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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Ocean Acidity Changing - Is this a problem?

A buoy in the north Pacific known as Ocean Station Papa has recorded increasing levels of acidity in this section of ocean 700 miles west of Seattle. Is this cause for concern or just an anomaly?

The concern that as the oceans absorb more CO2, the acidity levels increase endangering aquatic life.

And some scientists fear that the change may be irreversible.

At risk are sea creatures up and down the food chain, from the tiniest phytoplankton and zooplankton to whales, from squid to salmon to crabs, coral, oysters and clams.

The oceans are already 30 percent more acidic than they were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as they absorb 22 tons of carbon dioxide a day. By the end of the century, they could be 150 percent more acidic.

"Everything points to dramatic effects," said Richard Feely, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Seattle. "There are suggestions the entire ecosystem could change over time."

My first thought when I read this was that this could be a genuine concern, if it was real. As I read the article, though, it became obvious that this is another jump to a foregone conclusion. Consider the following points:
  • The higher than normal acidity is being measured on a first of its kind buoy. Well if it is a first device then how can the conclusion be reached that "The oceans are already 30 percent more acidic than they were at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, as they absorb 22 tons of carbon dioxide a day. By the end of the century, they could be 150 percent more acidic." What is the baseline to which this data is being compared.
  • The North Pacific is apparently the end point for the circulation of the ocean currents as they circulate around the globe.
As the oceans' deepest waters circulate around the globe, they eventually arrive in the North Pacific, where they rise near the surface before plunging deep again to continue their global journey. When the water arrives in the North Pacific, it's already acidic from the carbon produced by decaying organic material during its 1,000-year journey from the North Atlantic through the Indian Ocean and across the Pacific, Feely said.

As it surfaces, or upwells, in the North Pacific, the water absorbs even more carbon dioxide from the air. Cold water absorbs more carbon dioxide than warm water does.

"The older water is in the Pacific, the newer water is in the Atlantic," Feely said. "There's 10 percent more carbon dioxide in the Pacific than in the Atlantic."

Basic conservation of mass says unless there is accumulation of water in the North Pacific, the circulation coming into the region must also be leaving the region. There cannot be an accumulation in one part of a basin so the water into the area must be also laving the area in a steady circulation.
  • Finally, the time scale comes into question -

Though cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse-gas emissions might slow or reverse global warming, scientist say it could take thousands of years or longer to reverse the increased acidity of the oceans.

"For all practical purposes this is permanent," Emerson said. "That's not true of temperature. But with ocean acidification the time scales are long."

Now if it only took 60 or so years for the acidity level to go from "normal" to irreversibly and catastrophically acidic, then why is thousands of years required for the oceans to go back (if this is a real phenomenon).

OK, there are some real issues involved. The effect of acidic water on fisheries and wild aquatic life is a genuine concern. My issue is the cause and the knee jerk response.
  1. If the region is becoming more acidic, could the increased acidity be caused by acid rain? China is building coal-fired power plants and an exorbitant rate. These plants are not known to have the latest state of the art pollution controls. Nor is the coal likely to be low sulfur. The same issues that affect the northeastern US with acid rain from coal plants in Ohio and Pennsylvania could be the cause for the increased acidity in the north Pacific.
  2. If CO2 absorption is the cause, how does that directly lead to humans being the cause. Several volcanic eruptions have occurred over the past decades that could be the primary contributor to increased CO2. As far as I know, people still can't control or affect volcanic activity.
Finally, as usual, the mis-interpretation or rush to judgment of raw data is used as justification to enact bad public policy.
A San Francisco environmental group, the Center for Biodiversity, has asked 10 states _ Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska, Hawaii, Florida, New York, New Jersey, Maine and Delaware _ to declare their coastal waters "impaired" under the Clean Water Act because of rising acidity. Such a move could clear the way for the states to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions.
And now we are back to regulating the air we breath to try to save the whales. Let's monitor the data and analyze it objectively to determine what we are actually dealing with and if we humans can have any impact at all - good or bad.

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