The Ocean Is Not Getting Acidified

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

There’s an interesting study out on the natural pH changes in the ocean. I discussed some of these pH changes a year ago in my post “The Electric Oceanic Acid Test“. Before getting to the new study, let me say a couple of things about pH.

The pH scale measures from zero to fourteen. Seven is neutral, because it is the pH of pure water. Below seven is acidic. Above seven is basic. This is somewhat inaccurately but commonly called “alkaline”. Milk is slightly acidic. Baking soda is slightly basic (alkaline).

Figure 1. pH scale, along with some examples.

The first thing of note regarding pH is that alkalinity is harder on living things than is acidity. Both are corrosive of living tissue, but alkalinity has a stronger effect. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true. For example, almost all of our foods are acidic. We eat things with a pH of 2, five units below the neutral reading of 7 … but nothing with a corresponding pH of 12, five units above neutral. The most alkaline foods are eggs (pH up to 8) and dates and crackers (pH up to 8.5). Heck, our stomach acid has a pH of 1.5 to 3.0, and our bodies don’t mind that at all … but don’t try to drink Drano, the lye will destroy your stomach.

That’s why when you want to get rid of an inconvenient body, you put lye on it, not acid. It’s also why ocean fish often have a thick mucus layer over their skin, inter alia to protect them from the alkalinity. Acidity is no problem for life compared to alkalinity.

Next, a question of terminology. When a base is combined with an acid, for example putting baking soda on spilled car battery acid, that is called “neutralizing” the acid. This is because it is moving towards neutral. Yes, it increases the pH, but despite that, it is called “neutralizing”, not “alkalizing”.

This same terminology is used when measuring pH. In a process called “titration”, you measure how much acid it takes to neutralize an unknown basic solution. If you add too much acid, the pH drops below 7.0 and the mixture becomes acidic. Add too little acid, and the mixture remains basic. Your goal in titration is to add just enough acid to neutralize the basic solution. Then you can tell how alkaline it was, by the amount of acid that it took to neutralize the basic solution.

Similarly, when rainwater (slightly acidic) falls on the ocean (slightly basic), it has a neutralizing effect on the slightly alkaline ocean. Rainwater slightly decreases the pH of the ocean. Despite that, we don’t normally say that rainwater is “acidifying” the ocean. Instead, because it is moving the ocean towards neutral, we say it is neutralizing the ocean.

The problem with using the term “acidify” for what rainwater does to the ocean is that people misunderstand what is happening. Sure, a hard-core scientist hearing “acidify” might think “decreasing pH”. But most people think “Ooooh, acid, bad, burns the skin.” It leads people to say things like the following gem that I came across yesterday:

Rapid increases in CO2 (such as today) overload the system, causing surface waters to become corrosive.

In reality, it’s quite the opposite. The increase in CO2 is making the ocean, not more corrosive, but more neutral. Since both alkalinity and acidity corrode things, the truth is that rainwater (or more CO2) will make the ocean slightly less corrosive, by marginally neutralizing its slight alkalinity. That is the problem with the term “acidify”, and it is why I use and insist on the more accurate term “neutralize”. Using “acidify”, is both alarmist and incorrect. The ocean is not getting acidified by additional CO2. It is getting neutralized by additional CO2.

With that as prologue, let me go on to discuss the paper on oceanic pH.

The paper is called “High-Frequency Dynamics of Ocean pH: A Multi-Ecosystem Comparison” (hereinafter pH2011). As the name suggests, they took a look at the actual variations of pH in a host of different parts of the ocean. They show 30-day “snapshots” of a variety of ecosystems. The authors comment:

These biome-specific pH signatures disclose current levels of exposure to both high and low dissolved CO2, often demonstrating that resident organisms are already experiencing pH regimes that are not predicted until 2100.

First, they show the 30-day snapshot of both the open ocean and a deepwater open ocean reef:

Figure 2. Continuous 30-day pH measurements of open ocean and deepwater reef. Bottom axis shows days. Vertical bar shows the amount of the possible pH change by 2100, as estimated in the pH2011 study.

I note that even in the open ocean, the pH is not constant, but varies by a bit over the thirty days. These changes are quite short, and are likely related to rainfall events during the month. As mentioned above, these slightly (and temporarily) neutralize the ocean surface, and over time mix in to the lower waters. Over Kingman reef, there are longer lasting small swings.

Compare the two regions shown in Fig. 1 to some other coral reef “snapshots” of thirty days worth of continuous pH measurements.

Figure 3. Thirty day “snapshots” of the variation in pH at two tropical coral reefs. Bottom axis shows days.

There are a couple of things of note in Figure 3. First, day-to-night variations in pH are from the CO2 that is produced by the reef life as a whole. Also, day-to-night swings on the Palmyra reef terrace are about a quarter of a pH unit … which is about 60% more than the projected change from CO2 by the year 2100.

Moving on, we have the situation in a couple of upwelling areas off of the California coast:

Figure 4. Thirty day pH records of areas of oceanic upwelling. This upwelling occurs, among other places, along the western shores of the continents.

Here we see even greater swings of pH, much larger than the possible predicted change from CO2. Remember that this is only over the period of a month, so there will likely be an annual component to the variation as well.

Figure 5 shows what is going on in kelp forests.

Figure 5. pH records in kelp forests

Again we see a variety of swings of pH, both long- and short-term. Inshore, we find even larger swings, as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6. Two pH records from a near-shore and an estuarine oceanic environment.

Again we see large pH changes in a very short period of time, both in the estuary and the near-shore area.

My conclusions from all of this?

First, there are a number of places in the ocean where the pH swings are both rapid and large. The life in those parts of the ocean doesn’t seem to be bothered by either the size or the speed these swings.

Second, the size of the possible pH change by 2100 is not large compared to the natural swings.

Third, due to a host of buffering mechanisms in the ocean, the possible pH change by 2100 may be smaller, but is unlikely to be larger, than the forecast estimate shown above.

Fourth, I would be very surprised if we’re still burning much fossil fuel ninety years from now. Possible, but doubtful in my book. So from this effect as well, the change in oceanic pH may well be less than shown above.

Fifth, as the authors commented, some parts of the ocean are already experiencing conditions that were not forecast to arrive until 2100 … and are doing so with no ill effects.

As a result, I’m not particularly concerned about a small change in oceanic pH from the change in atmospheric CO2. The ocean will adapt, some creatures’ ranges will change a bit, some species will be slightly advantaged and others slightly disadvantaged. But CO2 has been high before this. Overall, making the ocean slightly more neutral will likely be beneficial to life, which doesn’t like alkalinity but doesn’t mind acidity at all.

Finally, let me say that I love scientific studies like this, that actually use real observations rather than depending on theory and models. For some time now I’ve been pointing out that oceanic pH is not constant … but until this study I didn’t realize how variable it actually is. It is a measure of the “ivory tower” nature of much of climate science that the hysteria about so-called “acidification” has been going on for so long without an actual look at the actual ocean to see what difference a small change towards neutrality might actually make.

My best regards to everyone,

w.

NOTE: For those hard-core scientists that still want to call adding a small amount of acid to a basic solution “acidifying” the basic solution, and who claim that is the only correct “scientific terminology”, I recommend that you look at and adopt the scientific terminology from titration. That’s the terminology used when actually measuring pH in the lab. In that terminology, when you move towards neutral (pH 7), it’s called “neutralization”.

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Katherine

Another welcome dose of common sense. Thanks, Willis!

Kev-in-UK

As someone who does quite a a bit of ion exchange and titration, I would agree with Willis’ description. The problem is with terminology, and of course, like AGW or CAGW, it’s all in the implied ‘problem’ – hence nuetralisation is never going to scare folk as much as acidification!
Technically, one could say increased CO2 is potentially acidifying the ocean by making it less alkaline, but it is merely a relative term in any case. I haven’t read anything about the acidification of oceans caused by natural decomposing organic matter, or by submarine volcanic eruptions/vents – even though such things do cause significant acidifying production.
Personally, I feel there should be far more concern about waste dumping, etc – than CO2 acidification! The size of the ocean buffers, and of course the carbonate deposits that support this buffering is vast. Measuring local variations gives an indication of just how variable the pH can be through a short timescale and as can be seen, these are having little effect.
Just one other minor point – which again depends on ones term of reference..and that is that the diurnal variation on the reefs can be clearly argued to be a result of the corals rather than a result of the ocean. In other words, the corals, as they photosynthesize through the day are affecting their own environment rather than the ocean ‘swamping’ them with acid at night!

James of the West

Organisms have evolved to adapt to their environment. Acidity IS a problem for life that has evolved in an alkaline environment. Alkalinity of the ocean is only a problem for those organisms that have adapted to other environments. To suggest that acidity is more conducive to life than alkalinity is a bit silly. Lots of animals live in the alkaline ocean and are specifically evolved to do so. This is why all of the ocean animals dont swim into neutral river systems – because they are suited to the alkaline ocean not the neutral river.

Larry in Texas

Very well, done, Willis. It’s been a long time since I did some titration in my high school chemistry class and it is good to be reminded of the procedure and the results. Yes, I think “neutralization” is the right word for it.
By the way, I would NOT be surprised if we are still burning fossil fuels 90 – 100 years from now. They are still the cheapest, densest sources of energy for the planet. If we still have enough of them, we will be using fossil fuels.

This “pH will change by 0.1 and fish die” is the same BS as “warming by 1C during the 100 years is unprecedented and evil”. Yawn. Every day, it is warming by some 10°C during few hours.

Hi Willis,
I wanted to let you know that I mentioned your recent scientific publication in an article of mine at hubpages.com. Sorry, I could not think of a reasonable way to work in an AGW angle.
http://tinyurl.com/84od64d
Anyway, it’s called Sizing Up Extraterrestrial Biohazards. It probably does not measure up to the standards of WUWT. We only do serious science here. 🙂
Happy New Year!

ferdberple

“Rapid increases in CO2 (such as today) overload the system, causing surface waters to become corrosive.”
Willis, technically this is true. CO2 in water (even salt water) acts as a catalyst to speed the oxidation of iron and steel. In moist environments steel rusts much quicker when there is high levels of CO2 from cities and industries for example, than in rural areas.

Dear Willis,
An excellent piece of inteliigent common sense, of which I sincerely hope it doesn’t fade away.
Happy New Year!

crosspatch

The oceans had MUCH more dissolved CO2 over the majority of the history of Earth than they do now. Earth’s atmosphere had about 3500ppm of CO2 up until only about 55 million years ago. That dropped to about 650ppm in less than 1 million years due to a single species of plant.
Our planet and the species alive today are actually pretty CO2-stressed. Most are living toward the bottom edge of the CO2 range required for them to thrive even with the additional of human produced CO2 emissions.
If you consider that 96% of the species that have ever lived on planet Earth are extinct and that for less than 2% of the planet’s age we have had CO2 levels at less than 1000 ppm, well, maybe CO2 is a contributing factor to the deaths of a lot of these species including any climate change that might have happened from a catastrophic (to the species then living) drop in CO2 to about 1/5 of its previous level in only 1 million years.

brennan

Excellent post and analysis Willis. Cheers

crosspatch

Oh, and the plant was Azolla. Look up The Azolla Event.

Jeff

James of the West,
Thanks for making me chuckle, you’re priceless!

ferdberple

James of the West says:
December 28, 2011 at 12:08 am
Organisms have evolved to adapt to their environment. Acidity IS a problem for life that has evolved in an alkaline environment.
True, but current oceans are much more caustic that oceans for almost all of the past 100 million years. Only the past couple of million years have the oceans been as caustic as they are at present.
So, if we are making the oceans more acidic, then we are simply returning them to the state most organism have evolved in.
The simplest test of this is blood pH. Blood is much more acidic than current oceans, and is comparable to the acidity of oceans when our ancestors moved from the oceans to the land.
Human beings cannot survive with a blood pH as caustic as current ocean levels. Blood pH is regulated to stay within the narrow range of 7.35 to 7.45, while ocean pH is greater than 8.

Rhoda Ramirez

Hi Willis: Thank you for that clear explaination – it’s one of the best non-technical overviews I’ve seen.

Willis Eschenbach

Rhoda Ramirez says:
December 28, 2011 at 1:17 am

Hi Willis: Thank you for that clear explaination – it’s one of the best non-technical overviews I’ve seen.

Thank you, Rhoda. My goal is to make things understandable. I’m helped greatly when I’m discussing real science about the real world.
All the best,
w.

JJ

Willis, you often put up good posts, but this one is bullshit.
Your “prologue” is an example of juvenile reasoning, and completely wrong.
“The first thing of note regarding pH is that alkalinity is harder on living things than is acidity.”
Nonsense. Both alkalinity and acididity can be equally as hard on living things. Living things have an optimum pH that they can operate with for various functions, and those pH optimums differ from function to function and from species to species. It is deviation from that optimum that is hard on living things, and that optimum is often on the basic side of the pH scale.
“Both are corrosive of living tissue, but alkalinity has a stronger effect. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.”
No, it is not. Trust your intuition on this one.
“For example, almost all of our foods are acidic. We eat things with a pH of 2, five units below the neutral reading of 7 … but nothing with a corresponding pH of 12, five units above neutral. The most alkaline foods are eggs (pH up to 8) and dates and crackers (pH up to 8.5). Heck, our stomach acid has a pH of 1.5 to 3.0, and our bodies don’t mind that at all … .”
Absolutely not true. Our bodies mind acidity very much. Our stomachs do not, because (duh) our stomachs use acid to digest our food, and are protected from that acidity in order to function. But any idiot who suffers from acid reflux disease understands quite well that the rest of our body minds that acid very much. Stomach acid outside of the stomach, even in the adjacent esophagus, causes all manner of pain and damage to the body – from heartburn to bleeding ulcers to terminal cancer. Damage from stomach acid can also happen in the small intestine, which produces copius amounts of an alkaline (bicarbonate) to protect itself and the rest of the bowel from that acidity. Acid damage can even happen inside the stomach, when the special acid resistant stomach lining becomes damaged.
“… but don’t try to drink Drano, the lye will destroy your stomach.”
If acid from the stomach gets up to your mouth, tooth loss is often the result – an accelerated version of the tooth damage that your supposedly benign acidic foods also cause. On the other hand, it is recommended to brush your teeth with baking soda (pH 9) as this is beneficial.
“It’s also why ocean fish often have a thick mucus layer over their skin, inter alia to protect them from the alkalinity. Acidity is no problem for life compared to alkalinity.”
Not true. Species adapted to alkalinity, such as the fish you describe, often fare very poorly under neutral to acidic conditions, precisely because they are adapted to alkalinity and not adapted to acidic conditions.
Everyone from gardeners to aquarium aficianados understands that different species require different pH regimes (soil or water), and that species adapted to alkaline conditions are often intolerant of neutral to acidic conditions -similar to how a human stomach adapted to tolerate acid does not handle strongly basic inputs.
What ever point you may have been trying to make about the overstatement of the danger of “ocean acidification” is neutralized by your addition of an equal overstatement at the other end of the scale.

John Marshall

According to my text books on oceanography (2009) the ocean pH varies from 7.8 to 8.4 naturally in surface waters.
No mention of the bicarbonate feedback mechanism Willis which helps to raise pH in the ionic solute that is the oceans.

Orkneygal

Mr Willis-Thank you for your lovely essay.
Are you married?

Roger Knights

Willis: “Sure, a hard-core scientist hearing “acidify” might think “decreasing pH”. But most people think “Ooooh, acid, bad, burns the skin.””

Here’s a nice tight nutshell to sum this up: The denotation of “acidification” is correct, but its connotation is misleading–so the term should be avoided in discourse with the public.

Luke Warneminde

“Acidity is no problem for life compared to alkalinity.”
I don’t think this is a particularly strong argument to make. Our stomach has a continuously generating layer of mucus, protecting it from the acid inside – without that, the rest of our bodies would definitely have a problem. Heck, extremophile microbes can survive in pH up 12.8 (http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=12969)
In any case, I think this is more a distraction from Willis’ main argument about the scale of changes already occurring compared to the CO2 doom forecasts.

Don K

In general, a good article. Having back at the dawn of time earned a degree in Chemistry from an otherwise reputable college, I’m fine with the term “acidification” because “neutralization” only works if the pH of the medium is above 7. But no matter.
The specific issue raised by acidification alarmists is the affect of lower pH on marine creatures that have shells/skeletons made from Calcium Carbonate. And they do seem to have a point. Excess alkalinity may be tough on the critters themselves, but it won’t harm the shells. Excess acidity on the other hand makes it harder to form shells/skeletons and tends to dissolve existing shells. That’s oversimplified to begin with and is exacerbated when the acidifying (neutralizing) agent is CO2 which not only acidifies but supplies Carbonate and Bicarbonate Ions. The chemistry of Calcium Carbonate in sea water looks to be exceedingly complex. The “system” consists of solid Calcium Carbonate, Calcium Ions, Magnesium Ions, Carbonate ions. Bicarbonate Ions, Hydrogen Ions, and Hydroxyl (OH-) ions. It is very difficult to analyze. And it is temperature sensitive.
Bottom Line. The alarmists might have a point although I personally am skeptical. Although I’m skeptical about the accuracy of paleo CO2 proxies, I think it likely that the ancestors of modern marine forms probably survived significantly higher CO2 levels and lower pHs than current ocean levels. My guess is that most marine animals will handle any likely level of anthropogenic atmospheric CO2 with little or no difficulty.

richard verney

Larry in Texas says:
December 28, 2011 at 12:11 am
////////////////////////////////////////////////////
It would not surprise me that in 20 years time, it is accepted that this CO2 concern was all bogus and that there is no problem in burning fossil fuels that emit CO2 such that we will go back to coal (using clean air technology) for bulk energy production. The simplicity, reliability and costs effectiveness of this form of energy production will be attractive and it does not carry the concerns that attach (rightly or wrongly) to nuclear.
Coal is in plentiful supply and China is being forward thinking in its continued use of coal fired generators. As I say, it would not surprise me if in 20 years time the West follows China’s lead in this. Pity all the wasted expense and lost oportunity in the meantime, but hey that polotics for you. When was the last time politicians changed something for the better?

Matt

duh, no. Fish do not have mucus to protect them from alkalines over acid because alkalines are more corrosive to them – it just so happens that if your entire habitat (the sea) is alkaline, then that is what you protect against, naturally, not acid, which isn’t even present in an all alkaline environment.

richard verney

The terminology in this ‘scare’ has always irked me. Only a non scientist would refer to acidification of the oceans. In other threads, I have commented that the expressions used show a distinct lack of scientific understanding and are deliberately deployed so as to scare monger since using the correct expression of neutralisation does not sound scary.
That said, neutralistion of the oceans could be a problem for some species depending upon how quickly this were to occur and the ability to adapt etc. The issue is to what real extent is neutralistion occuring, why is this, is it a problem and can any thing be done about it. In particular which species are adversely affected and unable to adapt and what will happen to the ecosystem if that species were to decline.

PurpleToad

“This is why all of the ocean animals dont swim into neutral river systems – because they are suited to the alkaline ocean not the neutral river.”
The issue isn’t pH, but salinity. Since salt dehydrates, animals living in the ocean are adapted to maintain enough fluids in their bodies. Fresh water fish have the opposite problem and have to prevent their bodies from being water logged.
http://www.kitsforkids.com/blog/2011/01/why-cant-saltwater-fish-live-in-fresh-water/
Claiming that small of change in pH in a dynamic environment will cause all the fish to die is like saying a temperature change of 1° F over the course of a century will cause mass extinctions in an environment that can change >30° F in 1 day.

spangled drongo

Willis, with huge numbers of desal plants coming on stream won’t this have an increasing alkalinity effect?

richard verney

JJ says:
December 28, 2011 at 2:03 am
///////////////////////////////////////////////
I have to agree with almost all that is said in that post. They are points well made.
It is the terminology in this debate that irks me, I can see the concern behind the issue raised, But like the entire global warming issue, this particular topic raises issues of natural variation, hasn’t all of this happened in the past and yet life contines and adaption with some species evolving others succumbing to natural extinction.
I can vouch from my own personal experience on how harmful alkalines can be on human tissue. Back in the 70s, I got some alkali in my eyes and this significantly scarred the tissue such that in one eye I now see 20 or 30 images all slightly out of alignment such that for all practical purposes in that eye I can only see differnt concentrations of light which can be corrected only by the use of hard contact lenses. Glasses or even soft contact lenses will not correct the signt since what I require is a completely smooth surface on which the light falls to stop it defrecting. As JJ notes, it depends upon the sensitivity of each part of the body. Of course, if I had got that alkali on my hand it would not have caused any problem nor long term scarring.

Kev-in-UK – “it’s all in the implied ‘problem”
Yes, the repeated the coral reef extinctions and collapses which pepper the paleo record, connected with rapidly rising CO2, imply the current unprecedented rate of CO2 rise might be wee bit of a problem.

Mark

crosspatch says:
Our planet and the species alive today are actually pretty CO2-stressed. Most are living toward the bottom edge of the CO2 range required for them to thrive even with the additional of human produced CO2 emissions.
So much so that there are devices to increase the amount of carbon dioxide in commercial greenhouses. Indeed this would be the most meaningful way to refer to it as a “greenhouse gas”. It’s rather strange that using the emissions from a combustion power plant (or other industrial plant which produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct) to enrich the atmosphere in greenhouses is not more common. For one thing it would be simpler and cheaper than trying to pipe it under the ocean or into disused mines.

Merrick

Actually, pH can be lower than 0 and higher than 14. pH is the negative log10 of the hydrogen ion concentration, so for instance, a 10 molar concentration of a strong acid like HCl would have a pH of -1. Similar argument for a strong base at high concentrations.
Someone also mentioned acidity related to tooth decay. In fact, the normal pH of your mouth (saliva) is slightly basic. Almost all foods disrupt that for a short time (plaque is the real villain) but chewing gum can help a lot – especially a gum with xylotol or a similar sugar. Incidentally, because saliva is both basic and has some buffer capacity, one of the most effective cures for heart burn is to chew a stick of gum. Far better than a lot of other chemicals going in.

Mark

Don K says:
The specific issue raised by acidification alarmists is the affect of lower pH on marine creatures that have shells/skeletons made from Calcium Carbonate. And they do seem to have a point. Excess alkalinity may be tough on the critters themselves, but it won’t harm the shells. Excess acidity on the other hand makes it harder to form shells/skeletons and tends to dissolve existing shells. That’s oversimplified to begin with and is exacerbated when the acidifying (neutralizing) agent is CO2 which not only acidifies but supplies Carbonate and Bicarbonate Ions. The chemistry of Calcium Carbonate in sea water looks to be exceedingly complex. The “system” consists of solid Calcium Carbonate, Calcium Ions, Magnesium Ions, Carbonate ions. Bicarbonate Ions, Hydrogen Ions, and Hydroxyl (OH-) ions. It is very difficult to analyze. And it is temperature sensitive.
The chemistry is complex without even considering that biochemistry is very complex.
IIRC When experiments have been done with actual animals a slight reduction in pH (especially due to added CO2) is no problem at all. Indeed some actually appear to be better in such an environment.

Willis Eschenbach – “The ocean is not getting acidified by additional CO2. It is getting neutralized by additional CO2”
Which in other words means the pH is declining and the oceans are becoming acidified.

Great plain language post. Illustrative examples are great for us without PhDs.
Don’t think neutralization is going to catch on with the AGW crowd… far too neutral.

Labmunkey

@JJ, are you aware that you’ve made the same generalisation mistakes that you’re accusing willis of?
Willis, i greatly enjoy reading your pieces, they are well thought out, well written and often very insightful. I get the impression we’d have some interesting chats over a dram or two…
That said, you’ve left yourself open to some legitimate criticism here in this piece which i think detract from the main and 100% correct points made.
Your assertions that alkalinity is of more concern than acidity, is not wholly safe. Both have issues and as ever, it’s the dergee and the ‘site’ of the acction that matters, i.e. the pH and the area- (skin or stomach lining, fish scales or eyes etc etc).
I can understand why you’ve written it such, but it think it could do with tightening up slightly.
Finally, your points on the terminology are bang on. It annoys me greatly (as a scientist) to see people misunderstanding or worse, willfully conflating scientific terminiology to suit their position. The ‘acidification/’neutralisation’ point is a prime example of this.
That’s my two pence any way- feel free to disregard 🙂
Happy holidays all!

Jessie

Willis,
A story and news clip for you – acidic, alkaline or plain stupidity…….
Happy New Year to you and your family, thank you for the great posts in 2010.
Learning much, with chuckles.
http://www.couriermail.com.au/news/national/elvis-the-crocodile-charges-at-zookeepers-who-use-lawnmowers-as-shields-at-the-australian-reptile-park/story-e6freooo-1226231757395

vincent

I’ve published quite a bit in this area and yes willis is right it seems a mild alkalosis is generally more toxic than a mild acidosis. BTW human blood pH is very very tightly controlled at 7.4 which for us biologist is “neutral” as disctinct to 7.0 for lab people.Anyway one example is the conversion of non-toxic NH4 (not lipid soluble) to very toxic NH3 (lipid soluble by just a slight rise in blood pH . This probably occurrs in oceans as well re fish and ammonia. This is just one example.. there are probably thousands more in biology

Mariwarcwm

Crosspatch – I am very interested in your idea that species have died because of the drop in CO2 from 3500ppm to the present level. No one seems to ask why dinosaurs, for example were so very large, and the vegetation on which they lived equally large. All that lovely CO2 perhaps? Then, about 55 million years ago when CO2 dropped below 3500ppm, the dinosaurs and their vast vegetation died out and everything got a lot smaller. What was the plant that caused a sharp drop during the next million years?

random non-scientist in the USA

I like the comments in this one. They got me thinking critically about the post. My only question would be: Although it is lower pH toward Neutral, would life that is accustomed to, say a pH of 8, feel or have an effect that 7 is Acidic, even though 7 is defined as neither? Maybe the premise of this argument is incorrect as it feels like wordplay and relativism.
I believe Mr. Eschenbach’s point was that “acidification” is an incorrect term as well as hyberbolic for the masses whom are more familiar with acid, with a second point being that there are natural fluctuations that are almost never mentioned. Well done on those points. What is the term was changed to “declining alkalinity” as opposed to “acidifying”? I only believe that would inform better, yet would have absolutely the same effect for the activists, which are inflexible as on every other issue.
-took a short detour to wikipedia-
I had been under the assumption most of my life that water-life was guided by salinity levels. I see they have different physiology, therefore changes mean they can expand their typical locations. I also found that salt is generally an alkali. Is this what makes the majority of alkalinity in oceans? If so it would correlate to sea levels, which in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida don’t seem any closer to A1A or the condos than where it was when I was a kid 20-30 years ago. Does alkalinity vary at various depths? various temps?
Seems I came up with more questions. I can’t do anything about the fancy equations and charts put up; but this feels like some basic science within my grasp. Feel like a kid again getting one of those science kits with litmus paper strips in it. For the ocean, I usually only worry about man-o-war’s, sewage leak, an wayward sharks…I guess riptides too, but I consider that more a challenge that threat.

philincalifornia

Mark says:
December 28, 2011 at 3:52 am
Don K says:
The chemistry is complex without even considering that biochemistry is very complex.
IIRC When experiments have been done with actual animals a slight reduction in pH (especially due to added CO2) is no problem at all. Indeed some actually appear to be better in such an environment.
=======================================
This link, that summarizes the state of knowledge (i.e. empirical data) on the above, was posted by Streetcred over on the other thread:
http://www.co2science.org/data/acidification/results.php
Thank you Willis. Clearly there are some people who you will never get to admit that above pH7 is not acidic, but such propagandists will never be able to use the “science is settled” blindsiding argument against non-scientists for this topic thanks to prominent articles like this.

P. Solar

excellent article, I am much wiser on this subject now. Thanks.
The interesting bit is the upwelling of deeper ocean water is the most significant of all. Deeper, colder water, with more CO2 is more acidic (sorry , more neutral 😉 ).

Richard111

Some time ago when Lake Nyos killed all those villagers with “poison gas” (CO2), I looked for effects of underwater volcanic release of CO2 and found this informative web page:
http://www.geology.sdsu.edu/how_volcanoes_work/Nyos.html
Scroll down to “triggering mechanisms” and you will find this quote:
“”It had been known for years that the water in Lake Nyos was extremely enriched in dissolved CO2. The lake overlies a volcanic source, which appears to release CO2 and other gases. However, most of this gas does not escape into the atmosphere, but rather dissolves into the bottom waters of the lake. At a depth of over 200 meter, the sheer weight of the upper lake levels exerts considerable pressures on the bottom waters. This confining pressure allows CO2 to dissolve into the bottom waters without escaping to the surface, in much the same way that the cap on a carbonated beverage prevents CO2 from bubbling out of its container. At a depth of 200 meters, water can hold 15 times its own volume in CO2. It has been estimated that every liter of water in the lower part of the lake may have contained between 1 to 5 liters of CO2!””
I understand that there are in the order of ten thousand undersea volcanoes continuously venting CO2 into the oceans at depths far greater than 200 metres. Are these effects taken into account? Does it impact on the much quoted figure of 50:1 for dissolved CO2 in the oceans?

Pamela Gray

The reason why we could “run out” of fossil fuel is not for lack of raw product but for political reasons. Something that is within the control of the greater populous having the courage to demand fossil fuel production. And the key word is courage. If our collective and free will vote cannot bring it to bare, then a little revolution might be in our future, something US citizenry are taught to honor and uphold.

Since 1980 pH of the Oceans & Seas did NOT changed more or less 0.10 pH. The Climate WAR WILL BE WON by those who have Oceans & Seas Analysis since 1980.

For give me for not doing the obvious search, but this might be a good discussion point.
I learned that low pH was corrosive and high pHs were caustic. In between, perhaps “meh” would be a usful use of that neologism. I forget what we called cars rusting out quickly thanks to road salt. (I think Japan called it a sales opportunity and after cars like the Ford Fiesta and Chevy Vega, Detroit called it catchup. “Ford Motor Company hates rust” in commercials. Was Bill Cosby the spokesman? Too long ago.)
All that was in regard to metals and inorganic chemistry. What does corrosion mean to organic chemistry and shellfish?

Rob Painting says:
December 28, 2011 at 3:53 am
Willis Eschenbach – “The ocean is not getting acidified by additional CO2. It is getting neutralized by additional CO2″
Which in other words means the pH is declining and the oceans are becoming acidified.
DocWat says:
December 28, 2011 at 4:02 am
Great plain language post. Illustrative examples are great for us without PhDs.
Don’t think neutralization is going to catch on with the AGW crowd… far too neutral.

Certainly looks that way. A serendipitous pair of adjacent comments!

Steve Keohane

Maybe I’m wrong, but I thought an excess of H ions was acidic, an excess of OH ions alkaline, and you have one or the other. An alkaline solution doesn’t become acidified until there are no OH ions, when pH<=7.0.

richard verney

Rob Painting says:
December 28, 2011 at 3:53 am
////////////////////////////////////
No No No No
As a matter of correct terminology, they would only become acidified once the ph falls below the 7 mark. .

mkelly

JJ says:
December 28, 2011 at 2:03 am
“… Living things have an optimum pH that they can operate with for various functions, and those pH optimums differ from function to function and from species to species…”
JJ we are talking about the oceans or did you miss that. So your sentence above is what he was talking about. ie. The life in the oceans are not harmed by the small variation caused by a change in pH from CO2 because they started there.
I like pickled beets but not biscuits with too much baking soda.

Rob Painting says:
December 28, 2011 at 3:53 am
Rob how can you read this and not understand I have to assume it is a willful and deliberate misunderstanding IT IS NOT ACIDIFYING it is NEUTRALIZING please learn the difference between those words and stop regurgitating whatever the HIGHpriests of CAGW spout in other words THINK FOR YOURSELF. To Willis another home run despite people latching on to side points and missing the real point.

Roger Knights

Rob Painting says:
December 28, 2011 at 3:53 am

Willis Eschenbach – “The ocean is not getting acidified by additional CO2. It is getting neutralized by additional CO2″

Which in other words means the pH is declining and the oceans are becoming acidified.

In other words the oceans are becoming like lemon juice, is what your double-speak implies. But they aren’t. They’re becoming like fresh water–neutral.