etc. Lots of resources available, e.g. skepticalscience.com if a particular argument is not obviously refutable.
The more interesting problems are how to covert some reasonably large subset of the skeptics (quickly!!!) and how to increase the general level of effective activism, when there is a well funded adversary that is motivated (fossil fuel money) to pump out effective propaganda.
@Bill Arnold: I hope your optimism is borne out. One thing that may help – and it is not a good thing – is that rising ocean waters are already afflicting coastal communities, and some of those are the homes of rich people, whose plight is less likely to be ignored by large media (who so often survive on advertising revenue from companies that cater to the wealthy).
Ocean acidification is a tougher sell to the public. Long ago I collected literature on how the robustness of mollusc shells (mostly barnacles) was impacted as a function of pH. Not a whole lot of research in that area as I recall, but it has been looked at. I need to see if I can dig that stuff up, to see if there is a common pH value for different carbonate-based shell forming critters where viability becomes untenable. I dunno, maybe if oyster aficionados get alarmed, food/restaurant critics will spread the word…
J R in WV
I have read that sudden surges of dense cold fresh water falling off Greenland might block the clockwise flow in the north Atlantic. That could be scary colder for those in NW Europe, and all the isles off the European coast.
Which should make Climate Change deniers ever crazier… that global warming could cause some places to get much colder… but there you go.
Boussinesque – Thanks for doing this!
@Cheryl Rofer: Thanks, Cheryl! Been enjoying your posts about nuclear security quite a lot. It would appear that the competition for the slot of science advisor in the Baud! 2020! Administration is fierce @[email protected]