The Reef Abides

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

I love the coral reefs of the planet. In my childhood on a dusty cattle ranch in the Western US, I decorated my mental imaginarium of the world with images of unbelievably colored reefs below white sand beaches, with impossibly shaped fish and strange, brilliant plants. But when I finally first got to dive on the reefs, some forty years ago now, I found that my wildest imagination was only a pale, sickly phantasm compared to the real reef, the real beach, and the real sea life around it. It is a marvel of rioting color and exploding life where I have spent many happy hours, mesmerized.

Figure 1. Thousands of different types of living creatures together form the coral reef environment. SOURCE

Unfortunately, coral reefs are supposed to be threatened by increasing CO2. It’s supposed to make the various animals’ carbonate skeletons and shells dissolve, by decreasing the “pH” of the ocean (pH is a measure of relative alkalinity/acidity) and thus making the seas more neutral than they are today. Careful chemical calculations based on the complex carbonate chemistry of the ocean are said to prove that, no question. Aquarium tests are said to have shown it beyond a doubt, with statistically significant results. The claim has been repeated ad nauseam … and yet the reefs are thriving where they are not impacted by true threats like pollution and coral mining and curiously, the killing of parrotfish.

I have long held that the chemistry of the ocean was not ruled by the chemical energetics of the hundreds of various reversible reactions. That is the generally held view, that the ocean is ruled by chemistry. I hold the contrasting view, that the chemistry is not the last link in the chain. I say that the chemistry of the ocean is in turn ruled by life, and not the other way around as is the common assumption.

An early piece of evidence that shaped this view was when I found out that the pH of the water over a reef is not driven by chemistry, nor by the partial pressure of CO2 in the air. It is driven by the reef itself, which is a net producer of CO2. In other words, the biological products of the reef creatures themselves cause the water over the reef to move from more to less alkaline, often on a short time span. In one study the pH of the reef water changed by one full pH unit (1000% change) in 12 hours … and yet climate researchers breathlessly forecast dire consequences from much smaller pH changes than that spread out over a century, not 12 hours. From my experience with life in the ocean, and from my research, I am much more confident in the adaptability and tenacity of life than those researchers seem to be.

Figure 2. Cross section through a coral colony showing the living polyps, along with the carbonate skeleton built by the polyp. SOURCE

So I was interested to come across a research paper (paywalled, alas) with the unwieldy name of “Acclimation to ocean acidification during long-term CO2 exposure in the cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa.” 

Abstract

Ocean acidity has increased by 30% since preindustrial times due to the uptake of anthropogenic CO2 and is projected to rise by another 120% before 2100 if CO2 emissions continue at current rates. Ocean acidification is expected to have wide-ranging impacts on marine life, including reduced growth and net erosion of coral reefs. Our present understanding of the impacts of ocean acidification on marine life, however, relies heavily on results from short-term CO2 perturbation studies.

Here we present results from the first long-term CO2 perturbation study on the dominant reef-building cold-water coral Lophelia pertusa and relate them to results from a short-term study to compare the effect of exposure time on the coral’s responses. Short-term (one week) high CO2 exposure resulted in a decline of calcification by 26-29% for a pH decrease of 0.1 units and net dissolution of calcium carbonate.

In contrast, L. pertusa was capable to acclimate to acidified conditions in long-term (six months) incubations, leading to even slightly enhanced rates of calcification. Net growth is sustained even in waters sub-saturated with respect to aragonite. Acclimation to seawater acidification did not cause a measurable increase in metabolic rates. This is the first evidence of successful acclimation in a coral species to ocean acidification, emphasizing the general need for long-term incubations in ocean acidification research. To conclude on the sensitivity of cold-water coral reefs to future ocean acidification further ecophysiological studies are necessary which should also encompass the role of food availability and rising temperatures.

I don’t have the full paper yet, but let me briefly discuss the abstract. The main message I see there is, the reef abides. The plants and animals of the ocean abide. The creatures that form carbonate shells and structures are tough and tenacious, they can do things we haven’t imagined. Their lifespan is often short enough to allow for evolution in human rather than geological time. They are able to change and modify, to adapt in response to changing water conditions. In addition, a healthy reef contains not just the dominant species in any given ecological niche, but a host of competing species. If it gets a bit warmer or colder, this alters the balance of the reef’s major simbionts, emphasizing a better-adapted competitor, and the reef keeps going. Even the “bleaching” events so feted by doomsayers are only minor occurrences in the reef’s geological history. Drill down, this has happened in the past. It is the extreme end of the scale of how the reef adapts to changing conditions. It gets rid of its symbionts wholesale, and starts over again. But the reef abides.

Next, a nitpick. The correct description for their claim is that the ocean waters have become more neutral. They have not become “more acidic” as the paper claims. They have moved towards neutrality. They have to pass through neutrality before they can start getting “more acidic”, and the ocean is a long ways from that.

Finally, I doubt greatly that we have anywhere near enough data to make the statement that “Ocean acidity has increased by 30% since preindustrial times”. See the second link above (repeated here http://wattsupwiththat.com/2010/06/19/the-electric-oceanic-acid-test/ ) for some of the very scarce real data.

I’ll update this if I can get a copy of the paywalled paper from my undersea connections …

[UPDATE—A denizen of the sub-aquatic world has tapped a trans-oceanic undersea fiber optic cable and sent me the paper, my thanks as always to Davey Jones. My comments follow.]

First, their statement about the so-called increase in ocean acidity is repeated in the body of the paper, but without citation … not good. They assert, without any evidence, that:

Presently the ocean takes up about 25 % of man-made CO2, which has led to a decrease in seawater pH of 0.1 units since 1800.

As mentioned above, that’s sketchy, observations of ocean pH are very scarce. Other than that, however, it is a fascinating paper. The experiment is very well described. They went down in a submersible and picked the coral branches, to assure good specimens and avoid damaging the reef. And also because it would be an awesome trip. They grew the specimens in their lab. Care to know what coral eat? Brine shrimp babies, that’s what, and not only that, they eat them alive, the heartless monsters.

The corals were fed twice a week with live Artemia franciscana (Premium, Sanders) nauplii and once a week with defrosted Cyclops (AD068, amtra Aquaristik) or ground fish flakes (TetraMarine Flakes, Tetra).

So. They did the short-term experiment using air with different amounts of CO2 above the water. The levels they chose were 509, 605, 856, and 981 µatmospheres (approximately, ppmv). This range starts with CO2 levels at about twice the pre-industrial values, and ends at around a thousand ppmv, a level which is extremely unlikely to be reached in this century.

In the short-term experiment (a week), the coral polyps fared very poorly. They failed to thrive, and at the higher levels, the corals’ carbonate skeletons were being eaten away by the high-CO2 water.

Then they did the long-term experiment, ramping up to the higher levels over a period of a few months. In this regard, there is a very revealing comment.

At the beginning, all CRS [the “closed recirculating systems” containing the coral] were supplied with ambient air with a pCO2 level of approx. 406 µatm. After taking water samples for TA [total alkalinity], DIC [dissolved inorganic carbon], and nutrients and measurements of the physicochemical water parameters (temperature, pH, salinity), sampling, the physicochemical parameters (salinity, pH, temperature) of each reactor were monitored by inserting a multi sensor device (Multi350i, WTW) into a small opening in the lid. During incubations, pH and pCO2 [partial pressure of CO2] can change differently in each bioreactor depending on rates of respiration and calcification of the enclosed coral branches. Therefore, the carbonate system parameters (pH, pCO2, ΩAr) and growth rates were calculated separately for each bioreactor.

In other words, what I said above—chemistry is being ruled by life, and not the other way around. The pH and the pCO2 are not simply functions of the amount of CO2 in the overlying air. They are functions of the reef and the reef life itself.

There were other interesting outcomes. In the short-term experiments, there is a statistically significant correlation between increasing CO2 and decreasing calcification rates (growth rates). As CO2 went up, growth went down, and coral skeletons were actually being eroded at the highest CO2 levels. This is a great example of how a statistically significant result can be entirely wrong because the experiment itself is conceptually flawed. The results are statistically significant … but meaningless.

Because in the long-term experiment (six months), the opposite occurred. The corals, once they had time to adapt to the change in pH and CO2 levels, did very well. The study reports:

Growth rates in the long-term experiment (LTE) did not follow the negative trend with increasing pCO2 observed in the short-term incubation. Instead, growth rate, which was comparable to that of the control treatment in the short-term experiment, stayed high at elevated CO2 levels. … Surprisingly, corals maintained in waters sub-saturated with respect to aragonite (CRS3, Tables 4 & 5) displayed the highest average Gr of 1.88 ± 1.34 × 10-2 % d-1. Positive net calcification in waters corrosive to aragonite was also confirmed by measurements of total alkalinity repeatedly performed over the course of the incubation, showing a continuous decrease during the long-term incubation in the highest CO2 treatment. There was no statistically significant relationship between average growth rates and pCO2 concentrations (Kruskal-Wallis ANOVA on ranks, H = 1.46, P = 0.482).

I want to expand on a couple of their statements. First, even when the chemistry predicted that the ocean waters would actively erode and dissolve the coral skeleton … it didn’t happen. In waters where it should have dissolved, it didn’t.

But the most important finding was the final one, which I can paraphrase as:

Coral growth rates are not related to CO2 levels.

It’s not even that CO2 doesn’t affect growth levels much. They’re not related at all. As the paper said,

There was no statistically significant relationship between average growth rates and pCO2 concentrations

Even the highest CO2 levels tested, far above anything in the coming century, couldn’t stop the corals from growing, heck, it didn’t even slow them down. In other words, life wins out once more, against all odds. Gotta love it.

w.

PS—for those interested in the carbonate chemistry of the ocean, there’s a great calculator here.

105 thoughts on “The Reef Abides

  1. fail…..you can’t change the pH without running out of buffer
    you can only do this when you don’t replenish the buffer, like in an aquarium

    …are they stupid enough to think the oceans are going to run out of carbonate? C(arbon)O2?

    They would be shocked if they had any idea how fast things change in an estuary….
    ….yet, the very same people will tell you how we have to preserve estuaries because estuaries are the most productive of all

    These people are morons………………..

  2. I think it shows that if CO2 levels doubled tomorrow, we would have problems. Over the next hundred years, not so much. Unintended consequences in reverse?

  3. “Thus it is seen that a polyp is an animal of very simple structure, a living fossil that has not changed significantly for about half a billion years (per generally accepted dating of Cambrian sedimentary rock).”

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polyp

    History of CO2 levels over the last 500 million years:

    So, we can see, the CAGW scientists AND the MSM once again collaborate and knowingly spread untruths about those little creatures who managed to get along just fine all this time. Probably it still has all the genes it needs to adapt to a lot more CO2 than we can throw at it.

  4. When did modern corals first appear?

    What was the atmospheric CO2 concentration at that time?

    I looked into that once and I believe I learned that atmospheric CO2 concentrations when modern corals first appeared were about 5x today’s levels.

  5. Just a comment about the “rapid evolution” you suggest: I would think that the genetic resources required to deal with a wide variety of pH levels would already be present in the genome, requiring only to be activated/de-activated at need with epigenetic methylation, etc. The survival payoff for that would be so high that it almost has to have been developed over the hundreds of thousands of millennia these critters have survived.

  6. Congratualtions Willis – this article shows you at your very best – fascinating insight and a great analysis of a scientific subject.
    Just a couple of very minor typos….”picked to coral branches” – to = two? and lso because – lso = also?

  7. @Willis: I would qualify your conclusion; coral growth rate is not related to CO2 over the range they tested. At some point, way above what anyone expects in the atmosphere, the coral might have trouble compensating.

    This makes you wonder if corals are derived from extremophiles. I don’t remember an coral around sea vents, though.

  8. “Their lifespan is often short enough to allow for evolution in human rather than geological time”

    I am sorry, but that is simply not true. You misunderstand the elasticity of an organism, a property that evolved. Take a human, with an average pre-medical world the lifespan was about 35 years. We have evolved to survive an insult that is likely to occur about 1 time in a hundred years.
    We are very adaptable, move from somewhere cold to sunny, you get a tan. Do it the other way, you skin lightens and you burn more food in thermogenesis. Move up a mountain and your Red Blood Cell count will shoot up in a few weeks.
    Elasticity is a property of living organisms. Your live had the ability to metabolize and detoxify compounds that have never existed. It is very hard to envision that the corals, which have been around for a few billion years, can’t deal with a bit of a CO2 or pH change.
    Actually doing the experiment in a fish tank is probably not par for the course.

  9. Sounds to me that they made and twisted version of a calcium reactor used by many reef hobbyist. The only study I have been able to find showed a drop in pH of .0017. Not sure how that becomes 30%.

    In a healthy established tank it is easy to swing from 7.9 morning no lights to 8.5 after the lights have been on several hours. The corals and algaes metabolism is driving the chemistry, not the other way around. A new tank with no growth does not do this to these levels. It also take close to 6 months for a system to be considered a mature tank. I also can not see how they could have set up control tanks. Every tank is unique. How a system like this responds is not to different they the chaotic system of the climate. There is no way to create two identical reef systems, not gonna happen.

    But this again is another what “if” study.

  10. Acid Oceans, Osteoporosis of the Sea: the Failed Global Warming Scare

    Willie Soon ,Annual Meeting of the Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, held June 12, 2010 in Orlando, Florida.

  11. Willis,

    What wondered me for a long time is why corals and coccoliths could build thick layers of chalk in over 100 million years during the Cretaceous, with levels of CO2 in the atmosphere 10-12 times the current levels, without problems, while many lab experiments did show a failing population/calciferation at 2-3xCO2.

    Thus the coccoliths and corals were taken to high levels of CO2 in too short time. If given enough time (even a few months is extremely fast in geological times), they just thrive as long before. Nice to know that… Thanks for the new knowledge!

    Some background:
    http://www.noc.soton.ac.uk/soes/staff/tt/eh/ about coccoliths
    http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1134/is_10_116/ai_n27460188/ about the Florida underground

  12. Coral seem to adapt by the company they keep: fellow travelers sort of speak. In the Arabian Sea, higher water temperatures are matched with saprophytic organisms that sustain the coral. On the Great Barrier Reef, the saprophytic organisms are, different. Each saprophytes providing nutrients to coral development. Corals go through episodes of bleaching and rebound. Corals have been around for billion’s of years. Man is going to kill off corral without an ecological fight? Hardly.

  13. “The corals were fed twice a week with live Artemia franciscana (Premium, Sanders) nauplii and once a week with defrosted Cyclops (AD068, amtra Aquaristik) or ground fish flakes (TetraMarine Flakes, Tetra).”

    So what measure were taken to assure the corals and therefore the experiment didn’t suffer due to changing food and feeding rituals, wouldn’t you be able to claim otherwise that the corals didn’t really adapt to CO2 or anything acidity or what not, but merely due to their new food and or meagre food and starvation situation, just like most animals, and humans, would. It is, apparently, all about depending on when to reserve and when to spend energy, which the body has to learn which takes different amounts of time for different species and some such.

    And also I would ask has there actually been even one coral reef having died due to local or global climatic causes, i.e. and not by the usual well meaning nature lovers who tend to poke everything to death?

  14. Willis is right. It has almost nothing to do with lifeless inorganic carbon chemistry and everything to do with these living organisms manipulating carbon biologically and using the carbon in biochemical ways, which includes biological pumping that pushes reactions in the opposite direction to which they go in lifeless chemistry.

    The only thing an ocean with more DIC (dissolved inorganic carbon) will certainly do is to dissolve dead calcifying organisms quicker. Who cares about dead organisms? Any inductive leap as to what would happen in living organisms is totally and completely fallacious.

    Lots more in my older post including (or especially!) in the associated comments and replies to comments:

    http://buythetruth.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/toxic-seawater-fraud/

  15. Sorry, but I have to nitpick your nitpick. Since the lowering of pH is caused by the addition of protons, it can be described as becoming “more acidic” regardless of what the initial pH is. A solution that drops from pH 4 to pH 3.5 has become more acidic, that much is clear. But also, a solution that drops from pH 10 to pH 9.5 has also become more acidic, even though it may also be accurately described as becoming more neutral.

    I would also think that the biology and the chemistry of the oceans affect each other, and not necessarily that one always causes effects in the other. Then again, I have no data to support this, so maybe I’m completely off.

  16. “Ocean acidity has increased by 30% since preindustrial times due to the uptake of anthropogenic CO2 and is projected to rise by another 120% before 2100 if CO2 emissions continue at current rates.”

    Huh? How is this calculated? 30% of what?

  17. There are ‘coral reef gaps’ in the geological record corresponding to mass extinctions, when many coral species, and coral reefs, vanished. (There are also coal gaps as well, times when many land plants died out-such as end Permian, where we have a distiinct coal gap in Australia-I have actually seen this boundary in drill core). However, one important thing not mentioned by the AGW brigade, is that these coral reef gaps took MILLIONS of years to come about. So the oceans and corals are resilient and adaptable, but obviously not infinitely so.

    So the corals will adapt for some time, what we humans do probably wont make the slightest difference or quite a while.

  18. crosspatch says:
    October 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    When did modern corals first appear?

    ===========

    What’s a “modern coral”? FWIW, The oldest known reef forming corals are Middle Ordovician (480 million years ago). There’s no reason to believe that their behavior re CO2 is any different than “modern” corals.

    ===========

    What was the atmospheric CO2 concentration at that time?

    I looked into that once and I believe I learned that atmospheric CO2 concentrations when modern corals first appeared were about 5x today’s levels.

    ============

    I wouldn’t put overly much faith in paleo CO2 proxies. They are probably fairly inaccurate. It’s not like there is anything much to calibrate them against.

    I wouldn’t normally link to Real Climate because I think there is way too much climatology as a religion there, but I’ll make an exception in this case. http://www.realclimate.org/index.php/archives/2008/01/the-debate-is-just-beginning-on-the-cretaceous/

    If you add “we probably don’t understand the role of CO2 in climate very well either” to the catalog of other mysteries and peculiarities in the article, you come up with a probably stronger version of their conclusion “There are things going on with [Cretaceous/Early Tertiary] climate [you …we] don’t begin to understand. Proceed with caution.”

    I have not read all the comments on the Real Climate post, but I think you’ll find some information in them. Just ignore their occasional rude remarks about skeptics. You can attribute it to a combination of muddy thinking and poor upbringing. Personally I think the quality of their science would be improved by more listening and less talking, but that’s probably true on all sides of the debate.

  19. jae says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm
    “Huh? How is this calculated? 30% of what?”

    Concentration of ions varies by about 30% when the pH changes by 0.3; the pH scale is the base 10 logarithm of the ion concentration.

  20. Jimmy says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Sorry, but I have to nitpick your nitpick. Since the lowering of pH is caused by the addition of protons, it can be described as becoming “more acidic” regardless of what the initial pH is.

    ===========

    That’s the way I learned it also, and I really do have a BS in Chemistry. However, there are some battles that probably aren’t worth fighting.

  21. DocMartyn says:
    October 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm
    ““Their lifespan is often short enough to allow for evolution in human rather than geological time”

    I am sorry, but that is simply not true. You misunderstand the elasticity of an organism, a property that evolved. ”

    DocMartyn is right. A multicellular organism like a polyp has a too long generation span to react so quickly; only a bacterium with a 30 minute generation time could be expected to breed new qualities so fast. And even bacteria only by exchanging gene snippets and mixing their genome with neighbours all the time.

    My guess is that the environemtal factors during the young life stages of a polyp influence its development, turning some genes on and others off, so that a grown up polyp is not flexible enough anymore to adapt to rapid pH changes but the young are.

    Such a mechanism would be enough to make the polyps survive through geological times, and also practical when colonising new areas with different environmental influences. After the young polyp settles down, it wouldn’t need to adapt that much anymore.

  22. sorry,,,cannot resist a quote from the 1930s film of HG Wells’s marvellous book – The Island Of Doctor Moreau: “are we not men!”

    Fact…there are more things in heaven and earth than we can even contemplate

  23. Excellent post Willis!
    I do have one nitpick in addition to the one Jimmy covered: “pH is a measure of relative alkalinity/acidity”

    While I agree that is the common use language, pH is technically a measure of the H+ ion in solution and “Alkalinity” is a measure of the amount of H+ ions that could be added to the solution without increasing the H+ ion concentration, basically, the relative ability of a solution to resist pH changes. A solution can have a high alkalinity and be acidic, but it cannot be both alkaline (pH greater than 7) and acidic (pH less than 7), unless you consider neutral to be both instead of neither. (ie: Alkalinity is not to alkaline what acidity is to acid.)

    As for the use of the term “ocean acidification”, I too think its abhorrent! While it is technically accurate, it is almost certainly intentionally misleading to the public at large.

    Sorry for the high nitpicky-ness quotient, just FWIW.

  24. ” the pH of the reef water changed by one full pH unit (100% change) in 12 hours …” Wouldn’t a full pH unit be a 1000% change?

  25. The regular posts on this site are always interesting and the discussion, though often predictable, is equally stimulating. Keep in mind that predictable is not a criticism.

    However, the greatest value to me is the utility of this, and several other sites, in making my life so much easier by identifying published literature of interest. Even if it is pay-walled, for those of us with direct access to a in-house science library, a simple cut, past, e-mail to the librarian (very special people), and there it is on my chair, often the same day, never longer than 2 or 3.

    WUWT (Anthony) and the regular contributors (you know who you are) offers this as a great service!!! Thanks.

  26. Do we know if oceans have more CO2 in them they the did 30 years ago.
    Said differently does ocean water of the same temperature in the middle of the ocean say 100 feet below the surface have more CO2 in it.
    And [seems obvious] can that CO2 be measured as accurately as CO2 in the air is measured.

    If CO2 have risen, if CO2 in ocean can be measured as accurately as atmospheric air. Why
    do measure CO2 on a volcanic mountain in Hawaii?

  27. I have one huge problem with Willise’s article, and that is that, of course, we know it cannot be true. Lets look at that…

    We know that there has been far more CO2 in the past.
    We know that too much CO2 will kill all the coral, the science is settled.
    Therefore the CO2 in the past killed all the coral.
    Therefore there is no coral.

    This must be some sort of giant, world wide lie, convincing us that coral exists, (my guess, it’s done by the tourist industry, they manufacture the stuff and paint it in bright colors.) You know, like the one that told us that we went to the moon, when everyone knows that it was all done in a hollywood studio.

    Man, making all that fake coral must be a lot of work!

    But seriously, I doubt that their experiment can be totally realistic because…
    CO2 invigorates plant growth.
    Plankton is a plant.
    Invigorated plankton will suck CO2 out of the atmosphere, reducing it, rather than it staying steady as in this experiment.
    (Too much of that will result in the too low amounts of CO2 we had 200 years ago).
    Plankton is the start of the food chain, so the rest of the life will also be invigorated.
    Coral is part of the food chain, so it is also likely to be invigorated.

    Basically, to do the experiment right, they need to feed the coral more as CO2 goes up.

  28. I have not read all the comments on the Real Climate post

    I haven’t read any of them. I avoid that site as it tends to be an agenda site that doesn’t take a discussion seriously that doesn’t validate it’s position.

    By “modern corals” I mean Scleractinia. They appear in the fossil record in the middle Triassic. There is a 14 million year gap between them and any earlier corals. For about 14 million years there is no record of any skeletal corals but there may have been some soft-bodied corals that survived the Permian mass extinction and evolved into skeletal corals. All of the species that existed prior to the Permian extinction event disappear and do not reappear after.

  29. Jeff D says (October 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm): “It also take close to 6 months for a system to be considered a mature tank. I also can not see how they could have set up control tanks. Every tank is unique.”

    Perhaps at the end of the first experimental period the researchers could take the high-CO2 tanks gradually to lower levels, and lower-CO2 tanks to higher levels, as a control. Maybe they’re doing that as we write.

  30. Brian H says:
    October 25, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    Just a comment about the “rapid evolution” you suggest: I would think that the genetic resources required to deal with a wide variety of pH levels would already be present in the genome, requiring only to be activated/de-activated at need with epigenetic methylation, etc. The survival payoff for that would be so high that it almost has to have been developed over the hundreds of thousands of millennia these critters have survived.

    LIkely quite right. After millions of years the odds are that they’ve been there and done that. My point is that if they haven’t, a creature with a few year lifetime might pack thirty or forty generations into a hundred years, and that’s plenty for some survival of the way coolest …

    w.

  31. JDN says:
    October 25, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    @Willis: I would qualify your conclusion; coral growth rate is not related to CO2 over the range they tested. At some point, way above what anyone expects in the atmosphere, the coral might have trouble compensating.

    Agreed. But the tests went beyond anything expected anytime soon.

    w.

  32. “DirkH says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:27 pm
    Concentration of ions varies by about 30% when the pH changes by 0.3; the pH scale is the base 10 logarithm of the ion concentration.”

    I usually agree with you, but this time I beg to differ. If the pH is 8.0, then the H+ concentration is 1.0 x 10^-8 mol/L. If this is increased by 30% then the H+ concentration becomes 1.3 x 10^-8 mol/L. The log of this number is 7.886, so the change of pH is only a decrease of 0.114.

    I DO agree with:
    “MaineIdea says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    ” the pH of the reef water changed by one full pH unit (100% change) in 12 hours …” Wouldn’t a full pH unit be a 1000% change?”

    Werner Brozek (retired science teacher)

  33. So basically, skeletal corals evolved twice on Earth and both times were when CO2 concentrations were much higher than today. While I do not necessarily place perfect confidence in CO2 proxies, I have enough general confidence to say that CO2 levels were much higher in the past when biodiversity was much greater than it is today. It doesn’t matter if they were 4x or 6x higher, just that they were significantly higher.

    All of the CO2 we add to the atmosphere from burning fossil fuel was CO2 that was removed from the atmosphere. In other words, we are simply putting it back. It would eventually be put back anyway as crust is recycled. A volcano erupting through a major oil field would put a lot of it back in a hurry and it probably has at times in the past.

    CO2 is constantly taken out of the atmosphere so over time its concentration drops. It is fairly obvious that over millions of years the amount of CO2 decreases in the atmosphere. If it didn’t gymnosperms would still be the dominant tree species on Earth instead of angiosperms. Our burning of fossil fuel gradually turns the atmospheric concentration of CO2 back to what it was in earlier times. In many ways we are giving many species a new lease on life. CO2 depletion has probably been giving many species a difficult time (Araucaria, for example) and taking some of this stored CO2 and releasing it back into the atmosphere is quite likely making things better for more species than it is making things worse for.

  34. jae says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:12 pm

    “Ocean acidity has increased by 30% since preindustrial times due to the uptake of anthropogenic CO2 and is projected to rise by another 120% before 2100 if CO2 emissions continue at current rates.”

    Huh? How is this calculated? 30% of what?

    It’s just obfuscation, Jae. They claim, without citation or attribution, that the pH decreased by 0.1.

    Since pH is a logarithmic scale, an increment of 0.1 is about a 26% increase, which they’ve rounded up to 30%. And curiously, a decrement of 0.1 is only a 20% decrease, because you’re starting with the larger number. So their 30% is a rounded version of 26%, which in turn is an error for 20% … in a system which is measured logarithmically for a good reason—because percentages don’t mean much when we’re speaking of pH.

    In any case, that’s my explanation.

    w.

  35. Willis,

    Nice post.

    You are not the only one that has observed that mere chemistry doesn’t dictate sea water buffering capacity, and I say this as a chemist.

    I’ve sparred a time or two in the blogosphere about this, and people who claim supreme accuracy for ocean pH measurement often struggle to supply me with a reference that is ironclad. Among those that were offered up was this one:

    http://www.jodc.go.jp/info/ioc_doc/Experts/120608eo.pdf#8**

    In Annex III, you can see a detailed discussion of the inability to match results between “real” seawater and “artificial” seawater. It seems the buffering chemistry of “real” seawater is difficult to replicate. My simple mind tends to believe that there may very well be some “biological” buffering going on that is not accounted for in the very careful attempts to develop accurate ocean pH measuring techniques.

    Anyway, a couple of other points:

    You wrote:

    In one study the pH of the reef water changed by one full pH unit (100% change)

    As MaineIdea alludes to, since the pH scale is a log function, one unit is a factor of ten, or 1000% (I suppose there are some purists that say a ten-fold increase is an increase of 900%, but I’ll leave that one go for now.)

    Jeff D says: October 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Sounds to me that they made and twisted version of a calcium reactor used by many reef hobbyist. The only study I have been able to find showed a drop in pH of .0017. Not sure how that becomes 30%.

    Again, pH is a log scale (actually, negative log).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PH

    It is estimated that the ocean pH has dropped ~0.1 pH unit since the 1800s (based on calculations using carbonate/bicarbonate equilibrium constants and the increase in atmospheric CO2).
    So…
    pH 8.2; hydrogen ion concentration = 10^-8.2 = 6.3e-9 molar
    pH 8.1: hydrogen ion concentration = 10^-8.1 = 7.9e-9 molar
    This is an increase of about 25-30% in hydrogen ion content.

    BTW, regarding ocean “acidification”, your tax dollars at work (go to ~5:00 min).

  36. Don K says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:30 pm

    Jimmy says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Sorry, but I have to nitpick your nitpick. Since the lowering of pH is caused by the addition of protons, it can be described as becoming “more acidic” regardless of what the initial pH is.

    ===========

    That’s the way I learned it also, and I really do have a BS in Chemistry. However, there are some battles that probably aren’t worth fighting.

    Technically, yes. But as an actual description that conveys a meaning, no. The ocean is alkaline. Life doesn’t do well with alkaline. That’s one reason why fish are covered in mucus, and why they used to put lye in mass graves.

    So in terms of the words as they affect life, the problem is that generally for living things, movement towards neutral is a good thing, regardless of whether it’s heading more or less acidic. And moving away from neutral is a bad thing, again whether it’s more or less acidic.

    As a result, the scientifically correct term “acidifying” conveys entirely the wrong meaning. The impression is that we are moving towards a bad state, acidity. The equally accurate terms, “becoming more neutral”, or “moving towards neutrality”, convey the actual meaning, which is that we are moving towards a good or at least a neutral state.

    “More neutral” is likely not to be a bad thing for the ocean. “Acidic” would be a dangerous state.

    So while you guys are 100% correct, this is one time where scientific jargon is dangerously misleading the public. As such, I fight for an equally correct, but more … ahem … neutral terminology.

    My thanks to both of you,

    w.

  37. Some folks have said that thirty or forty generations is far to short for the polyps to evolve to meet new conditions. Let me offer this, from Science magazine article “Rapid Evolution of Reproductive Isolation in the Wild: Evidence from Introduced Salmon”

    Colonization of new environments should promote rapid speciation as a by-product of adaptation to divergent selective regimes. Although this process of ecological speciation is known to have occurred over millennia or centuries, nothing is known about how quickly reproductive isolation actually evolves when new environments are first colonized. Using DNA microsatellites, population-specific natural tags, and phenotypic variation, we tested for reproductive isolation between two adjacent salmon populations of a common ancestry that colonized divergent reproductive environments (a river and a lake beach). We found evidence for the evolution of reproductive isolation after fewer than 13 generations.

    There’s many more articles on the subject, but that should lay to rest the idea that thirty or forty generations is not enough to see evolution at work.

    w.

  38. MaineIdea says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    ” the pH of the reef water changed by one full pH unit (100% change) in 12 hours …” Wouldn’t a full pH unit be a 1000% change?

    Could be. Each unit is ten times as large, so yes, that would be right … highlights the foolishness of using percentages in a logarithmic system. I’ll change it.

    w.

  39. Philip Finck says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    The regular posts on this site are always interesting and the discussion, though often predictable, is equally stimulating. Keep in mind that predictable is not a criticism.

    However, the greatest value to me is the utility of this, and several other sites, in making my life so much easier by identifying published literature of interest. Even if it is pay-walled, for those of us with direct access to a in-house science library, a simple cut, past, e-mail to the librarian (very special people), and there it is on my chair, often the same day, never longer than 2 or 3.

    WUWT (Anthony) and the regular contributors (you know who you are) offers this as a great service!!! Thanks.

    You’re welcome, Philip, and that’s why my articles are cited including the paywalled stuff.

    w.

  40. Gary Hladik says:
    October 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Jeff D says (October 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm): “It also take close to 6 months for a system to be considered a mature tank. I also can not see how they could have set up control tanks. Every tank is unique.”

    Perhaps at the end of the first experimental period the researchers could take the high-CO2 tanks gradually to lower levels, and lower-CO2 tanks to higher levels, as a control. Maybe they’re doing that as we write.

    Oh, ye of little faith. The short term experiment.

    In a first set of CO2 perturbation experiments, we exposed L. pertusa to four pCO2 levels for 8 days. For this purpose, branches consisting of, on average, 30 polyps per branch were transferred to 2 litre acrylic glass cylinders (bioreactors). The bioreactors were filled each with 2,000 ml filtered (0.2 µm) natural seawater (salinity: 33.4) and arranged in a water bath (9.0 ± 0.1 °C). Sixteen L. pertusa branches were randomly distributed into the bioreactors and an air lift for continuous water movement and carbonate system manipulation was attached in each bioreactor. Four bioreactors with coral samples (replicates) and one bioreactor without a sample (blank) were always grouped together by connecting their air lifts to the same gas source. By this means, four different pCO2 treatments of 509, 605, 856, and 981 µatm (corresponding to pH values of 8.029, 7.960, 7.827, and 7.768; Table 2) were realized. The CO2-air mixtures were supplied from high precision gas mixing pumps (Digamix 5KA, Wösthoff). After 24 hours of bubbling, pH measurements revealed that the different pCO2 levels were established and after six days of acclimation to the appropriate conditions (e.g. water flow, temperature) an initial water sample for dissolved inorganic carbon (DIC) and total alkalinity (TA) was taken from each bioreactor. The experiment was terminated at day eight after taking a second water sample to determine calcification rates.

    and the long-term experiment

    To test the long-term effects of ocean acidification on L. pertusa we conducted a second experiment in which the corals were exposed to three pCO2 levels for about half a year (178 days). Incubations were conducted in three independent closed recirculating systems (CRS), each with an identical set of the main components: six incubation tanks (55 l tank-1; covered by a glass plate), a water reservoir (170 l) with integrated biofilters (BNC tubes, Sander) and integrated skimmer (Bio-Compact-Skim, Sander), and a temperature control unit consisting of a 300 W titanium heater (Schego) and a thermostat (UT100, Conrad; accuracy ± 0.1 °C). All systems were running with natural seawater at 7.5 ± 0.1 °C and a salinity of 34.5 ± 0.5. Five tanks of each CRS were populated with single untreated L. pertusa branches (≈ 40 polyps branch-1), while the sixth tank was populated with two coral branches, stained with Alizarin Red S 20 days prior to the experiment (Figure 3). The staining was conducted in a separate tank (120 l) after Barnes (1970, 1972) using Alizarin Red S (Fluka) in seawater with a concentration of 5 mg l-1 for an incubation period of eight days.

    At the beginning, all CRS were supplied with ambient air with a pCO2 level of approx. 406 µatm. After taking water samples for TA, DIC, and nutrients and measurements of the physicochemical water parameters (temperature, pH, salinity), all CRS were connected with the 560 µatm CO2 channel of the IFM-GEOMAR inhouse gas mixing system. After one week, two CRS were changed to the 840 µatm CO2 channel and another week later, one CRS was connected with the 1120 µatm CO2 channel. At this stage all CRS had reached their target CO2 levels (corresponding to pH values of 7.944, 7.829, and 7.755; Table 4) and the regular incubation phase started. For additional sealing during the CO2 perturbation experiment, the incubation tanks and the water bath were covered with a polyethylene foil. Water inflow into the incubation tanks from the water reservoir was regulated by a valve (~ 80 l h-1) and water flow direction was fine-adjusted to achieve optimum extension of the polyps in each branch. During incubations the corals were treated with the same feeding regime as described above. Water quality and system performance were regularly checked and 10 – 15 % of the water was renewed every second to third week during the routine work on the CRS (bottom cleaning, filter replacements, etc.). Water volumes > 40 % were replaced twice in order to avoid accumulation of inorganic nutrients and other metabolic waste products. Aside from the time needed for measurements and system maintenance, experiments were carried out in darkness.

    w.

  41. Just to give you something else to think about, the vast majority of buffering systems have very strong temperature coefficients. Using mulitpul buffers things get very complciated very quickly, so the only thing to do is measure it.
    Here is a goody from 1969.

    EFFECT OF TEMPERATURE ON THE pH OF SEAWATER
    Joris M. Gieskes

    “The temperature coefficient of the pH of seawater, calculated from existing data on the
    carbonate system in seawater, is confirmed experimentally as +0.0114 pH units per degree
    Celsius at 1 atm pressure.”

    http://www.aslo.org/lo/toc/vol_14/issue_5/0679.pdf

  42. Well, as a chemist (although only a specialist in a very distant area), I would be very surprised if the CO2 levels in the air can make ANY significant difference to the pH of the oceans, considering the enormous buffering that is available in those oceans. Like Willis says sometimes, my BS meter is pegged, and I want to see some actual data, not more models and silly speculation. DATA.

    In fact, I think Josh should do a cartoon about this nonsense: maybe a cute little polyp battling a great big CO2 molecule…OK, corny.

    One certain thin in my mind is that the pseudoscientific “climate science” guys/gals are making their science (and maybe all science) look stupid!

    Noble Cause Corruption, indeed! But also a big helping of simple “Government Grant Corruption,” very similar to what Eisenhower warned about.

  43. crosspatch says:
    October 25, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I have not read all the comments on the Real Climate post

    I haven’t read any of them. I avoid that site as it tends to be an agenda site that doesn’t take a discussion seriously that doesn’t validate it’s position.

    =============

    I don’t disagree, but the post I cited is more speculative than most climate crap and seems to contain a pretty good summary of a lot of recently worked out puzzling data about Late Cretaceous and Early Tertiary phenomena — including a sudden, short, sea level drop (along the New Jersey shore) in the Upper Cretaceous that can only be explained by massive continental ice accumulations. At least if you are an adherent to “Climate science.” I really think that you might find it worth perusing.

    ==============

    By “modern corals” I mean Scleractinia. They appear in the fossil record in the middle Triassic. There is a 14 million year gap between them and any earlier corals. For about 14 million years there is no record of any skeletal corals but there may have been some soft-bodied corals that survived the Permian mass extinction and evolved into skeletal corals. All of the species that existed prior to the Permian extinction event disappear and do not reappear after.

    ===============

    The fossil record is REALLY full of holes. Witness the lack of Coelacanth fish between the Cretaceous and one turning up alive in South Africa 70 years ago. And more — different genus — in an Indonesian fish market a few years ago. These are BIG fish BTW not baitfish that one might overlook

    The Permian-Triassic extinction event was the most severe that we know of, and the shorelines and shelves of the world were unusually limited because of the continents having blundered together to form the Pangaean supercontinent. If you are not familiar with the Christopher Scotese’s Paleomap Project, it is worth checking out http://www.scotese.com/climate.htm

    Recolonization seems plausible. A possible source is deep water coral reefs. These reefs are poorly known even today. They are apparently quite extensive and the corals that build them are quite cold tolerant. Presumably the deep ocean basins have always been near freezing. The ocean basin environments where deep water corals are found are rarely preserved and pushed up onto the continents, so we don’t know how long the deep water corals have been around.

  44. Thus the coccoliths and corals were taken to high levels of CO2 in too short time. If given enough time (even a few months is extremely fast in geological times), they just thrive as long before. Nice to know that… Thanks for the new knowledge!

    The same thing happens with human beings. If you fly into Everest base camp and start climbing you have a much higher chance of dying of altitude sickness than if you walk in over a 2-4 week period before you start climbing.

  45. I have a friend who worked for CSIRO (she no longer works there). Her team did a study a couple of years ago on the Great Barrier Reef and their conclusions were very interesting. And so was CSIRO Board’s response to the study.

    Her team found that there was no evidence of damage to the GBR from lowering alkalinity (rising CO2 in the water) and found that in scenarios where alkalinity dropped, sea temperature rose and sea levels rose that the GBR actually flourished and would increase in size and diversity. They found the only evidence of damage was due to tourism, fishing and storms (cyclones). A further conclusion was that cyclones act as a “vacuum cleaner” of sorts on the GBR and cleans up the reef allowing a faster and stronger bounce-back (sort of like how bushfires rejuvenate forests).

    The CSIRO Board refused the paper to go public or published, cancelled the study and threatened dismissal if any on the team went public. They did not want the study to become publicly available and wanted to maintain their public message that human CO2 will destroy the GBR. I’m very happy to see reef studies like this coming out now as it validates the work my friend did whilst at CSIRO. I’m sure she will be very happy to hear of this.

  46. How did they lower pH with CO2 and still maintain bicarbonate levels high enough for the corals to lay down calcium carbonate?
    If the bicarbonate levels are high enough for that, you can’t lower pH with CO2.

    What the must be saying is that when CO2 levels rise high enough, long enough for the oceans to deplete all of it’s bicarbonate, corals don’t grow as fast………../snark

    ….or, in an aquarium, we can blast it with enough CO2 to deplete the buffer, and eventually lower the pH

    Do these morons realize that in order to lower the pH of the oceans, the oceans would have to run out of buffer ….and that won’t happen unless denitrification stops first…and if denitrification stops…no one will care what the pH is

  47. Alas, with Australia being home to the Great Barrier Reef, we are also home to the annual “the reef is dying” or “the reef will be dead in x years” from our well nurtured and very well funded Professor Ove Hoegh Guldberg.

    In 1999, Hoegh-Guldberg warned that the Great Barrier Reef was under pressure from global warming, and much of it had turned white.
    In fact, he later admitted the reef had made a “surprising” recovery.

    In 2006, he warned high temperatures meant “between 30 and 40 per cent of coral on Queensland’s great Barrier Reef could die within a month”.
    In fact, he later admitted this bleaching had “a minimal impact”.

    In 2007, he warned that temperature changes of the kind caused by global warming were again bleaching the reef.
    In fact, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network last week said there had been no big damage to the reef caused by climate change in the four years since its last report, and veteran diver Ben Cropp said this week that in 50 years he’d seen none at all.

  48. jae says:
    October 25, 2011 at 6:29 pm

    Well, as a chemist (although only a specialist in a very distant area), I would be very surprised if the CO2 levels in the air can make ANY significant difference to the pH of the oceans, considering the enormous buffering that is available in those oceans.

    ===============

    You could well be right. However, you need to keep in mind that the ocean is apparently near saturation in Ca++. And Calcium Carbonate is less soluble in warm water than cold but is also more soluble in acidic solutions than basic. So we potentially have this situation where warm oceans are trying to precipitate solid calcium carbonate while they absorb CO2 from the atmosphere forming 2H+ plus CO2– except that some of that is bicarbonate HCO3- and there are two crystal forms of CaCO3 with biological agents preferring to use the less stable form — Aragonite as well as or instead of Calcite.

    If you are somewhat smarter than I, you may be able to work all that out, make everything balance, and figure out exactly what the consequences of increasing atmospheric CO2 would be for shell forming organisms. I have to say that I don’t have the slightest idea on a purely chemical/physical state basis what will happen.

    I believe that once we get past the folks trying to simulate ocean acidification by adding Hydrochloric acid (not dumb exactly, but it won’t work), and get into experiments with injecting CO2 into sea water, we do find some affect on skeleton formation in corals — which is what Willis’ article is about, I believe. His point being that the corals quickly adjust to the new environment and go back to happily doing whatever it is that corals do.

  49. Don K
    October 25, 2011 at 4:24 pm

    crosspatch says:
    October 25, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    When did modern corals first appear?

    ===========

    What’s a “modern coral”? FWIW, The oldest known reef forming corals are Middle Ordovician (480 million years ago). There’s no reason to believe that their behavior re CO2 is any different than “modern” corals.

    ###

    Modern corals show up in the record during the Triassic.

  50. well did you ever – dry ice in tap water to change the pH

    thanks but in my little lagoon I’m having trouble getting my hands on enough C because not only is there so much much buffer but then all these other little critters are floating getting a better deal.

    And mind you I only want to do a home renovation.

    Can they do dry ice takeaway ?

  51. Good work Willis,
    This shows once again that careful analysis over the required (longish) time frame always disproves the scary fairy stories told by AGW avocates.

    “Over and over and over again, my friend,
    We’re certainly NOT on the eve of destruction”

  52. IIRC from readin a couple of papers on the subject, that Hoegh-Guldberg and his group(ies) are monitoring about 30 square metres of the GBR (Great Barrier Reef) to arrive at their conclusions. You have to read the paper to see the methodology.

    The GBR is made up of thousands of individual reefs stretching well over 2500 km, covering an area of over 300,000 square km. The monitoring sample isn’t even 1 ppm. it’s 0.0001 ppm. or one in 10 thousand million. There aren’t enough people on the planet to take a sample that small from the human population.

  53. BTW Willis: In Australia, the Prime Minister stated that the Great Barrier Reef is in danger of “assification”.

    And we’re supposed to pay a tax on carbon to prevent that. Culling feral donkeys in the region.would seem to be a more effective, direct approach. That would leave only the tourist asses to threaten the reef.

  54. The GBR will be dead as a doornail in a few thousand years anyway when a dropping sea level exposes it to the air. As we slide into the next glaciation, we will see sea levels drop and practically every single coral reef known today will be high and dry. Of course, new reefs will form, probably in the same places they existed in the last glaciation. But at the peak of the next glaciation, the current GBR will be some hundred meters above sea level.

  55. Don K, what you say may be true but it is completely irrelevant to the discussion. The point is that regardless of what the exact CO2 number was in the Triassic, it is agreed by all that it was significantly higher than it is now, about 5x higher is the generally agreed to number.

    And regardless of exactly how it came to be, the point is that corals of today’s sort of species first appear in the Triassic. You are attempting to drag bits of irrelevant information into the discussion to muddy the water when the fundamentals are quite clear and not in dispute. It doesn’t matter if modern corals appeared earlier or not, in fact, it would bolster my point because CO2 levels were even HIGHER earlier. In fact, it might have been a decline in CO2 levels that lead to some “great dying” if some fundamental bottom of the food chain species went extinct from lack of enough CO2.

    In fact, it will be CO2 depletion in the atmosphere that results in life on earth perishing long before the Sun becomes too hot. As Earth cools and volcanism declines, less CO2 is emitted into the atmosphere. CO2 is relentlessly scrubbed from the atmosphere and once the scrubbing rate exceeds the emission rate, the amount of CO2 declines with some variations due to ocean warming and cooling but overall in decline. As the CO2 declines, plant species become less productive. As the plant species become less productive, the animal species which live on them become less productive and it progresses all the way up the food chain. At some point the plants can no longer support a self-sustaining population of animals and the animals die off one species at a time. Finally at some point life as we know it no longer exists save some extremophiles in various places. Life as we know it depends on at atmosphere with CO2 and the richer the CO2 content, generally the better conditions are for life as long as there is adequate oxygen. Now there will be bursts of CO2 injected as long as there is volcanism and plate tectonics but once the plates stop subducting, it is pretty much over. No CO2 bound up as limestone, marble, coal, or oil will be released into the atmosphere though volcanic activity once plate tectonics stop.

    We are expected to reach that condition in less than 1 billion years. One estimate is that CO2 will start its unstoppable downward spiral in about 250 million years. In other words, we have one more cycle of crust turnover and that is it, it’s all over. Without the heat inside the earth driving plate tectonics, the life on the surface dies from lack of CO2. Humans are, effectively, natures way of boosting the carbon cycle and retuning CO2 to the atmosphere to give the Earth maybe a few million more years of life.

  56. Jimmy says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm
    Sorry, but I have to nitpick your nitpick. Since the lowering of pH is caused by the addition of protons, it can be described as becoming “more acidic” regardless of what the initial pH is. A solution that drops from pH 4 to pH 3.5 has become more acidic, that much is clear. But also, a solution that drops from pH 10 to pH 9.5 has also become more acidic, even though it may also be accurately described as becoming more neutral.

    Let’s say a solution rises from pH 3.5 to pH 4. We’d describe it as becoming less acidic, rather than more alkaline, wouldn’t we? And we’d describe the process as de-acidification, not alkalization or basification, wouldn’t we? Therefore …

    Here’s what I posted earlier on this matter:

    Chris says:
    June 20, 2010 at 2:15 am

    Acidification is the act of adding an acid to a solution, it has nothing to do with whether the solution is acidic or basic (i.e., basic, neutral, and acidic solutions can all be acidified by adding an acid to them). CO2 in water forms carbonic acid, so adding CO2 to the ocean is, well, ocean acidification.

    That’s its denotation, but its connotation is that it’s turning into lemon juice. I suggest putting the word inside quotation marks, as a signal that it mustn’t be taken as meaning “becoming sour (acid).” Or, better, how about “ocean neutralization”? The denotation isn’t as precise, but the connotation isn’t misleading. The trade-off is worth it.

  57. Willis – It gets rid of its symbionts wholesale, and starts over again. But the reef abides.

    L. pertusa is a “black” coral that resides at depths where the sun don’t shine, and thus it has no photosynthetic symbionts.

    ======
    The most common and well-known deep-sea coral (DSC) species is Lophelia pertusa.
    […]
    It has been suggested that there is a link between L. pertusa distribution and the presence of microseepage of light hydrocarbons (mostly methane) (Hovland et al., 1998). The frequent occurrence of L. pertusa at cold seep sites has been documented in the North Atlantic (Hovland and Thomsen, 1997) and on the upper Louisiana slope of the Gulf of Mexico (Schroeder, 2002; MMS PIs unpublished data). This may be a result of hard substrate availability from authigenic carbonate precipitation as a byproduct of anaerobic oxidation of methane (Aharon and Fu, 2000; Boetius et al., 2000). It may also be due to increased food availability as a result of locally enhanced chemosynthetic productivity. This possibility is currently under study by Fisher and Cordes as part of the ongoing MMS deep coral project on the ULS. Chemosynthetic production appears to constitute a small component of L. pertusa diet in relatively shallow Norwegian fiords, based on stable carbon isotope evidence (Mikkelsen et al., 1982). However, the importance of seep chemosynthetic production to corals may be significantly greater at greater water depth, where the input of good quality photosynthetically produced organic matter is greatly reduced.

    http://www.tdi-bi.com/what's_new/sept05/chemoIII/Chemo write up.pdf
    ======

    I guess that makes the rapid adaption more interesting.

  58. I have spent a good part of my career finding buried fossil reefs on seismic profiles obtained by the dreaded companies. They were formed in a vast variety of geologic times and settings, and I would presume a vast variety of temperatures and ph’s.

    AGW has been blamed for the decline of many of the planet’s reefs. It has always bothered me that when snorkeling on these reefs one encounters a huge range of temperatures, from cold upwellings to bathwater hot backreef flows. Can the coral really be that sensitive to a degree or two of temperature change? A minuscule change in acidity?

    Recent articles document a string of events initiated by over fishing which inevitably damages a reef. I suspect that perturbation will prove to be much more important than subtle changes in temperature and chemistry.

  59. I haven’t had time to read all the comments, but this statement is suburb: “…That is the generally held view, that the ocean is ruled by chemistry. I hold the contrasting view, that the chemistry is not the last link in the chain. I say that the chemistry of the ocean is in turn ruled by life…”

    It is not merely an aquarium which is too small to duplicate Nature. They have attempted to build “bubble” environments for humans, (in order to study problems that might occur in long distance space travel,) and they simply cannot get it right. Either CO2 levels or O2 levels or the levels of trace gases go all out of whack in their “bubble.” They try to tweak the levels of gasses by growing more or less alge in their “bubble,” but have to open the door and step out after not so long, because the air becomes unfit to breathe.

    In other words, at this point our smartest thinking cannot do what nature does without thinking.

    I am suspicious of any experiment which uses the “bubble” of an aquarium, and makes the claim it duplicates the vastness of the sea.

  60. crosspatch says:
    October 25, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Don K, what you say may be true but it is completely irrelevant to the discussion. The point is that regardless of what the exact CO2 number was in the Triassic, it is agreed by all that it was significantly higher than it is now, about 5x higher is the generally agreed to number.

    =========

    OK, I’ll tell you one more time and you can believe me or not as you choose. 5x is probably NOT a reliable number. It’s not impossible for it to be correct, or even for it to be an underestimate. But it most certainly is not agreed to by “all”. But yes, significantly higher than now is a very defensible position. It’s how I’d bet if I had to bet.

    My experience over the past 70 years has been that when people tell me X is true and everyone agrees with it, much of the time, not only does everyone not agree with it, within a few decades, “everyone” agrees on something quite different. I’d say that about half of what I “knew” when I graduated from High School in 1956 is no longer operative. That is, in fact, why I don’t have much use for “climate science” Too much conjecture and “soft science” and not enough hard science to support the structure. The fact that they don’t seem to have a clue what caused the last glaciation, can’t persuade the ice core data to align with their theories, and can’t predict the next glaciation doesn’t help.

    But don’t let me discourage you. You could be right, and I’d say that your chances of being right are considerably better than, say, James Hansen’s.

  61. Willis, I do not have access to the paper

    . Do they talk about the symbiotic organisms at all?

    A simple minded explanation of why the first week and the increase in CO2 showed deterioration might hinge on the number of symbiotic organisms that they carried off with the samples. It may very well be that it took them a week to come up to the necessary populations for the health of the colony and CO2 has nothing to do with the deterioration.

    So I guess my question is about control of the experiment. Did they keep a sample in a water tank with just what they thought original water/temperature conditions as a control? If yes, was the control healthy? If they are not discussing a control they have designed a bad experiment.

  62. A final thought. I suspect that if one defined a three dimensional space with ocean pH (or atmospheric CO2 concentration) on one axis, ocean temperature on another, and exposure duration on the third, the region of the space where coral reefs can thrive would form a rather large blob. There would no doubt be areas where adding a little CO2 would push a given reef out of the “blob” and probably others where more CO2 might permit new reefs to form. Unless the “blob” shrinks dramatically or becomes distorted in some weird fashion when one of the parameters is altered , it’s likely that we (humans and corals alike) are somehow gonna survive.

  63. Bernd Felsche says:
    October 25, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    The monitoring sample isn’t even 1 ppm. it’s 0.0001 ppm. or one in 10 thousand million. There aren’t enough people on the planet to take a sample that small from the human population.

    Actually, there are. To one significant digit, it rounds to 1. Care to volunteer? Warning: vivisection is involved.
    >;-p

  64. crosspatch says:
    October 25, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    Don K, what you say may be true but it is completely irrelevant to the discussion. The point is that regardless of what the exact CO2 number was in the Triassic, it is agreed by all that it was significantly higher than it is now, about 5x higher is the generally agreed to number.

    And, to add to the fun, >3X thicker; hence pteranodons and giant dragonflies.

  65. Frank Kotler says:
    October 26, 2011 at 12:13 am

    I like “less caustic”. :)

    ” Don’t be bitter!”, said Tom acidly.

  66. During periods of high atmospheric CO2 in the past 500Ma corals have thrived more with higher CO2 levels. The fossil record clearly shows this.

    One of the assumptions of oceanography is that sea water has had the same chemical makeup for sever hundred million years, despite varying atmospheric CO2 levels. There is also a bicarbonate feedback loop which maintains the pH at around 7.7- 8.2 regardless of atmospheric CO2 content. Experiments at Southampton University done to confirm the ‘facts’ about CO2 added HCl to the water because the CO2 solution did not work as they wished.

    Also the oceans are no stranger to low pH levels. Black smokers turn the surrounding waters acid with a pH of around 4.5. Molluscs living on them seem impervious to this aggressive water.

  67. Don K says:
    October 26, 2011 at 1:47 am

    A final thought. I suspect that if one defined a three dimensional space with ocean pH (or atmospheric CO2 concentration) on one axis, ocean temperature on another, and exposure duration on the third, the region of the space where coral reefs can thrive would form a rather large blob. There would no doubt be areas where adding a little CO2 would push a given reef out of the “blob” and probably others where more CO2 might permit new reefs to form. Unless the “blob” shrinks dramatically or becomes distorted in some weird fashion when one of the parameters is altered , it’s likely that we (humans and corals alike) are somehow gonna survive.

    That sounds like a great graphic! I suspect that the blob would occupy the far limits of the duration axis, given how many hundred million years corals have made it thru so far.

  68. Great post, Willis! The reefs will abide quite well. Most marine calcifers love a CO2-rich diet. And the claim of a 30% rise in ocean acidity over the last couple of hundred years is preposterous.

    The alarmists claim that anthropogenic CO2 emissions have lowered the average pH of the world’s oceans from 8.2 to 8.1 over the last 250 years; and that future emissions will lower the pH  by 0.3 to 0.4 over the remainder of this century (Dore et al., 2009). What is the basis of this hypothesis?  Systematic measurements of oceanic pH don’t go back much before 1990.  Actual pH measurements are few and far between.  The oceans have probably absorbed at least half of the anthropogenic carbon emissions of the last couple of centuries.  The assertion of CO2-driven ocean acidification appears to he almost entirely based on the rising atmospheric CO2 level. 

    Ocean acidification can only occur if Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (DIC) is rising faster than Total Alkalinity (TA).  This nomogram demonstrates the relationship of TA & DIC to pH. According to Dore et al., 2009, “Over the past 250 years, the mean pH of the surface global ocean has decreased from ≈8.2 to 8.1… This acidification of the sea is driven by the rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration, which results from fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, and other human activities. Models predict that surface ocean pH may decline by an additional 0.3–0.4 during the 21st century”…  A total pH decline of 0.4 to 0.5 (8.2 to 7.7-7.6).

    I used a linear regression of the Station Aloha data to estimate TA and DIC at ~275 and ~550 ppmv CO2. If I plot their in situ TA vs in situ DIC and extrapolate it as above (red curve), I get a very strong correlation (R^2=0.72); but I don’t get anything close to a 0.5 to 0.6 pH decline from a doubling of pre-industrial CO2 levels. I get a total decline of 0.16 (8.30 to 8.14) due to a doubling of pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels. The only way I get a pH decline comparable to 0.4 to 0.5 is when I use the TA and DIC values that were normalized to a salinity of 35 (blue curve). This yields a pH decline of 0.44 (8.40 to 7.96); but it is a horrible correlation (R^2=0.05). TA and DIC are highly correlated to salinity(R^2=0.88, 0.74).  DIC has a moderate correlation (R^2=0.39) and TA has a weak correlation (R^2=0.12) to atmospheric CO2.

    The normalization of TA and DIC to a constant salinity subdues the buffering effect provided by salinity; while amplifying the acidification effect of increasing CO2. A realistic treatment of salinity, yields an insignificant lowering of pH from a doubling of pre-industrial CO2.  Chicken Little of the Sea does not appear to be very dangerous.

    Since the pH of reef water routinely varies by more than 0.5 on scales ranging from diurnal to multidecadal, a 0.16 decline over 350 years will be quite abide-able.

  69. As has been pointed out, the lifespan of corals is too short for evolution (changes in genes) to be involved.What we are seeing here is *changes in the expression* of genes that have evolved over 100s of millions of years, those changes being brought about through processes such as methylation, phosphorylation, acetylation, …. [many references on the web, short of time right now], because of changes in external conditions.
    Very roughly speaking, those little critturs have seen it all before. Buried in their genes is the memory of how they dealt with it; the right conditions will trigger that memory.

  70. Brian H says: October 26, 2011 at 2:20 am
    Edit: “Basically, you’re just bitter,” said Tom acidly. ;p
    **********
    Good one, Brian. A little nerd humor in the morning is a good thing.

    Best regards.
    Steamboat Jack (Jon Jewett’s evil twin)

  71. I might as well point out that although we typically say pH for hydrogen ion concentration, H+ ions (a bare proton) don’t exist to any extent in a solution. An acid will transfer an H+ to water producing H3O+ instead. But pH3O is unwieldy, so chemists use pH as an abbreviation.

  72. 17.Jimmy says:
    October 25, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    Sorry, but I have to nitpick your nitpick. Since the lowering of pH is caused by the addition of protons, it can be described as becoming “more acidic” regardless of what the initial pH is. A solution that drops from pH 4 to pH 3.5 has become more acidic, that much is clear. But also, a solution that drops from pH 10 to pH 9.5 has also become more acidic, even though it may also be accurately described as becoming more neutral.

    I would also think that the biology and the chemistry of the oceans affect each other, and not necessarily that one always causes effects in the other. Then again, I have no data to support this, so maybe I’m completely off.”

    I think the main point he’s getting at is people tend to use the scariest wording they can.

    “More acidic”, “less alkaline”, and “decreased pH levels” could all mean the same thing.

    I’s just that “ocean acidification” sounds worse…

  73. This gets my vote as the best title for a blog post in 2011 (and perhaps the entire century so far). Love it.

  74. So corals and CO2 are the same as humans and high altitudes? Go up slowly and your body adjusts. Race up and you’ll suffer.

  75. “DocMartyn says:
    October 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    “Their lifespan is often short enough to allow for evolution in human rather than geological time”

    I am sorry, but that is simply not true. You misunderstand the elasticity of an organism, a property that evolved.”

    No you are wrong. Take a microbiology class with a lab component. In that lab you will do experiments to force the adaptation of bacteria to antibiotic resistance within a day or less.

  76. Several comments on buffers were posted. Buffers do not lock in a specific pH, they just dampen the response to it.

    And John M has his post on October 25, 2011 at 5:35 pm with the Dr. Lubchenco “demonstration.” What a hoot that was, I saw it streaming live during the hearings. I have rarely seen anyone more uncomfortable was less self-assured when handling chemicals, her practical experience appears to be minimal. And the “demonstration” reminds me of another certain “experiment” with thermometers that Anthony has discussed recently ……..

  77. As for life trumping inorganic chemistry, it has long been accepted that the concentration of oxygen in the atmosphere was negligable until organisms began photosynthesizing. Even then, oxygen could not accumulate in the atmosphere until the buffers (methane and reduced iron) were exhausted.

  78. Willis Eschenbach says:
    October 25, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    …in a system which is measured logarithmically for a good reason—because percentages don’t mean much when we’re speaking of pH…

    In nuclear physics we use pH as a percentage, all the time, to determine N protons in flux. However, the percentage has to be applied across the whole practical scale of pH 0 -14. The proton number function is linear, but the numbers are large making the logarithmic scale useful. The pH scale is logarithmic for convenience only. The acid ions to base ions can be expressed as 0 – 100% easily:

    pH 0 = 100% = pure acid = (0% hydroxyl) (OH)
    pH 7 = 50% = neutral = (50% hydroxl) (OH)
    pH 14 = 0% = bure base = (100% hydroxyl) (OH)

    Percentage is only useful with regard to the full range of the practical N (H+). The logarithmic pH scale fools many people into the mindset that (N) H+ is logarithmic. It’s not, the scale alone is, making inter-decade percentages, useless. This perspective makes it easy to see, what a small pH change, we are really discussing. I will not argue further on this matter as it seems to attract vile. GK

  79. anna v says:
    October 25, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    Willis, I do not have access to the paper

    . Do they talk about the symbiotic organisms at all?

    A simple minded explanation of why the first week and the increase in CO2 showed deterioration might hinge on the number of symbiotic organisms that they carried off with the samples. It may very well be that it took them a week to come up to the necessary populations for the health of the colony and CO2 has nothing to do with the deterioration.

    So I guess my question is about control of the experiment. Did they keep a sample in a water tank with just what they thought original water/temperature conditions as a control? If yes, was the control healthy? If they are not discussing a control they have designed a bad experiment.

    Hi, anna, good to hear from you. The coral is a deep cold water species, so unlike the warm water species they generally lack simbionts.

    Regarding a control, assuredly they had one, in fact a couple. See e.g. the statement of theirs in the head post:

    Growth rates in the long-term experiment (LTE) did not follow the negative trend with increasing pCO2 observed in the short-term incubation. Instead, growth rate, which was comparable to that of the control treatment in the short-term experiment, stayed high at elevated CO2 levels.

    and my comment down lower.

    w.

  80. View from the Solent says:
    October 26, 2011 at 3:17 am

    As has been pointed out, the lifespan of corals is too short for evolution (changes in genes) to be involved.

    I assume you mean that the experiment was far too short for evolution to be involved. If so, I agree.

    If you are saying that 100 years is too short for evolution to be involved as several people claimed, perhaps you missed the science I pointed to.

    w.

  81. Area Man says:
    October 26, 2011 at 9:18 am

    This gets my vote as the best title for a blog post in 2011 (and perhaps the entire century so far). Love it.

    Thanks, I was kinda proud when I thought of it …

    w.

  82. Don K replies:

    “If you are somewhat smarter than I, you may be able to work all that out, make everything balance, and figure out exactly what the consequences of increasing atmospheric CO2 would be for shell forming organisms. I have to say that I don’t have the slightest idea on a purely chemical/physical state basis what will happen.”

    Thanks for the info. And, no, I’m not smart enough. But I understand that there have been many CO2 pertubations in the past which dwarf the present one, and the reef abides, as Willis says so eloquently. I guess part of the “buffering” is just what Willis described, not just purely a chemical/physical state description.

  83. Thank you Willis!
    Those who are interested to pursue the question of carbonate metabolism by marine organisms might consider the book by Peter Westbroek ” Life as a Geological Force: Dynamics of the Earth”
    Norton & Co N.Y. 1991. When it is understood that the gigantic carbonate deposits in rocks are due to biological activity, the remarkable self balancing mechanisms of this planet become even clearer.
    dfm

    .

  84. Max Hugoson says:
    October 25, 2011 at 8:33 pm

    John M:

    Your link shows up as this:

    http://www.jodc.go.jp/info/ioc_doc/Experts/120608eo.pdf#8**

    Right now that doesn’t download.

    Any advice? Looks like it would be super to have!

    Max<blockquote

    Max, as Brian H says, it’s a big file, but I notice that for some reason, the web address pasted with an extra asterisk. My version of IE ignores the second asterisk, but if for some reason your browser is including both asterisks, it could be the problem.

    Here’s another try.

    http://www.jodc.go.jp/info/ioc_doc/Experts/120608eo.pdf#8*

  85. Brian H says:
    crosspatch says:
    Don K, what you say may be true but it is completely irrelevant to the discussion. The point is that regardless of what the exact CO2 number was in the Triassic, it is agreed by all that it was significantly higher than it is now, about 5x higher is the generally agreed to number.

    And, to add to the fun, >3X thicker; hence pteranodons and giant dragonflies

    This brings to mind this quote”
    In Germany the concept of the “Fachidiot” is well know. It describes the chap who knows more and more about less and less, to the point where he is incapable of functioning outside his own narrow field. In the English-speaking world, we recognize the expert as the person who avoids the small pitfalls as he sweeps on to the grand fallacy. The generalist, the person who has experience of diverse areas, and the man with insight are necessary counterbalances to Fachidiocy, for it’s not academic background or endless doctorates which are important in revealing scientific truth: the quality of the arguments is more important.

    When people talk about giant flying lizards back then, the ones doing the talking know only about their own little specialty. Thus, they say that these giant lizards could not fly, they must have hung around cliffs at the sea shore to be able to take off. This is because these guys need to get out more, if they would just go down the hall they would find the guy who studies ancient atmospheres and who could tell them that the atmosphere was 3x thicker. Such a thick atmosphere would make it possible to have bigger and heavier flying critters, who would not need cliffs to take off from. It is a silly idea anyway when you think about it, what if the wind stops or shifts and they cannot get back to the cliff, they would never be able to take off again and would die. Such an nonviable critter, who can only live under a small range of conditions that change from day to day could not survive. Thus we can see that an “expert” can get something so wrong that it is ludicrous, if they would even think about it for a minute they would realize that what they believe is laughable. The more ‘expert” they are, in fact, the more likely they are to get it wrong.

    It is possible for me to know this when “experts” on these giant flying lizards do not, because I do get out more. Thus, many of the posters on this site can and do know more than many scientists because they get out more. They are generalists, who know more than one small field, who, for instance, have been actual weathermen and had to interact with the data and predict it day to day, or who have actually experienced the tropics and a tropical thunderstorm and the cooling in brings such as the author of this article.

    Many “climate scientists” are just closeted model builders, they know little outside their narrow field, they can only put into their model what they know, they do not understand how various things in the climate interact and change each other because they have never experienced that. Plus, making things interact makes it less “scientific” seeming, normal scientists want things like an experiment in a lab, nice and neat, with one viable changing at a time, not with a whole bunch of things changing at the same time which makes it hard to measure anything definite, and especially not a chaotic system. Thus the models are designed like an experiment in a very controlled lab, change thing A and thing B changes, and that is it. They do not want change thing A and thing C changes which then reduces thing A and makes only a small change in B. Example, add CO2, radiant heat hitting ground goes up, it gets warmer, simple, lab like. Not, add CO2 and surface warmth makes more evaporation which makes clouds which make shade which reduces the downward radiation which means the surface warmth only goes up a small amount if at all. That and all the other complicated things in the actual atmosphere are very uncontrolled, they could even be called wild, as apposed to tame. Lab experiments are as controlled as possible, the actual atmosphere is not.

    The reason “climate scientists” believe the world will warm with one change ( CO2 ) is because they think the climate is like their model, strictly controlled, tame.
    The reason it does not is because it’s not a tame climate.
    And the reason they don’t like us is because we also show the characteristic they abhor, we also are not tame.
    If only we would get with the program, believe whatever they tell us, follow the path of settled science like nice dumb beasts!

    I like the line from the old TV program (which would never be aired today!):
    I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own.

    I wonder if giant flying lizards snatched giant dragonflies out of the air?

  86. RE: “Ocean acidity has increased by 30% since preindustrial times”

    Show me the data and show me the gage R&R analysis. Said analysis would have to not only encompass the measurement gear and technicians, it would also need to encompass other factors such as draw location repeatability, repeatability of location in the water column, draw date repeatability as well as, in no particular order, the degrees to which changes in stratification, currents, cloud cover, plankton blooms etc also impact pH at each draw location. Given all this, it would be a miracle to discern a “signal” of the claimed fractional changes in pH we routinely see in all the “ocean acidification” studies. I would bet dollars to donuts that any self respecting book cooker could wrangle the noise to “prove” their a priori assertion that acidification has occurred en mass (as opposed to, for example, local agricultural fertilizer effluent plumes and the like).

  87. RE: ““Over the past 250 years, the mean pH of the surface global ocean has decreased from ≈8.2 to 8.1… This acidification of the sea is driven by the rapidly increasing atmospheric CO2 concentration”

    Assuming such claims of a 0.1 pH reduction are not in fact complete book cooking, how can anyone “prove” the causal factor to be CO2? As if agricultural runoff and other forms of pollution do not tend to lower pH.

  88. A great post Willis. The biosphere is a riotous orgy of opportunism. The ocean is not some beaker on a lab table, it teems with organisms full of internal beakers where they run their own controlled reactions in defiance of entropy and thermodynamics. If life were a theory we would be skeptical, it is so improbable.
    As to their experimental design:
    Willis Eschenbach says:
    October 25, 2011 at 6:05 pm
    “Aside from the time needed for measurements and system maintenance, experiments were carried out in darkness.”
    I am baffled as to why they didn’t maintain a normal diurnal/nocturnal cycle. What real world has no daytime? Sure, corals are nocturnal feeders. So they starve the photosynthesis of the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae?

  89. Richard G says:
    October 26, 2011 at 6:21 pm

    As to their experimental design:
    Willis Eschenbach says:
    October 25, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    “Aside from the time needed for measurements and system maintenance, experiments were carried out in darkness.”

    I am baffled as to why they didn’t maintain a normal diurnal/nocturnal cycle. What real world has no daytime? Sure, corals are nocturnal feeders. So they starve the photosynthesis of the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae?

    These are deepwater corals, living below the photic zone in eternal darkness.

    w.

  90. Richard G.
    L. Pertusa lives in the dark,and does not have symbiotic zooxanthellae algae. That is probably why the experiment was conducted in the dark.
    The common misunderstanding that all corals have symbionts should have been addressed by the researchers in their abstract.

  91. “These are deepwater corals, living below the photic zone in eternal darkness.”

    Okay…this hardly describes the Great Barrier Reef. I thought the GBR was the focus of doom.

Comments are closed.