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Posted by on Aug 27, 2013 in Environment | 6 comments

Ocean Acidification Just Might Complicate the Climate As Well

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Recent research shows that ocean warming just might be even worse than previously thought because it has gone deeper than previously believed but another way in which climate change has been affecting the oceans is by altering their chemistry. Having just read another article about this acidification last week and having taken a chem class or two I was wondering how that might actually have another effect on the climate. To my surprise some information about just that has come up this week, including in ths article from Time.

This article references two different studies, the first of which examines how extensive the effect the changes in ocean chemistry on various forms of sea life might be. Unsurprisingly it’s not good for lots of ocean life and an uncertain effect on others but large disruptions in an ecosystem taking place relatively rapidly are rarely good for anything in the system. If there is a major disruption in the ocean’s life cycle it’s unlikely that it would be good for life on land, IMO. And in another bit of chemical interaction there’s still another problem the Time article describes thusly:

The other Nature Climate Change study—by American, German and British researchers—looked at the effects that ocean acidification could have on atmospheric warming. It turns out there may be some feedback—the researchers found that as the pH of the oceans dropped, it would result in lower concentrations of the biogenic sulfur compound dimethylsulphide (DMS). Why does that matter? Marine emissions of DMS are the largest natural source of atmospheric sulfur. (Manmade sources of sulfur include the burning of coal.)

Sulfur, in the form of sulfur dioxide, isn’t a greenhouse gas. But higher levels of sulfur in the atmosphere can reduce the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface, causing a cooling effect. (In the aftermath of the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991, which threw millions of tons of sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere, average global temperatures the two years fell by about 0.5 C.) If acidification decreases marine emissions of sulfur, it could cause an increase in the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface, speeding up warming—which is exactly what the Nature Climate Change study predicts. It’s one more surprise that the oceans have in store for us.

This reminds me of my reaction when those who call themselves climate change skeptics try to claim that the things we don’t know are so great that we can’t reliably believe that existing science could justify taking action to stop or reduce humanity’s influence on global climate. I wonder why they don’t realize that the unknowns are just as likely to be bad news as good. So far most of the new discoveries I’ve read about in this field haven’t been good news.

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  • ROBERT COUTINHO

    I am a chemist (Bachelor of Science in Chemistry). The global warming effects of greenhouse gasses and acidification of the ocean are real. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of other effects going on. The permafrost holds lots and lots of methane–a greenhouse gas ten times more potent than carbon dioxide.

    Overall, the planet will be fine. It has undergone far worse changes than human intervention. In the short term, however, things are going from bad to worse. Ultimately, there would probably be more “useable” land if the planet heats up (since Siberia and Canada would no longer be permafrost). That is dependent, however, on the climate not changing the currently arable land.

    About 10,000 years ago the climate seemed to stabilize (more or less). Changing the climate when it is largely responsible for allowing civilization is probably a bad idea. Allowing human practices to go on that change the climate is probably a bad idea.

    Having said all this, climate is one of the most complicated systems to try to lock down. The “butterfly effect” shows that conclusively. For those unfamiliar with the actual study:

    A climatologist was running a computer program that would estimate the weather effects given certain inputs. He went to lunch and when he came back he restarted the program from a certain point. However, unbeknownst to him, the computer only displayed eight digits (i.e. number = X.XXXXXXX) but actually kept fifteen digits (X.XXXXXXXXXXXXXX). Thus, when he restarted the program the difference in the start was out at the 0.00001% level of difference. The weather forecasts were significantly different one week later. The climatologist said that the effect was equivalent to a butterfly in China choosing to go right instead of left.

  • JSpencer

    It stands to reason that major changes (meaning relatively sudden changes based on human impact) in systems that have been in existence for millions of years (which is a lot of time to get kinks worked out even in the midst of all the natural changes which occur over time) are inclined to be negative rather than positive. Most of the skeptics, deniers, and doubters strike me as wishful thinkers (a kind and much understated characterization). Our breezy approach to climate change and all the other negative human impacts on the environment have created a lot of suffering in the world, but it is going to be much, much worse for coming generations. They will no doubt wonder why we were such selfish dopes for rationalizing, blowing it off, and in general being utterly irresponsible.

  • sheknows

    Recent articles ( Scientific American) have been showing the rivers along the east coast becoming too alkalinized in response to the acid rain, fertilizers and industrial chemicals and causing horrendous dangers to fish, wildlife and human water supplies. The acid breaks down the limestone and carbonate rock deposits and leaks into the rivers.

  • petew

    Thanks Jim,

    I have also seen many articles published by scientific organizations that warn of numerous other dangers to marine life by using more greenhouse gasses (or increasing sulfur dioxide emissions). Any significant change in the Ocean’s PH levels can result in deadly risk to the many species living in our oceans, and by extension—we human beings—since a large part of our industries and our food supply, is also adversely affected by what happens to our oceans!

    There is no denying that this problem will not go away, or be adjusted to with relative ease, if we fail to address Greenhouse gases and their effects on the environment. We will likely see alterations in our employment trends and some people who work for coal and oil industries may have a rough time adjusting. However, changing the nature of jobs and discovering and implementing energy from alternate and renewables sources, will be by far the easier and better path to take—rather than never changing the types of jobs we have, while the environment continues to suffer.

    We and our children may benefit from the continuation of traditional carbon producing jobs, but our grandchildren and all of those after, will face a much more unstable and unlivable world if we don’t act now!

    Thanks for focusing on yet another aspect of this—our important environmental need for change.

  • petew

    Robert Coutinho

    That butterfly must have made incredibly many changes in direction during the last couple of Decades, and, especially in the last fifteen years. If more frequent hurricanes, dozens more killer tornadoes, heatwaves, droughts, fires, and floods (the list goes on) are happening now–in a way that Climate scientists now affirm are very likely happening because of the extremely large amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere—then how can you conclude that environmental changes have been so slight—at least IF that IS what you are implying.

    I suggest that your Bachelors in Chemistry, is not comparable to the PhDs earned by many renowned climate scientists who have studied this problem for decades—several also being Nobel Laureates. I also have nowhere near the education of these distinguished scientists, but I know enough to believe that, they are VERY worth listening to. Chemistry is far from being the only science involved in assessing our climate! You don’t need just a weatherman to know which way the wind blows!

  • KP

    ROBERT COUTINHO — interesting stuff. Thanks for your input.

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