Sunday, April 20, 2014

Carbon dioxide is killing our oceans


From page A6 | February 19, 2014 | 11 Comments

“The geological record suggests that the current acidification is potentially unparalleled in at least the last 300 million years of Earth history and raises the possibility that we are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change.”
— Jelle Bijma, research scientist, October 2013

As if there were not already enough to worry about … now we learn our oceans are acidifying. That poses a grave danger to the entire marine ecosystem, including many species humanity relies on as a source of protein. Most of the world’s saltwater shellfish industry, for example, may be wiped out this century.

The reason the pH level of the world’s oceans is declining at an unprecedented rate is the same reason the Earth is heating up: human activities. We burn ungodly amounts of coal, oil and gas, and that is polluting our atmosphere with carbon dioxide.

“Atmospheric CO2 has increased more than 100 (parts per million) since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution,” according to Jim Barry, a scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. Atmospheric CO2 today is roughly 398 ppm. It is increasing approximately 2 ppm per year. At that pace, it will reach 500 ppm in 2065.

Much of the global increase in CO2 in the atmosphere is absorbed by the oceans. That dissolution of carbon increases hydrogen ion concentration, acidifying seawater.

According to Scott Doney, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, “ocean pH has fallen by about 0.1 pH unit from preindustrial times to today.”

That does not sound like much over a period of hundreds of years, but keep in mind that pH is on a logarithmic scale. Doney explains that 0.1 pH is “equivalent to about a 26 percent increase in the ocean hydrogen ion concentration.”

“If we continue on the expected trajectory for fossil-fuel use and rising atmospheric CO2, pH is likely to drop by 0.3-0.4 units by the end of the 21st century and increase ocean hydrogen ion concentration (or acidity) by 100 to 150 percent above what it was in preindustrial times.”

One of the leading scientists studying the effects anthropogenic climate change has on marine life is professor Eric Sanford of the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory.

In January, Sanford’s research on the Olympia oyster was featured in a story in The Economist magazine. According to the article, Sanford and his colleagues “looked in the laboratory at how CO2-enriched seawater affects the growth of Olympia oysters, and how that, in turn, affects the mollusks’ attractiveness to predators — specifically carnivorous snails called Atlantic oyster drills.”

What Sanford and his colleagues found was that oysters raised in water with a pH level equal to that expected at the end of this century were 30 to 40 percent smaller at maturity than those raised in water with the pH our oceans have today. Compounding the problem is that snails raised in the more acidic water ate almost 50 percent more oysters than snails raised in normal seawater.

In an email interview I asked Sanford if ocean acidification is a threat to our entire shellfish industry, here in California and elsewhere?

He told me that is a definite worry. “There is growing concern that ocean acidification poses a significant threat to the shellfish industry,” Sanford wrote. “Scientists and commercial shellfish growers are concerned and are looking closely at this problem.”

As our oceans acidify, I wondered if oysters and other threatened species would be able to adapt to their new environment.

Sanford told me, “Ocean acidification is expected to develop too rapidly during this century for new mutations to arise and help oysters adapt.”

The American seafood industry adds $50 billion to our gross domestic product. If by 2100 most commercial shellfish species are extinct, the U.S. economy, worth $1.57 trillion today, can survive. However, coastal communities that rely on fisheries may be wiped out. Mollusks (including oysters, clams and mussels) account for two-thirds of the value of America’s marine aquaculture, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Globally, marine seafood is worth about $300 billion per year. Fish and shellfish are a primary source of animal protein for many countries. A great risk, even to animals that can survive in more acidic water, is that the food they eat will no longer exist. Where they now feed could become an oceanic dead zone.

According to Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez of the National Oceanography Centre of the University of Southampton in the U.K., “The rate of human-driven ocean acidification is about 100 times faster in the surface ocean than that experienced by marine ecosystems globally for tens of millions of years.

“Different ecosystems will respond differently,” Iglesias-Rodriguez writes. “In some ecosystems, such as coral reefs, the calcifying organisms form the fundamental architecture of the ecosystem. So if they disappear, the ecosystem could disappear.”

As long as we emit carbon dioxide at the present rate, the health of our oceans will decline and the damage to marine life will be irreversible on a human time scale.

The only solution to the problem of atmospheric CO2 is a hefty global tax on carbon emissions. We need to incentivize polluters to burn less coal and oil and substitute with clean energy. In the longer term, a carbon tax will incentivize entrepreneurs to develop new technologies to capture CO2 before it devastates our atmosphere and oceans.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at


Discussion | 11 comments

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  • Greg JohnsonFebruary 19, 2014 - 1:21 pm

    A well-written and informative article Rich. However, the lack of apetite for sacrifice is painfully evident. If people refuse to take any action on a staggering debt situation where numbers are concrete and predictions clear, can you get them to sacrifice for a threat which, although more devastating, is much less clear and quantifiable? Don't hold your breath-that'll predictably and rapidly drive your CO2 level to one incompatible with life.

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 19, 2014 - 1:39 pm

    Probably not, Greg. However, I think the best hope would be a global treaty, joined by all the signatories in the World Trade Organization, much like the GATT. Each nation would be required to impose and collect a carbon tax, set by the WTO. Those which did not would face trade sanctions and penalties. .......... It's true that for a while it would be a "sacrifice." But, if I had my way, the tens of billions of dollars collected from a carbon tax would be used for two things: 1. To reduce some other tax, perhaps payroll taxes; and 2. To subsidize the purchase of cars, trucks, buses and power plants which emit no or low amounts of CO2. If that were done, it would not be as much of a sacrifice. But, all that said, I don't have any faith governments here or elsewhere will get this done. I think it is simply most likely that our oceans get sicker and sicker in the next 50-100 years.

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  • STFebruary 19, 2014 - 1:44 pm

    I've looked around this country pretty thoroughly in my life time. One of the things noted are the huge, expansive infrastructure dedicated to manufacturing fossil fuels. This nation in particular has done every thing possible to discourage alternative fuels, despite the science available, and those few individuals who do mention it from time to time, (thanks for the above, Rich,) we seem to be a people who pay little attention to the slow suicide which is happening. With species being exterminated around us, we seem to overlook the fact that we too are a species with the same needs as clean air, clean water, etc. Keep writing folks, cause there won't be a solution til people realize there is a problem.

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  • February 19, 2014 - 3:39 pm

    Once the carbon tax bankrupts the coal industry, there needs to be a practical and immediate replacement for that source of energy. Wind and solar won’t come remotely close to replacing it. The only way we could do without as many power plants is through a massive energy efficiency and conservation plan which would be a good use of the carbon tax revenue. And all this is much easier for rich industrialized countries to implement than the rest of the world.

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 19, 2014 - 5:27 pm

    "Once the carbon tax bankrupts the coal industry, there needs to be a practical and immediate replacement for that source of energy." ............ One alternative is nuclear power. The biggest downside of that technology--assuming we enact safeguards to prevent a Fukushima-type disaster--has always been what to do with the radioactive spent nuclear fuel rods. Recently, the New York Times had a story ("Nuclear Waste Solution Seen in Desert Salt Beds") which offered a safe and practical solution to store them. The other big problem of American nuclear power is the very high cost of building and opening a new plant. I would think that if the NRC and the major utilities could agree on one or two universal plant designs, the regulatory costs could be greatly reduced. That is how the French have built their nuclear plants, by following one or two basic designs, only making small changes for the locale and for technology improvements. ..........

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 19, 2014 - 5:31 pm

    One other small point: The coal industry (in the U.S.) is already in dire straights. Some of that is due to air quality regulations already in place, making coal fired power plants less practical. The other driver in the failure of coal is that, since natural gas prices have fallen steeply in the last 10 years (due to fracking), coal has become much less cost competitive for utilities. Old coal plants are rapidly being replaced by much cleaner gas. Gas still is an emitter of CO2. But compared with coal it is much less bad in all respects. .............. What I wonder is if coal can be saved by giving it a strong incentive to figure out a technological way to capture its CO2 effluent at the source? I don't have the engineering expertise to know if this ever could be done. But, if it can, there would be such a thing as "clean coal," something which up to now has never existed.

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  • February 19, 2014 - 8:02 pm

    Yucca Mt. in NV was designated to be a safe depository for spent nuclear fuel rods but the current administration stopped funding for it in 2011. The anti nuclear crowds have been successful in defeating most to all new construction of safe and modern power plants in the US since the late 1970’s, so I don’t hold out too much hope for that technology any more. That pretty much leaves natural gas as the only option to coal. The carbon tax sounds like a credible idea if the funds are spent wisely and not just thrown at any company with a “green” idea.

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 19, 2014 - 8:13 pm

    If you read the New York Times story ("Nuclear Waste Solution Seen in Desert Salt Beds") regarding the New Mexico salt mines, it discusses Yucca Mtn. The huge difference is that in Nevada, the state of Nevada and all of its leading pols (esp. Sen. Harry Reid) opposed it ever being used for spent fuel rods. (It is used for military nuclear waste.) By contrast, the leadership in New Mexico (including the governor, a Dem.) supports the storage option there. ............. Of course, it's not unlikely that the activists who hate nuclear power will make the salt mine option impossibly difficult and expensive, if the ball gets rolling on this.

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  • colorfulclayFebruary 21, 2014 - 10:02 am

    "There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact." --Mark Twain

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  • Rich RifkinFebruary 21, 2014 - 11:47 am

    Mark Twain also said, "To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence." The nihilists who have convinced themselves that they know more about climatology than climatologists are ignorant and confident in their conclusions.

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  • ColorfolclayFebruary 21, 2014 - 1:02 pm

    Keep an open mind. :-)

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