A Letter on Ocean Acidification

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | July 16, 2009 8:46 am

I received the letter that follows from ocean champions Randy Repass and Sally-Christine Rodgers of West Marine and Oceana.  They actively work toward promoting ocean conservation around the world by supporting students and getting the right folks involved on the ground, so I encourage you to read below and consider contacting your representatives in Congress and local newspapers–asking them to pay more attention to ocean acidification! Today several ocean and environmental bloggers have agreed to co-publish this piece and I hope many others will join usword is spreading fast! Finally, special thanks to Randy and Sally-Christine for all of their wonderful oceans work!

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

We are both lifelong boaters.  What we have learned from sailing across the Pacific over the past 6 years, and especially from scientists focused on marine conservation, is startling.  Whether you spend time on the water or not, Ocean Acidification affects all of us and is something we believe you will want to know about.

What would you do if you knew that many species of fish and other marine life in the ocean will be gone within 30 years if levels of C02 continue increasing at their present rate? We believe you would take action to stop this from happening, because informed people make informed choices. This letter is about what we can and must do together now to help solve a very serious but little-known problem, Ocean Acidification.

Ocean Acidification is primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.  When carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ends up in the ocean it changes the pH, making the sea acidic and less hospitable to life. Over time, C02 reduces calcium carbonate, which prevents creatures from forming shells and building reefs. In fact, existing shells will start to dissolve. Oysters and mussels will not be able to build shells.  Crabs and lobsters?  Your great-grandchildren may wonder what they tasted like.

Carbon dioxide concentrated in the oceans is making seawater acidic.  Many of the zooplankton, small animals at the base of the food web, have skeletons that won’t form in these conditions, and sea-life further up the food chain – fish, mammals and seabirds that rely on zooplankton for food will also perish. No food – no life.  One billion people rely on seafood for their primary source of protein.  Many scientific reports document that worldwide, humans are already consuming more food than is being produced.  The implications are obvious.

The issue of Ocean Acidification is causing irreversible loss to species and habitats, and acidification trends are happening up to ten times faster than projected.  We want you to know what this means, how it affects all of us, and what we can do about it.

Today, the atmospheric concentration of C02 is about 387 parts per million (ppm) and increasing at 2 ppm per year.  If left unaddressed, by 2040 it is projected to be over 450 ppm, and marine scientists believe the collapse of many ocean ecosystems will be irreversible. Acidification has other physiological effects on marine life as well, including changes in reproduction, growth rates, and even respiration in fish.

Tropical and coldwater corals are among the oldest and largest living structures on earth; the richest in terms of biodiversity, they provide spawning areas, nursery habitat and feeding grounds for a quarter of all species in the sea. Coral reefs are at risk!  As C02 concentrations increase, corals, shellfish and other species that make shells will not be able to build their skeletons and will likely become extinct.

The good news is we can fix this problem. But, as you guessed, it will be difficult.  Ocean Acidification is caused by increased C02 in the atmosphere.  Solving one will solve the other.  The House of Representatives has acted, passing HR 2454, the Waxman-Markey “American Clean Energy and Security Act”, but it was severely weakened.  Now the Senate has announced that it will move similar legislation this fall.  We need the Senate to join the House in its leadership, but to demand far greater emissions reductions than were able to pass the House.

“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that in order to stabilize C02 in the atmosphere at 350 ppm by 2050, global carbon emissions need to be cut 85% below 2000 levels.”That’s a very tall order! And the way our political system works (or doesn’t) makes its tougher.  It will take all of us to step up and take responsibility to make this happen.

Here is what you can do: Contact your Senator now using ont of these techniques listed in order of effectiveness.

1. Visit your Senator at their local office. It is easy to make an appointment. Tell them your concerns about C02 and the oceans, and to move strong climate legislation immediately that will reduce our greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that will not threaten our oceans. The experience is rewarding. (Alternatively, drop a letter off at their local office.)

2. Call your Senator and leave a message urging action be taken to reduce C02 , address Ocean Acidification, and move strong climate legislation immediately that will reduce our greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that will not threaten our oceans.

3. Click on this link to send an email, which will go directly to your Senator based on your address: http://www.oceana.org/acid

You may use the letter provided, but it is more effective to edit it, and in your own words urge them to move strong climate legislation immediately that will reduce our greenhouse gas concentrations to levels that will not threaten our oceans.

Ocean Acidification is an issue we can do something about.  We need a groundswell of informed citizens to get Congress to have the backbone to stand up to the entrenched interests of coal, oil, and gas and not compromise on the reduction of C02.  We also need real leadership to aggressively create jobs using sustainable technologies. The choice is ours.  We can solve this or not.  What we do know is that the future facing our children, grandchildren and indeed all of humankind depends on our decision.

Please join us in sharing this letter with others.  We appreciate your taking the time to contact your Senators; it is easy to do and effective.

Thank you for your support.

Randy Repass                                                     
West Marine
Sally-Christine Rodgers
Board Member                                                     
A more complete report on ocean acidification here: http://oceana.org/fileadmin/oceana/uploads/Climate_Change/Acid_Test_Report/Acidification_Report.pdf


Comments (44)

  1. SLC

    I wonder how long it will take for the trolls from Marc Moranos’ web site to show up here with claims that this is a non-existent problem.

  2. Linda

    Sent the emails to my Senators too.

  3. Terrific! Thanks Philip H. and Southern Fried Scientist!

  4. Screechy Monkey

    Since many (most?) of the global warming deniers don’t deny the existence of higher CO2 levels, is ocean acidification an issue that can peel some of them off their “CO2 is not a problem” position? Or do they tend to deny acidification, too?

  5. GM

    What makes you think anything that can make a difference will be done?

  6. do they tend to deny acidification, too?

    I’m not sure what they say, but there’s no denying acidification and its impacts on corals and biodiversity.

    What makes you think anything that can make a difference will be done?

    As I’ve written many times before, personal decisions and actions matter and the future is what we make it. At the government level, there has already been a big win earlier this year that involves research and monitoring.

  7. Callinectes

    Sheril, thanks for highlighting this important issue!! I was not aware of the letter and think it’s a great effort.

    do they tend to deny acidification too?

    My impression is that ocean acidification is simply NOT on the deniers’ radar, and if it was I suspect many of the climate change deniers would poo-poo it’s importance. Really, it’s barely on anyone’s radar – the ocean is the red-headed stepchild when it comes to environmental issues (no offense to any red heads). But I am hopeful this is about to change with OSU scientist Jane Lubchenco taking the helm at our ocean agency NOAA.

  8. GM

    I was referring to the inadequacy of anything that’s politically acceptable with respect to what is necessary to be done and how nobody is willing to actually talk about what has to be done, you included.

  9. I’ve written about acidification a good deal here and will continue to. Hopefully others will be inspired to take up the call. That’s a start…

  10. In fact, existing shells will start to dissolve. Oysters and mussels will not be able to build shells. Crabs and lobsters? Your great-grandchildren may wonder what they tasted like.

    Um, their shells are made of chitin, which is not at present thought to be directly threatened by ocean acidification–at least I’ve never heard that it was.

    Indirectly, perhaps they are threatened by CO2 in the ocean.

    Seriously, petitions ought to get their facts right. They’ll look more competent and knowledgeable when they do.

    Otherwise, yes, this is a long-known problem with CO2 buildup.

    Glen Davidson

  11. OK, apparently chitin shells will be affected, but it’s not clear that animals with chitin shells will suffer anything like in the same way as mussels, etc.

    Oceanic uptake of anthropogenic CO2 results in a reduction in pH termed “Ocean Acidification”
    (OA). Comparatively little attention has been given to the effect of OA on the
    early life history stages of marine animals. Consequently, we investigated the effect
    of culture 5 in CO2-acidified sea water (approx. 1200 ppm, i.e. average values predicted
    using IPCC 2007 A1F1 emissions scenarios for year 2100) on early larval stages of an
    economically important crustacean, the European lobster Homarus gammarus. Culture
    in CO2-acidified sea water did not significantly affect carapace length or development
    of H. gammarus. However, there was a reduction in carapace mass during the
    10 final stage of larval development in CO2-acidified sea water. This co-occurred with a
    reduction in exoskeletal mineral (calcium and magnesium) content of the carapace. As
    the control and high CO2 treatments were not undersaturated with respect to any of
    the calcium carbonate polymorphs measured, the physiological alterations we record
    are most likely the result of acidosis or hypercapnia interfering with normal homeostatic
    15 function, and not a direct impact on the carbonate supply-side of calcification per se.
    Thus despite there being no observed effect on survival, carapace length, or zoeal progression,
    OA related (indirect) disruption of calcification and carapace mass might still
    adversely affect the competitive fitness and recruitment success of larval lobsters with
    serious consequences for population dynamics and marine ecosystem function.


    So they ought not to have been implied to suffer the same fate as clams and the like.

    Glen Davidson

  12. Glen,
    There is some concern about larval development of these critters as oceans become less basic. The trouble with acidification is that we cannot predict what the consequences will be, however it’s also important to consider potential for trophic cascades as food webs are disrupted.

    Acidification is probably the least understood, yet most critical threat to oceans and I hope it starts getting the attention it should.

  13. I’ll just note now that I found a source that indicates that lobsters will be affected, as they do strengthen their shells with CaCO3. But there isn’t much evidence now that acidification would be deleterious to nearly the same extent.

    Wrote a post including an abstract quote, tried to get it past moderation three times, and it failed. I’m trying this because I have no idea how long it’ll be tied up.

    Glen Davidosn

  14. Glen,
    There is some concern about larval development of these critters as oceans become less basic. The trouble with acidification is that we cannot predict what the consequences will be, however it’s also important to consider potential for trophic cascades as food webs are disrupted.

    Acidification is probably the least understood, yet most critical threat to oceans and I hope it starts getting the attention it should.

    Yes, quite, and my source held up for moderation addresses some of that.

    Regardless, that’s a misleading statement in the petition, and I wish it were not.

    Glen Davidson

  15. windy

    Um, their shells are made of chitin, which is not at present thought to be directly threatened by ocean acidification

    But the chitin is mineralized by calcium carbonate. Molluscan shells have an organic matrix, too, they are just calcified to a higher degree.

  16. Glen,

    Apologies for the delay, we’ve recently had to turn up our moderation filter, which holds long comments for approval.

  17. Glen,

    Apologies for the delay, we’ve recently had to turn up our moderation filter, which holds long comments for approval.

    Oh, I’m not complaining that it occurs (well, not too much), but one has to refer to the problem it causes for follow-up posts at times.

    Glen Davidson

  18. foolfodder

    CO2 levels were higher in the past, so I was wondering why this was an issue, couldn’t marine life just adapt. I found this comment on a post on realclimate.org that seems to explain it: http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2005/07/the-acid-ocean-the-other-problem-with-cosub2sub-emission/#comment-2824

    Re: the acid spike

    Why should we be concerned? Another way to put it: as reported by the New York Times British Scientists Say Carbon Dioxide Is Turning the Oceans Acidic,

    Dr. Patrick J. Michaels … pointed out that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere had been higher for 90 million of the last 100 million years.

    But Dr. Ken Caldeira, a research scientist at the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Global Ecology in Stanford, Calif., and a member of the Royal Society panel, said the difference was that the current carbon dioxide release was occurring quickly, over just two centuries. In the past, water from the deeper ocean would have had time to mix, diluting the effect of the carbon dioxide. “If we put it out over a few hundred thousand years, we’d have nothing to worry about,” he said.

    So, there it is.

    Just thought I’d share in case anyone else was wondering about that.

  19. “The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that in order to stabilize C02 in the atmosphere at 350 ppm by 2050, global carbon emissions need to be cut 85% below 2000 levels.”

    Don’t they mean 450 ppm? We are already past 350.

  20. GM

    Don’t they mean 450 ppm? We are already past 350.

    That we are past 350 does not mean that 350 isn’t past the dangerous point. What it means is that we have passed the point where it becomes really dangerous

  21. Juan

    Has anyone looked into the nonbiological accretion of carbonate such as oolites and lime clays in the warm oceans?Has any decrease been noted?

  22. Tom

    I read a news article in a mainstream science publication maybe two months back that stated that the damage to coral reefs was recently shown to be caused by pollution with an ingredient of suntan lotion washed into the ocean in apparently pretty astounding amounts and accumulating in organisms. The article (wish I could remember the reference, may have been C&E News or New Scientist) seemed to imply that acidification was therefore a disproven hypothesis, at least as a cause of coral bleaching. Any clarification on this would be appreciated.

    Also as a chemist I wondered why acidification would occur at all; won’t the carbonate minerals in contact with the ocean neutralize any extra carbonic acid from CO2 ? If this is a dumb question, my apologies, but I just wondered.

  23. foolfodder

    Ocean acidification to a bad level seems pretty inevitable to me, given the state of the current GW debate. Are there steps that can be taken to remedy the situation, if only in the short term? e.g. dumping a load of antacid in the sea.

  24. There WAS only one solution to the problem of ocean acidifaction which, as the writers properly claim, is due to increased atmospheric CO2. It WAS to convert our energy economy to nuclear/electrical for all heating and surface transportation uses. That is of course now very improbable and would require the same action by every nation in the world. Accordingly I don’t see any solution to the problem.

    I am inclined for somewhat different reasons to agree with Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society and author of the book “Our Final Century.”

    It is ironic that the Age of Technology could never have been possible if it were not for the Industrial Revolution which preceded it and made it possible. The price for that advance has been the destruction of our environment. It is my conviction that we are now in the terminal age for the human species. I believe that the present biota is the climax biota of a planned evolution and will never be replaced as it continues to become extinct.

    I do not like offering such a dismal prospectus, but I have a responsibility as a citizen and scientist to present my assessment in as objective a fashion as possible.

    I hate being right and pray that I am wrong.


  25. GM

    We need more people to state this openly in public.

    Debates over cap-and-trace vs carbon tax will get us nowhere and are just a waste of time

  26. MadScientist

    My only objection is that the letter gives the impression that the problem can be left alone for another 29 years. It will take a long time to get anyone moving.

    Just last week I met with some old friends and they asked me what I thought of the contribution of carbon capture and storage to the overall CO2 reduction strategies. I said it will be a small part with at best 30% reductions but more likely 5-10% reductions. Even if all gas production plants and coal/gas fired power plants could pump CO2 underground (~30% reduction), the majority of emissions is still from land transport and I don’t see governments doing anything serious to encourage emissions reduction in the transport sector. In fact I see governments around the world building more (and wider) roads in anticipation of increased petrol-fired transport. Even as people whine about the watered down bills, I don’t believe even the soft targets set are achievable given what is happening around the world today.

  27. MadScientist

    @foolfodder: Dumping a basic agent into the sea is not a good idea:

    1. how do you ensure good mixing
    2. how do you produce in large enough quantities
    3. how do you schedule delivery to compensate for natural removal processes
    4. how does the agent affect existing marine life

    CO2 is spread around very nicely because it is a gas which is well mixed and diffuses into (or out of) the water.

    Hmm … perhaps hundreds of millions of floating self-powered ammonia generators would do the trick.

  28. GM #29

    I agree. There is no place for debate in science and I can’t think of a single instance in which it resolved any scientific issue. Scientists don’t “debate,” they “discover” and then try to transmit their discoveries to receptive minds of which there are all too few.

    “The majority of the stupid is invincible and guaranteed for all time.”
    Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, page 28.


  29. Eric (skeptic)

    Unlike climate which indeed should not be “debated” (mainly because there is much yet to be discovered about natural climate variations), I am concerned about this aspect of man-made CO2 (answer to #6 is I don’t deny this problem). However I wish the letter would have provided quantitative predictions for pH and quantitative biological consequences.

    The article linked in 13 specifies a 0.3 to 0.4 unit drop in pH for a CO2 concentration of 1200 ppm (by 2100). That is serious and the effects described in the experiments are indeed catastrophic. However, what about the nearer term and the affect of present levels versus preindustrial levels, especially considering the slow mixing rate with the deep oceans. There should be current differential measurements available.

    Without such measurements, plus studies like the one linked at 13 (1200ppm) there is no support for the letter’s claims that 450ppm will cause irreversible collapse. I can’t rule it out, but without these answers to these questions (what pH at 450ppm and what biological effects of that pH) I cannot support mitigation measures that are catastrophic to our own ability to adapt, namely cutting off the energy that currently supports our economy (indeed keeps us alive)

  30. Eric(skeptic) sounds eerily like Eric D. Peterson which reminds me of my favorite peeve. Why do so many insist on hiding their identity? Don’t they realize that renders everything they say utterly meaningless? Imagine a scientific literature, or any other literature for that matter, with unknown authors.

    Could it be that they lack certainty about their position? That is my immediate reaction. In any event please forgive me for my prejudices. I was apparently “born that way.”


  31. Eric (skeptic)

    Sorry, John, I don’t want to hide my identity. However I have posted for years at many sites as Eric (skeptic). An anonymous post in science is suspicious at best as you imply. However a great deal of the science of global warming has been politicized and I don’t like to make political postings under my name. For one thing, where I work my view is very much a minority.

    As for lacking certainty, we both know there is no certainty in science. Your immediate reaction should be skeptical.

  32. Eric D. Peterson aka Eric(skeptic)

    Thanks for the confession.

    I resent your suggestion that “we both know there is no certainty in science.” That is one of the most absurd statements I have ever encountered. Science deals only with certainties, verifiable certainties. That which cannot be verified is not science. Darwinism comes to mind. So does the position held by those who deny anthropogenic global warming.

    That is my “immediate reaction” to your message.


  33. Eric (skeptic)


    Sorry but certainty in science is impossible. We can say it is a “well established fact” that the earth revolves around the sun and not vice versa. but it is not certain. The conceptual system that allows us to communicate scientific principles does have certainty as does mathematics and other abstractions. Likewise my own existence, consciousness, and identity are certain to myself (although not to you as you have correctly pointed out).

    But in science there is always room for new facts and changes even in the most well established theories. Our own experiences can be extended with certainty to our immediate surroundings, for example the existence of things that we can directly observe. Other theories can be based on those observations, or communicated among scientists, but they are only theories, not certainties.

    AGW is a theory, it is possible that the current warming is mostly or even completely natural. However the support for AGW theory is quite strong and an objective scientist would recognize that CO2 causes some warming, and that water vapor feedback causes more. The only scientific debate should be the amounts and the future amounts.

    Anyone who argues that increase CO2 does not cause warming or who argues that the current increases in CO2 are mostly or completely natural is not a thorough scientist (e.g. ignoring carbon isotope evidence that strongly connects atmospheric CO2 with fossil fuels). Since that is a well established scientific fact the consequences of that increased CO2 can be studied and policy decisions made based on those consequences. As shown in the link in 13, the consequences of increases can also be predicted through experiments and similar policy decisions can be debated.

    As I said above, I would like to see evidence that “the collapse of many ocean ecosystems will be irreversible” at CO2 over 450 ppm. Experiments with marine environments and 450ppm air should be easy to perform. I would like to read the results of those experiments.

  34. Let the record show that Eric D. Peterson has claimed that “certainty in science is impossible.”

    It is hard to believe isn’t it?

    Not at all. It is a matter of record.

  35. Eric (skeptic)

    Let me rephrase that a little: “certainty is the antithesis of science”

  36. “certainty is the antithesis of science.”

    Is that an Eric D. Peterson original? I’ll bet it is!

    As for “certainty in science” –

    “Everything is determined…by forces over which we have no control.”
    Albert Einstein

    That is the antithesis of “certainty is the antithesis of science.”

    It doesn’t get any better than this.

    I love it so!

  37. Eric (skeptic)

    Certainty was Einstein’s downfall. You are perhaps equating determinism and certainty. Even if everything is determined (which I cannot argue for or against), it does not mean we understand everything with certainty. When I refer to lack of certainty, I am only talking about our own individual lack of understanding (perhaps that is why we disagree since you understand more of science than I do).

    Science is based on the preponderance of evidence for which there can never be certainty. Evidence is made up of the parts of reality that we can observe ourselves (with increasing amounts of certainty up to 100% for our own existence and identity) and those parts of reality or explanations that fit into a coherent depiction of reality (which is really science).

    To give some specific examples, the preponderance of evidence such as isotope analysis suggests that the primary contributor to the modern increase in CO2 is man’s burning of fossil fuels.

    Another example is warming from CO2. There are numerous examples of natural fluctuations but there is ample evidence that CO2 causes greenhouse warming. The CO2 warming can be demonstrated with simple closed experiments. The enhanced warming due to water vapor feedback cannot because it is dependent on weather which distributes the water vapor. The only way to determine the enhanced warming (otherwise called sensitivity) is to fully understand the nature of weather in its role of distributing water vapor, particularly in the tropics at the boundary layer in the mesoscale.

    There are lots of people who claim to have more certainty in that particular matter than they actually have either through faulty analysis of their own, or by trusting other’s fault analyses. That is their downfall.

  38. Eric D. Peterson

    I find it hilarious that you regard Einstein’s lifelnng determinism as his downfall. Determinism MEANS certainty which you do not seem to grasp. I find your philosophy to be empty and useless. I have little respect for philosophy, sharing that sentiment with Einstein as well –

    “Upon reading books on philosophy, I learned that I stood there like a blind man in front of a painting. I can grasp only the inductive method…the works of speculative philosophy are beyond my reach.”

    Apparently you don’t believe in absolute truth. I do. Science is the search for and the discovery of absolute truths. We are poles apart so I see no point in continuing this fruitless philosophical exercise.

    “Here I stand. I can do no otherwise.”
    Martin Luther

  39. Eric (skeptic)

    Thanks for clarifying your philosophy. In the future I will end all my discussions at post such as my #33, and avoid straying into philosophy. My non-philosophical answer to your question in #34 is yes, I lack certainty on my AGW and related positions.

  40. Until you start revealing your identity no one will pay any attention to you. Trust me or better yet, don’t.



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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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