Ocean Acidification Scare Pushed at Copenhagen

Published January 18, 2010

With global temperatures continuing their decade-long decline and United Nations-sponsored global warming talks falling apart in Copenhagen, alarmists at the U.N. talks spent considerable time claiming carbon dioxide emissions will cause catastrophic ocean acidification, regardless of whether temperatures rise.

The latest scientific data, however, show no such catastrophe is likely to occur.

Food Supply Risk Claimed

The United Kingdom’s environment secretary, Hilary Benn, initiated the Copenhagen ocean scare with a high-profile speech and numerous media interviews claiming ocean acidification threatens the world’s food supply.

“The fact is our seas absorb CO2. They absorb about a quarter of the total that we produce, but it is making our seas more acidic,” said Benn in his speech. “If this continues as a problem, then it can affect the one billion people who depend on fish as their principle source of protein, and we have to feed another 2½ to 3 billion people over the next 40 to 50 years.”

Benn’s claim of oceans becoming “more acidic” is misleading, however. Water with a pH of 7.0 is considered neutral. pH values lower than 7.0 are considered acidic, while those higher than 7.0 are considered alkaline. The world’s oceans have a pH of 8.1, making them alkaline, not acidic. Increasing carbon dioxide concentrations would make the oceans less alkaline but not acidic.

Since human industrial activity first began emitting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere a little more than 200 years ago, the pH of the oceans has fallen merely 0.1, from 8.2 to 8.1.

Following Benn’s December 14 speech and public relations efforts, most of the world’s major media outlets produced stories claiming ocean acidification is threatening the world’s marine life. An Associated Press headline, for example, went so far as to call ocean acidification the “evil twin” of climate change.

Studies Show CO2 Benefits

Numerous recent scientific studies show higher carbon dioxide levels in the world’s oceans have the same beneficial effect on marine life as higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide have on terrestrial plant life.

In a 2005 study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, scientists examined trends in chlorophyll concentrations, critical building blocks in the oceanic food chain. The French and American scientists reported “an overall increase of the world ocean average chlorophyll concentration by about 22 percent” during the prior two decades of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations.

In a 2006 study published in Global Change Biology, scientists observed higher CO2 levels are correlated with better growth conditions for oceanic life. The highest CO2 concentrations produced “higher growth rates and biomass yields” than the lower CO2 conditions.

Higher CO2 levels may well fuel “subsequent primary production, phytoplankton blooms, and sustaining oceanic food-webs,” the study concluded.

Ocean Life ‘Surprisingly Resilient’

In a 2008 study published in Biogeosciences, scientists subjected marine organisms to varying concentrations of CO2, including abrupt changes of CO2 concentration. The ecosystems were “surprisingly resilient” to changes in atmospheric CO2, and “the ecosystem composition, bacterial and phytoplankton abundances and productivity, grazing rates and total grazer abundance and reproduction were not significantly affected by CO2-induced effects.”

In a 2009 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists reported, “Sea star growth and feeding rates increased with water temperature from 5ºC to 21ºC. A doubling of current [CO2] also increased growth rates both with and without a concurrent temperature increase from 12ºC to 15ºC.”

Another False CO2 Scare

“Far too many predictions of CO2-induced catastrophes are treated by alarmists as sure to occur, when real-world observations show these doomsday scenarios to be highly unlikely or even virtual impossibilities,” said Craig Idso, Ph.D., author of the 2009 book CO2, Global Warming and Coral Reefs. “The phenomenon of CO2-induced ocean acidification appears to be no different.

“What we observe in nature is not supported by theoretical projections, because numerous studies have shown that the net impact of twentieth century increases in atmospheric CO2 and temperature has not been anywhere near as catastrophically disruptive to Earth’s marine organisms as climate alarmists suggest it should have been. And every month more and more research confirms that marine life will likely successfully adapt to, or even benefit from, the modest increase in atmospheric CO2 and temperature projected to occur in the future,” Idso explained.

“As for why this is the way marine organisms respond, no one knows for certain, but it is probably because calcification is a biologically driven process that can overcome physical-chemical limitations which in the absence of life would appear to be insurmountable,” Idso said. “We have got to realize that rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations are not the bane of the biosphere but an invaluable boon to the planet’s many life forms, marine life included.”

James M. Taylor ([email protected]) is a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Environment & Climate News.

For more information …

Antoine, D., “Bridging ocean color observations of the 1980s and 2000s in search of long-term trends, Journal of Geophysical Research 110: http://www.heartland.org/environmentandclimate-news.org/article/26723/

Gooding, R., “Elevated water temperature and carbon dioxide concentration increase the growth of a keystone echinoderm,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 9, 2009, vol. 106 no. 23, 9316-9321: http://www.heartland.org/environmentandclimate-news.org/article/26725/

Levitan, O., “Elevated CO2 enhances nitrogen fixation and growth in the marine cyanobacterium Trichodesmium,” Global Change Biology: http://www.heartland.org/environmentandclimate-news.org/article/26726/

Vogt, M., “Dynamics of dimethylsulphoniopropionate and dimethylsulphide under different CO2 concentrations during a mesocosm experiment,” Biogeosciences 5, 407-419, 2008: http://www.heartland.org/environmentandclimate-news.org/article/26727/