Attack of ocean acids could be the basis of a scary movie

I would like to confess something here: I am more afraid of the oceans growing more acidic than any of the other consequences of climate change — including drought, floods, reduced snow pack, sea level rise, arctic ice disappearing…

I’m not sure why ocean acidification scares me, but it probably has to do with the fact that I am not very grounded in the science. I need to learn more about the chemistry of the oceans and what concentrations of acidic compounds cause severe problems.

I remember learning, during my school days in chemistry lab, how strong acids can dissolve almost anything but glass. I still can hear the hissing sound and and see vapors rising during acid-base reactions. On an emotional level, I don’t want to be swimming around in acid, and I don’t want our friends, the sea creatures, to be doing so, either.

If you want to produce a scary movie, forget about violent encounters with giant squid and surprise attacks by a great white shark. Here’s how I would write the movie trailer:

Scene: The dark surface of the wayward sea.
Cue the ominous music, then the announcer: “Sea life cannot survive without water, yet something strange is lurking beneath the waves. Do you dare touch the water, knowing that the water itself can bring death? What can anyone do against this growing menace we call ACID?”

Water should be neutral, a pH of 7.0. OK, I know this doesn’t happen in real life, but I don’t want the oceans’ acid levels to stray too far off that mark.

Seriously, notable scientists are telling us that ocean acidification may be starting to affect the entire food web, because of its effects on certain plankton and all sorts of shelled critters. If what they say is true, ocean acidification really is quite scary.

A couple of weeks ago, I reported that the Center for Biological Diversity is suing the federal government to protect the oceans under the Clean Water Act. (See Water Ways, May 15.) Washington was chosen as the test case, because upwelling of ocean water makes the West Coast especially vulnerable to acidification. We’ll see how this lawsuit works out in court, since the data remain a bit sketchy.

Yesterday, at least 70 “Academy of Sciences” groups from throughout the world warned that ocean acidification is not getting enough attention and should get more of a focus in international discussions — including a December meeting in Copenhagen. (Check out the InterAcademy Panel’s announcement about ocean acidification.)

Chen Zhu, minister of health in the People’s Republic of China, and Howard Alper, chairman and president of Science, Technology and Innovation Council, Canada, are serving as co-chairs of the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues. They said in a statement:

“There has been much talk among the science community over the past few years about ocean acidification and its potentially catastrophic consequences, but it has failed to receive the political attention it demands. Its absence from discussions to-date is of immense concern, and we call for its immediate inclusion as a vital part of the climate change agenda.”

At the same time, a new study by Sarah Cooley and Scott Doney of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution reported that ocean acidification and its effects on marine organisms will have direct and indirect effects on the U.S. economy and its $3.8 billion in annual commercial harvests. The report was published in the journal “Environmental Research Letters” (PDF 381 kb).

Publications covering this story include:
The Guardian, The New York Times — Greenwire, and The Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald.

2 thoughts on “Attack of ocean acids could be the basis of a scary movie

  1. “I’m not sure why ocean acidification scares me… I remember learning, during my school days in chemistry lab, how strong acids can dissolve almost anything….”

    It seems you do know why “ocean acidification” scares you–and so do the people who use that term to scare you.

    The ocean’s pH level is above 8, meaning that it is “basic” not “acidic.” Its pH level may have declined from about 8.2 to 8.1 in the past century or so, meaning it has a long way to go before it even reaches “neutral.”

    Do you ever wonder why people would want to scare you?

  2. It’s been done, although not entirely successfully but some say compellingly–

    6:10pm – A Sea Change: USA, Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby, 84 min.
    This year the sea will absorb 2 billion tons of carbon from the air. Since 1900 ocean acidity has increased by 30% threatening a million species with extinction. A Sea Change follows retired educator and concerned grandfather Sven Huseby back to stunning ancestral sites (Norway, Alaska the Pacific Northwest) where he finds cutting-edge ocean research underway. His journey of self-discovery brings adventure, surprise, and revelation to the hard science of acidification.

    People For Puget Sound is showing it this weekend (Friday) at the Sea Cinema Film Festival at the Capitol Theater in Olympia:

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