How NOAA and Bad Modeling Invented an “Ocean Acidification” Icon: Part 1 – Sea Butterflies

Guest essay by Jim Steele

Director emeritus Sierra Nevada Field Campus, San Francisco State University and author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism

If you google “ocean acidification,” the first 3 websites presented according to “Google’s truth rankings” are: 1) Wikipedia, 2) NOAA’s PMEL site featuring the graphic cartoon shown below with a dissolving pteropod shell (a sea butterfly) as the icon of ocean acidification, and 3) the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal site similarly featuring a dissolving sea butterfly shell. However NOAA’s illustration incorrectly implies shells are dissolving near the surface due to invading anthropogenic atmospheric CO2. As will be shown, the depiction would be far more accurate if it was turned upside down, so that the downward arrows point upwards to illustrate shell dissolution happens when old carbon stored at depth is upwelled to the surface. Furthermore the horizontal depiction of extreme dissolution illustrated by their intact (green) sea butterfly shell dissolving into an extremely shriveled shell (red), rarely if ever happens in the ocean’s upper layers. Surface waters are supersaturated regards calcium carbonates. Although upwelling causes some near surface dissolution, dead sea-butterfly shells only experience such extreme dissolution when they sink to depths containing ancient corrosive waters.


As for most organisms, pteropod populations fluctuate over the short term. But research finds no significant long-term trends in pteropod abundance. Nonetheless NOAA’s Nina Bednarsek has been preparing a preliminary report arguing sea butterflies should be listed as endangered and NOAA’s cartoon appears to be an attempt to gain support for her claims. To warrant endangered status, Bednarsek presents a hypothesis that increasing CO2 has reduced critical pteropod habitat by raising the depth of calcium carbonate saturation horizons. The threshold above which high concentrations of carbonate ions (CO32-) promote abiotic calcium carbonate precipitation but below which favors dissolution, is referred to as the saturation horizon. The horizon is quantified as 1, and higher numbers characterize supersaturated water that favor calcification. As seen below in Fig 10 from Jiang 2016, most of the globe’s surface oceans are supersaturated.


Bednarsek assumes anthropogenic carbon is mostly accumulating near the surface based on modeling results. However as detailed in Part 2, all ocean acidification models are deeply flawed based on an incorrect assumption that CO2 enters the ocean and is then transported like an inert tracer. But CO2 is not inert! When CO2 first invades sunlit surface waters, it indeed dissolves into 3 forms of inorganic carbon (DIC) and lowers pH (DIC is discussed in How Gaia and Coral Reefs Regulate Ocean pH). But in contrast to those models, DIC is rapidly assimilated into particulate organic carbon via photosynthesis, which raises pH. Particulate organic carbon (alive or dead) is heavy, and if not consumed and recycled, it sinks. For millions of years, this process created and maintained a DIC/pH gradient with high pH/low DIC near the surface and low pH/higher DIC at depth.

Gravity drives the biological pump and removes a significant proportion of organic carbon (assimilated from both natural and anthropogenic carbon). That carbon is transported to depths where it can be harmlessly sequestered for hundreds to thousands of years. However NOAA’s models fail to account for the biological pump, based on the narrow belief that carbon storage is strictly “a chemical and physical response to rising atmospheric CO2” (Sabine 2010). In contrast to Bednarsek’s anthropogenic hypothesis, an increase in the assimilation of CO2 and an efficient biological pump can prevent a decrease in surface pH and calcium carbonate saturation. In fact experiments show CO2 is often a limiting nutrient. Mesocosm experiments found that when atmospheric CO2 was increased, primary production by plankton community consumed 39% more DIC. When primary production increases, more carbon is shuttled to depth.


Meet the Sea Butterflies


Sea butterflies are pteropods, a kind of snail exclusively living in the open ocean. A cubic meter of seawater may contain 50 to several thousand individuals. Unlike their terrestrial relatives that plod along on a slimy “foot”, pteropods transformed their foot into a pair of wings to “fly” through ocean waters.

Pteropods are divided into two main groups: sea butterflies with extremely thin, coiled or cone-shaped shells, and “naked” sea angels that evolved a way to shut off their shell-making genes completely when larvae. Sea butterflies feed by suspending themselves in the water column and extruding a web of mucus that passively catches sinking plankton and other organic particles. In contrast sea angels specialized to aggressively prey on sea butterflies. Abandoning their shell suggests whatever benefits a shell may have provided, those benefits were not critical, but losing the shell increased their maneuverability for the hunt. When encountering a sea butterfly, the bizarre sea angel shoots out tentacles from its head. The tentacles dig into the butterflies’ shells and if properly grasped, the tentacles give the angel leverage to extract the butterfly from its shell opening. Below is a 2-minute video below of a sea angel attacking a sea butterfly. Fish and whales also feed on sea butterflies, gulping mouthfuls at a time. So overall the butterfly’s shell offers precious little protection from their main predators.

While Bednarsek fears pteropods might not adapt quickly enough to rising atmospheric CO2, pteropod behavior argues they are already well adapted. Sea butterflies prefer to graze in highly productive regions generated by nutrient rich but corrosive upwelled waters. Accordingly upwelled regions are typically key reproductive habitat supporting an abundance of juveniles. Sea butterflies are most abundant in the upper 50 meters of the ocean, grazing on abundant phytoplankton. However depending on the species, the population, and location, most sea butterflies migrate daily to depths of 100 meters or more (sometimes below 500 meters) where pH can drop to around 7.6 and waters become corrosive. Similarly they will migrate to deeper more “acidic” depths to over-winter. And although tropical waters are the most supersaturated and the most unlikely to promote shell dissolution, pteropods are least abundant in those tropical waters. In contrast they are very abundant in marginally supersaturated waters around Antarctica.

All calcifying organisms have a protective organic layer that minimizes sensitivity to any changes in seawater pH and all isolate their calcifying chambers from ambient water conditions. Mollusks like clams, oysters and snails have a protective outer layer of organic tissue called the periostracum. The mollusk periostracum has allowed them to colonize the acidic depths of ocean floors, colonize freshwater lakes and streams where pH falls to truly acidic levels below 6.0, and to colonize the flanks of submerged volcanoes where escaping CO2 naturally lowers the pH between 7.3 and 5.39.

Single cell foraminifera and coccolithophorids have some of the thinnest organic layers that effectively prevent dissolution, and the petite sea butterfly has one of the thinnest mollusk periostraca. How well it protects the sea butterfly has created a debate between Bednarsek and other pteropod researchers. Bednarsek argues the sea butterfly’s thin periostracum, especially in juveniles, offers very little to no protection from low pH water suggesting they are very susceptible to life threatening shell dissolution. In contrast other researchers argue shell dissolution occurs when the periostracum is damaged. During the sea butterflies’ short life, which can be less than a year, they are under constant attacks from predators like sea angels that can damage their periostracum. There also exists a whole range of shell-inhabiting/shell-digesting organisms from bacteria to sponges and worms (aka the epibiont) that drill through a mollusk’s periostracum. Thus researchers argue when the periostracum remains intact, “the shell appears pristine with no sign of dissolution”, even when exposed to undersaturated waters. Only the damaged shells showed dissolution when exposed to undersaturated water. Based on observations, they concluded sea butterflies “are perhaps not as vulnerable to ocean acidification as previously claimed, at least not from direct shell dissolution.”


Furthermore to counteract shell dissolution in damaged areas, sea butterflies rapidly repair their shells by adding more calcium carbonate to the inside of the shell. Biogenic calcification happens at much greater rates than dissolution, and such rapid repair mechanisms would be expected for an animal seeking low pH upwelled waters to graze.

Ironically Bednarsek’s electron microscope images of corroded sea butterfly shells, provide evidence that supports her detractors. The shell (Figure 2 above) from Bednarsek’s 2014 paper, shows severe dissolution (labeled “b”) on the innermost whorls, similar to her other images (not shown here) showing widespread dissolution on juvenile shells. However despite dissolution during its juvenile stage, the snail clearly survived and continued to grow. The subsequent growth shows very little dissolution (labeled “a”). That suggests two possible scenarios that are not mutually exclusive. The snail’s exposure to corrosive waters was limited to short-term episodic upwelling during its earliest years, and was an insignificant cost of grazing in highly productive waters. Or if corrosive conditions continued, then the more developed periostracum protected the shell from further dissolution. The small area of severe dissolution within the section of unharmed shell (the patch to the right of region b) further supports the argument that dissolution only happens where there is damage. Otherwise, if the periostracum provided little protection, then the whole region would have suffered dissolution not just the isolated patch. Thus life-threatening dissolution is just conjecture, and as Bednarsek later admits, “dissolution-driven mortality in pteropods has not been directly confirmed.”


Catastrophic Dissolution?


Long before the politics of climate wars emerged, Mark Twain quipped, “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.” Indeed the oft-cited Orr 2005 “ocean acidification” paper is an iconic example illustrating Twain’s observation. Orr et al examined just 14 living sea butterflies (Clio pyramidata, see photograph below), captured in the subarctic Pacific. Orr exposed them for 48 hours to experimentally induced under-saturated water that he predicted would occur in the future around Antarctica due to rising atmospheric CO2. All specimens survived. However scanning electron microscopy revealed etching on their shells.


Although it is highly unlikely such minor etching would be of any consequence, Orr 2005 jumped to hypothesizing that pteropod species “will not be able to adapt quickly enough to live in the undersaturated conditions”. Orr 2005 lamented rising atmospheric CO2 would reduce pteropod habitat and survival, leading to ecosystem collapse in polar regions. He speculated arctic pteropods could be forced southward to warmer waters that were more saturated. Due to the butterfly’s imagined extirpation via dissolution, he predicted sea butterfly predators such as sea angels, fish and whales would all suffer. Such was their wholesale catastrophic conjecture, published in a top journal, based on etching in 14 specimens.

Observed Dissolution due to Ancient CO2 Enriched Waters

Nina Bednarsek followed with a 2012 paper in which she too attributed shell dissolution of a sea butterfly (Limacina helicina) to increasing anthropogenic CO2. Media outlets promoted her conclusions in articles like Science Daily’s “First Evidence Of Ocean Acidification Affecting Live Marine Creatures In The Southern Ocean.Unfortunately the term “ocean acidification” is indiscriminately used to describe any reduction of pH even if naturally induced by upwelling.

On her cruise through the Scotia Sea (just north of the Antarctic peninsula), Bednarsek collected snails at depths of 200 meters from 6 different stations. Snails at five stations showed no evidence of shell dissolution. All stations exhibited supersaturated surface waters. Her shell dissolution was limited to just one station.

All stations experienced upwelling and Bednarsek acknowledged, “these upwelled waters are approximately 1000 years old”. Thousand-year old water means it had not contacted the surface for 1000 years, and those deep waters had not absorbed any anthropogenic CO2. The water’s corrosiveness was due to a millennium of decomposing sunken organic matter that increasingly released CO2 and lowered pH. Still she conjectured the observed dissolution was due to anthropogenic CO2.

Because winds will mix supersaturated surface waters with corrosive upwelled waters in the upper 200 meters, mixing can neutralize any corrosive effects of upwelled waters. To attribute her observed dissolution to anthropogenic CO2, Bednarsek argued recent invasions of anthropogenic CO2 into the surface water had lowered its surface pH to such an extent, mixing no longer counteracted the low pH of upwelled water. It was a reasonable hypothesis, however there was no evidence to support it.

At the one and only station where snails had experienced dissolution, surface waters were far more supersaturated than at any other station. In contrast to Bednarsek’s narrative, that station’s supersaturated waters should have had the most neutralizing effect. Her anthropogenic attribution was simply not consistent with observations. More parsimoniously either that one station experienced greater upwelling, or there was less wind mixing to deepen the neutralizing effect. It is puzzling why peer-review or the editors at Nature allowed her unsupported anthropogenic conclusion to be published.

In 2014, NOAA News promoted another paper by Bednarsek about dissolving sea butterfly shells with the headlines, “NOAA-Led Researchers Discover Ocean Acidity Is Dissolving Shells Of Tiny Snails Off The U.S. West Coast.” NOAA’s press release explicitly stated the term “ocean acidification” described the process of ocean water becoming corrosive as a result of absorbing nearly a third of the carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere from human sources.” In contrast, her observed shell dissolution only happened where upwelling was the greatest, along Oregon and northern California. Along southern California where upwelling was minimal, Bednarsek found no dissolution. If acidification was due to atmospheric CO2, we would expect a more uniform pattern of dissolution. But again Bednarsek set forth a scenario to blame anthropogenic CO2, arguing upwelled waters had been directly “acidified” by anthropogenic CO2.

She speculated the upwelled waters had been near the surface 50 years ago, during which time it equilibrated with the 1960s atmosphere. Those waters then sank to depths of 80 to 200 meters, and were now upwelled to the surface. However the problem with this scenario is the source of upwelled waters along the California Oregon coast can be traced back to the California Undercurrent. The California Undercurrent originates in equatorial regions primarily at depths 100 to 200 meters and flows poleward beneath the equatorward flowing California Current. The undercurrent is supplied with low pH, low oxygen, and high inorganic carbon waters from the eastern tropical Pacific. Due to the accumulation of ancient carbon, the eastern tropical Pacific contains some of the oldest waters on earth and more than any other region on earth ventilates tremendous amounts of CO2 from the ocean into the air.

Studies of the changing characteristics of the California Undercurrent conclude all its “changes are consistent with an increasing influence of Pacific equatorial waters” over the past decades. During a negative Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) or a La Nina, research shows the California Undercurrent acquires increased amounts of those ancient waters and upwelling is stronger. Although those studies did not consider possible anthropogenic contributions, the trends in lower oxygen and lower pH were explained by natural increased mixing of older water masses. That mixing trend could represent decadal variability or the centuries long increasing upwelling trend documented under the Peru Current (detailed in Part 2).

The same corrosive upwelling associated with Bednarsek’s sea butterfly dissolution was also responsible for the corrosive waters that oyster fisherman unwittingly pumped into larval-rearing tanks in 2008-9. (To make matters worse, oyster fishermen pumped water in the early morning when nighttime respiration further acidified the water). And consistent with multidecadal variability, during the previous negative PDO from 1940 to the late 70s, corrosive upwelled waters had similarly reduced survival of larval oysters in those bays. Clearly natural oscillations episodically upwell more nutrient-rich, oxygen-poor corrosive waters. And because oceans contain the greatest concentration of inorganic carbon by far, the question remains has anthropogenic CO2 significantly exacerbated the corrosiveness of natural upwelling? In contrast, NOAA’s Richard Feely believes anthropogenic CO2 is the primary factor. Thus he answers that question with an upside down perspective, stating upwelling “exacerbates [anthropogenic] ocean acidification”. And as detailed in part 2, NOAA’s models have an upside down representation of carbon distribution.

The sea butterfly joins the parade of icons like polar bears, penguins, pika, mangroves and Parmesan’s butterflies where the effects of natural climate variability or direct human interference are obscured and falsely promoted as catastrophic climate change.


Jim Steele is author of Landscapes & Cycles: An Environmentalist’s Journey to Climate Skepticism


100 thoughts on “How NOAA and Bad Modeling Invented an “Ocean Acidification” Icon: Part 1 – Sea Butterflies

  1. I wish climate scientists would go extinct….. Perhaps if we heap more facts on them, they’ll corrode?

    • Facts are their life blood. The average expert knows thousands of times more facts about her area of expertise than do the rest of us. When an expert is wrong she can find all kinds of facts to bolster her case. When an expert’s opinion is proven to be wrong, she has defences.

      (1) I was just off on timing – my predictions will eventually be borne out;
      (2) An improbable event occurred that changed the outcome;
      (3) My reasoning was accurate;
      (4) My error was the lesser of the two errors that one could have made. link

      Experts who are wrong can easily rationalize why they aren’t actually wrong. More facts don’t seem to help.

      • I have another accuse: My error was in the 2-sigma and therefore in the wither band of errors.

      • the sea butterfly reminds me of a 3 bladed propeller I had on an outboard, after hitting a rock.

        So why would adding CO2 to the oceans cause less shellfish? Shell is made from CO2. Without CO2 in teh ocean there would be no shellfish. One might as well argue that adding protein to your diet will reduce the amount of protein in your body.

    • One fact that eluded her was that the ocean waters already have 99% of free CO2 of the system in it. How can a dribble more CO2 in it be so dangerous?

      • The whole acid thing is a farce.

        There are tons per hectare of manganese nodules coating the ocean floor. It can never go acid with that much metal buffer.

        There are liquid CO2 seeps on the ocean floor from natural sources. The ocean bottom it litterally saturated with CO2 in many places, and life is happy.

        Fress water clams and shellfish live in pH 4 water. Commonly. Shellfish have no trouble with water far more acidic than the ocean could ever reach if 100% of all global carbon and Sulphur were burned and disolved.

        That’s the reality.

    • Its always about the money. Take away the money and they go extinct. What possible benefit to anyone this line of research can offer is not fathomable. So take away their budgets and watch for the new crisis sure to be invented to justify yet more unsustainable spending without any benefit.

      These people exist in a closed system. The reality they face is that there is no reason for their economic existence. They can ONLY work for taxpayers and when faced with real tasks they fail to deliver a benefit someone will pay to get. So they can ONLY work for government who collect taxes by force.

      The real problem now faced by everyone is that there are now too many rent seekers by regulation. The system can only keep going by inflating assets, making asset rich entities and individuals “richer” while driving down wage growth and savings even as existing infrastructure is not maintained, all “paid” by debt to bankers who “create” wealth without effort.

      A tiny increase in interest rates and the “house of cards” come crashing down with a tsunami of defaults. The amazing thing is that the next chapter is all about private public partnerships, whereby high rates of interest are used to hide public debt in order to get re-elected and enrich developers. These government backed rates usually set at 8%+ interest inevitably lead to retail failures and lower rates of home ownership.

      Government should never guaranty a PPP. It ALWAYS leads to corruption via the usual route of hedge fund interest clipping (20%), trailing commissions (1-2%) and covert side agreements with unions and politicians. Such schemes are often promoted by government employees who can at best be described as naive, some receiving direct benefit. Such people are the modern day equivalent of miracle cures promoters of the pre 20th century.

  2. Shelled creatures evolved around 500 million years ago. For most of the time between then and now the level of atmospheric CO2 has been significantly greater than it is now. link

    The alarmists’ version of the poster child for ocean acidification is coral. Coral evolved hundreds of millions of years ago when CO2 levels were much higher by perhaps an order of magnitude.

    If CO2 is so dangerous for shelled critters, how were they able to evolve in the first place?

    • Gets me every time this. People banging on about “think about the corals!” forgetting that corals have been around millions of years and even the crop we have now have been around 10’s if not 100’s of thousands of years. They’ve survived it all…hotter, colder, more co2, less co2 and indeed extinction level events. I wouldn’t be worrying about them to be honest, they’re clearly far more resilient than people give them credit for.

      • Interglatial period caused water level to rise by about 140m. This means, that all known coral reefs are quite new creation. So why bother. Next glaciation is going to *destroy* all reefs anyway (to relocate).

      • Think of the corals.
        Think of the children.
        Think of the polar bears.

        I’m sick of it.

        Let’s think of something else.

        Think of the facts.
        Think of the truth.
        Think of the benefits.


        Think of what you’re having for lunch.

      • Environmentalists are always projecting their own frailty upon natural systems which are in fact incredibly resistant and strong.

      • Over on National Review, one young green is trying to convince everyone that any changes to the environment must necessarily lead to disaster for the eco-system.

    • atmospheric CO2 has been significantly greater than it is now….

      Which says it’s not being replaced as fast as it’s used

    • And we do not know all coral living in the planet.

      The most extensive study to date, published today in Science Advances, reveals that the reef covers an area larger than Delaware—some 3,600-square miles, stretching from the French Guiana border to Brazil’s Maranhão State—and likely supports many species previously unknown to science. The reef is so odd, in fact, that its discoverers believe it may constitute an entirely new type of ecological community.

      Read more:

      • urederra,

        Studies such as this one, [ Carlos Daniel Perez, a marine biologist at the Universidade Federal de Pernambuco in Vitoria de Santo Antao in Brazil ] says, are critical for identifying those important areas and designing environmental management protocols to protect them.”

        Never reported bevore 2015 – immediately critical to protect them!

  3. Many “endangered” species listings are bogus. In my area there is a tree that is listed as endangered which the conservation advice states is an invasive species in a neighbouring state. This tree is freely available as tubestock in nurseries.

    Part of the justification for listing it as “endangered” is “escape of coal seam gas leading to poisoning of the soil and vegetation”.

    There is no coal seam gas in my area.

    This is in the official government document.

    The enlightenment is dead.

  4. Hence the term “Carbonate Compensation Depth”…. Just sayin’

  5. I find it amusing when I hear of the delicate sea creatures and corals which will be destroyed by ocean “acidification”.
    When the North Eastern Coast of Queensland (Australia) gets a decent downpour, the “acidic” rivers flow into the Coral Sea at several hundreds of thousands of cubic metres PER MINUTE for days.
    And that’s not all folks: the highly “acidic” rain falls all over the reef at up to 100mm/hour for several hours.
    How have things survived?
    It is absolutely amazing – unless you happen to believe in Mother Nature.

      • Maybe in sea water the acidic rain is buffered, but in my swimming pool it makes the water so alkaline that I have to add Hydrochloric Acid to stop the water getting too alkaline.

      • But buffered to what? If I mix 9 parts of sea water to 8.25 ph (tropical sea water) with 1 part of acid water to 5.2 ph, I get a mixed water of 7.94 ph. A joint survey of the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) concludes that before industrialization the average pH was at 8.16, while Today it is 8.05. The acidification is attributed to the human emissions of carbon dioxide and is estimated to be 0.11 pH units.
        However, acidification occurs also in the vicinity of the coast or the sea due to acidic emissions caused by sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides (see acid rain). I would estimate this acidification by at least 0.04 ph units by pollution so that the factor of the chemically acting CO2 will be 0.07 units. We therefore have an increase in CO2 emissions since pre-industrial times of 280 ppm to 390 ppm (average), since there is a certain time lag between CO2, intake and chemical effect in seawater. 110 ppm increase in CO2 caused a reduction of the PH value by 0.07 ph units. Based on the above calculation, the same effect as the mixture of 9 parts of seawater with 1 part of river water would have corresponded to a CO2 increase of the atmosphere by 341 ppm. This is more than 3 times the CO2 increase that has occurred since the pre-industrial era. As far as my model calculation. Of course, a recording of CO2 is also dependent on the partial gas pressure on the sea surface, but also on the surface temperature of the water. The gas pressure brings CO2 into the water, the warming counteracts this. And in tropical areas the daily warming will be very great. If, according to the above post, the coral goes very well at the local level of perhaps 7.94 ph units, this will also be the case on average with a CO2 content of 730 ppm or more. From 21 million years ago to 7.5 million years ago, the PH value of the world’s oceans averaged at even only 7.4 ph units and increased to above 8 ph in modern times. The corals have been around 500 million years. The individual symbionts are partially up to 4,000 years old before the natural death occurs. And newcomers must take their place. The corals had their strongest growth phase at about the time when the PH value was only 7.4 ph. Much worse is the continually occurring nutrient input into the world’s oceans. Risk of sewage and water pollution through agriculture. Especially in countries of third world are often waste water treatment plants, so that sewage also from large cities often unclarified in the sea. Also has the agricultural fertilization even in these areas overtaken. Nutrient-rich sewage promote the reefing of the reefs macro and thread algae; the algae fish can their tasks no longer fulfill, especially since they often themselves are strongly decimated. The corals are made of soft algae. In this way plays a role the risk of smear entry (building activity, rainforest logging). Intense building activity encourages the initiation of dust and silt in the coastal area waters. These become too cloudy, so that the necessary light is missing. But so it has always been, the real risks are rarely named in times of high-spirited global warming; rather, the problems which are not, or perhaps to a very small extent, are assumed. Thus coral death is not the heart concern of the AGW disciples, but only the vehicle to promote it. For this, the real problems are already swept under the table. The same problems, on the other hand, as on land, which led to the probable construction of the wall between the USA and Mexico, and which have already led to the other fence systems in the world (also in Europe): namely the increasing overpopulation in the 3rd world due to increasing life expectancy and A far too high birth rate. These are the real problems.

      • Thank you Hans-Georg, especially for your observation that the corals are merely used as talking points and are of no real concern to the Greens, just like eagles.

      • Yeah, but scleractinian corals have only been around for less than 250 million years.


      • Hans-Georg,
        The pre-industrial pH is an estimate based on a computer model, not actual measurements. Even assuming for the sake of argument that the model has merit, there are numerous factors, such as temperature and salinity, that are unstated assumptions and can influence the actual pH. More importantly, upwelling and diurnal variations related to photosynthesis are of greater magnitude than the claimed change from pre-industrial values. As is so often the case with CAGW, there is a lot of hand waving and little specific information about the unstated assumptions.

      • Phil,
        Mixing is far from instantaneous.
        On the Great Barrier Reef, the shoreline pH is significantly lower than the outer reef water.
        Guess what – same corals and marine life in general “as far as the eye can see”.
        How about that!!!

      • Hans-Georg March 1, 2017 at 8:15 am
        But buffered to what? If I mix 9 parts of sea water to 8.25 ph (tropical sea water) with 1 part of acid water to 5.2 ph, I get a mixed water of 7.94 ph.

        How did you make the acid water? By dissolving a known amount of CO2 in it, if you made by adding another acid you’re comparing apples and oranges. You need to include the bicarbonate equilibrium.
        Your understanding of seawater chemistry seems a little lacking with regard to the discussion of the role of SO2 and NOx pollutants so your model needs revision.

  6. I understood that one of the natural bi-products of the calcification process is actually CO2 itself – be it from stalactites, stalagmites, limescale or, as in this case, molluscs.

    • Phil is correct.

      An organic carbon molecule is a molecule that is joined to one or more other carbons,such as carbohydrtes and hydrocarbons. Dissolved CO2 can take 3 forms (or “species”) collectively referred to as Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (henceforth DIC):

      1) Carbonic acid (H2CO3),

      2) Bicarbonate ion (HCO3-) after losing one H+

      3) Carbonate ion (CO3-2) after losing a second H+ .

  7. It just fries me that my tax dollars pay the salary, benefits, and retirement for people that are nothing more than activists. As the political left in America has learned so well, they can depend on activist judges to force their agenda on an unwilling and unconvinced public. “Bednarsek has been preparing a preliminary report arguing sea butterflies should be listed as endangered…” Yes and once the little critters are found to be “endangered” then the courts can force American citizens and businesses to curb their CO2 emissions without their consent.

  8. ‘Ocean acidification’.
    ‘Sea level rise’.
    ‘Climate disruption’.
    ‘Ocean oxygen depletion’.
    ‘Acid rain’.
    ‘Catastrophic crop failures’.
    ‘Migrant movement’.
    And no doubt there’s a few more I’ve overlooked (or to come.)

    ALL designed as enablers to pad out any inconvenient non-rising temperature data and thus propagate AGW theory.

    • Acid rain is a real thing… a real problem which caused environmental damage… one where a solution has been found by concerted action in upgrading power plants.

      • Acid rain was so overblown that after a 10 year study,that was originally mandated by Congress,showed no such impact as claimed,it slowly died away. It was discovered that Rain itself is acidic and so are many lakes and streams NATURALLY acidic.

        It was not deserving the hyperbole it got.

      • Acid rain existed in computer models. Not so much the real world.
        Most of the problems with so called acid rain turned out to be caused by fields returning to forest after farming in the area was abandoned.

      • Let us assume that you are correct for a moment. Do you not see the problem here?

        The constant bombardment by ‘activists’ using one ‘crisis’ after another leaves people numb. I believe that this will backfire badly. Situations genuinely requiring action simply get lost in the ‘noise’. Boy who cried wolf ‘n’ all that.

      • Tommy, Mark… don’t talk such utter rot.

        Neither overblown, nor modelled. A serious environmental threat, fixed (nearly)

        In Europe the effects were widely felt and remediated with power station sulphur scrubbing.

      • 3×2 (You are number 6?)

        If you don’t want crises, then perhaps you should campaign against the people who keep causing environmental crises. These are real problems with real fixes. It is just convenient for some peoples profits to play them down.

      • Griff,

        I stand by my statement that the Acid Rain controversy was OVERBLOWN. Rain is already around ph 5.5 to begin with,most soils in the NE are naturally acidic and so were the lakes and streams. The claimed damage to the ecosystem was also overblown as well.

        Here is the PDF of that 10 year study I mentioned:

        Get educated on the issues will help you not be so easily mislead in the future.

      • sunsettommy, you make the assumption that Griffie doesn’t want to be led astray.
        When’s one income depends on always being wrong, you can count on some always being wrong.

      • “Griff March 1, 2017 at 11:13 am

        In Europe the effects were widely felt and remediated with power station sulphur scrubbing.”

        So *NOT* caused by CO2 like we’re told huh? BTW, rain has a natural pH range between 4.5 – 5.5…that’s quite a bit more than 7 or ~8.1.

  9. I would imagine bringing an end to wholesale whaling did more to decrease numbers of this set of fascinating creatures than increased anthropogenic CO2 ever could.

    • Considering they are part of the first link of the marine food chain (Plankton) , I would say Bingo to that Pamela!

  10. A clear and thoughtful paper Jim. I have a LOT of reservations about it, but not my usual which is that I know virtually nothing about ocean acidification but even though I’m a dolt, I know more than the paper’s author does. At least I took (and passed) an upper division Physical Chemistry class — which most of these folks clearly haven’t. A couple of points.

    1. Fresh water typically is far more acidic than ocean waters. Rain pH is typically 6 or less (Google says 5.6). Many shelled mollusks do quite well in fresh water — even waters that largely lack the Calcium and Magnesium cations that buffer marine pH. When the #$@%^ zebra mussels start dying off from acid rain, I’ll start worrying. But I truly don’t expect that to happen.

    2. Ocean surface water pH varies geographically over about 0.4 pH units — a factor of about 2.5 when delogarithmified. Atmospheric CO2 is well mixed and its partial pressure at sea level is pretty much the same everywhere. Henry’s law and the definition of pH would seem to seem to dictate that pH changes due to increased atmospheric concentration of CO2 would be greatest in the areas where the ocean is least acidic (highest pH) and would fall off rapidly in more acidic waters. Therefore I should think that the place to look for the effects of increasing CO2 would be the least acidic areas.not the more acidic areas.

    3. While I have serious doubts about the accuracy of all paleo-proxies for anything — temperature, CO2, pH, etc — it does seem likely that CO2 levels in the Cretaceous and early Tertiary were substantially higher than today. Marine life seemingly did fine except for that short period when the Deccan traps were erupting and that big rock impacted in the GOM

    • “Ocean surface water pH varies geographically over about 0.4 pH units — a factor of about 2.5 when delogarithmified. Atmospheric CO2 is well mixed and its partial pressure at sea level is pretty much the same everywhere. Henry’s law and the definition of pH would seem to seem to dictate that pH changes due to increased atmospheric concentration of CO2 would be greatest in the areas where the ocean is least acidic (highest pH) and would fall off rapidly in more acidic waters. Therefore I should think that the place to look for the effects of increasing CO2 would be the least acidic areas.not the more acidic areas.”

      I have to play out that in parts. The variety in the pH value is greatest where the CO2 concentration is greatest, namely in the pole water bodies. However, this is due to the fact that warmer salted water that has transported constantly from lower latitudes sinks downwards and with it the previously absorbed CO2. The pH value in tropical waters is therefore average 8.25 units, regional higher, while in the arctic waters it can partly drop to 7.5 ph units. This, however, is a natural process, which does not occur uniformly, the areas of the sinking relocate, increase and decrease continuously. Also the amount of the nordwarths transported Water varies between year and year and also between longer periods. The outgassing of the CO2 from the water is intensified by the cooling of the warm surface water. 10 per cent of the dissolved CO2 is emitted from warm water, and about 30 per cent from cold water in the atmosphere. Since in the oceans much more CO2 is bound than in the atmosphere, the ocean would actually be a carbon source. Globally, the process of outgassing dominates the absorption by the partial pressure. What contributes to the fact that the ocean is a carbon sink is the fact of the sinking of the warm surface water in polar regions and the sinking of organic, carbon-fueled material on the seabed, which is another deep process.The waters in the southern and northern oceans unterlies also a higher chlorophyll cyclus change then in the waters of the tropical oceans. This means that the plant life and the life of the chlorophyll-bearing microorganisms is far more active in the northern and southern laditude waters waters than in the tropical waters with corresponding changes to the CO2 level.The greatest increase in the CO2 level and reduction in the concentration of carbonate ions (CO32-) in surface water occurred between the 1700s and the 1990s in the Atlantic and the southern ocean ( CO2 Content) , above the most in the area of trade winds, polarjet and the Atlantic Ocean el nino area( Carbonate ions) and the southern current. This could mean that in the Atlantic the trade winds and the polarjet may have changed, also the southern current. The partial pressure changes with chancing air pressure and it is obvious that changed wind conditions are caused by a change in air pressure. On the other hand, the other global seas show a very lower trend, also the pazific. The following map shows that the determination of a global CO2 value of the sea water is complete nonsense; the influence of regional conditions on the average can be too great.

      Estimated change of the content of Antropogenic carbon dioxide since 1700 until 1990s

      Estimated change of the carbonate ions (CO32-) since 1700 until 1990s:

      modelled change in ph-units per cent 2081-2100 compared to 1986-2005:


      A good example of “settled science” (sarc) is the following among marine climate scientists:
      1. The current ocean circulation models for the next century show a weaker decline than before in the North Atlantic, mostly (but not only) because the high latitudes heat up faster and warm water does not sink as well. At the same time CO2 would not be transported as efficiently. The physical pump is thus weakened by climate change. As a result, more CO2 is expected to remain in the atmosphere, which will further fuel warming.

      2. On the other hand, it is conceivable that the sinking particles of the organic pump reach larger depths. In most parts of the earth in the ocean, water (as a compensation for sinking in the high latitudes) reaches from the bottom to the top, slowing down the particles. With a weaker circulation, they would not slow down so much and could transport the carbon to greater depth, which also helps to remove CO2 from the air. Both effects are difficult to estimate, since the computer models leave too many possibilities open, which can not be excluded.

      And this controversy because of an insignificant change in the pH of the sea water, considering what the marine life and especially the corals have experienced in the last hundred years. As always, a dispute about the emperor’s beard or a dispute about unplanted eggs around puzzled problems

      • Hans

        Thanks for the long and detailed reply. It’s a bit much to absorb quickly. And, as I said, I have no great desire to become an expert in ocean acidity. But I think you are telling me that atmospheric carbon only drives surface acidity (pH) in the least acidic areas — the (largely lifeless?) tropical oceans far from shore. Elsewhere, surface pH is lower and is mostly controlled by dissolved Carbon, temperature, and the mechanical distribution of dissolved Carbon from equatorial regions toward the poles.

        Is that even close?

  11. Le Chatelier’s Principle has always taken care of too much dissolved CO2.
    The cliffs of Dover are an example.

    The AGW’s are desperate for another Polar Bear cause.

  12. Sea butterflies evolved recently, only showing up late in the Paleocene Epoch, when GASTA was more than 8 °C warmer than today. It rapidly got even hotter during the PETM (55.5 Ma), when CO2 might have been as high as 2400 ppm.

    Consensus “climate scientists” have tried to argue that CO2 might then have been no higher than now, but a recent study by Schubert and Jahren [2013] constrained the range of late Paleocene carbon dioxide concentrations to 674–1034 ppm.

    So worrying about their shells dissolving now or in the 22nd century is, umm, premature.

    Their fellow pteropods, the sea angels, get along without any shell at all.

    • Take it back. The eight degree C estimate is for the PETM, not the Paleocene before it. But early Eocene was at least as warm as the PETM spike but for longer.

  13. That all sounds more like a fishing expedition than science. They were seeking to verify a conclusion with any limited, partial evidence available.

  14. As always, Dr. Steele has a great, informative article. The language of climate science does throw me off. “Acidic” is used to mean waters with pH >7. “Inorganic” carbon means what? Diamonds are inorganic carbon. Do we mean certain inorganic carbon compounds or would we include any inorganic carbon? “Dissolved inorganic carbon” Dissolving diamonds and graphite?

    The way climate “science” uses imprecise language says a lot about it being more political science than real science.

    • I understand the term can be confusing. An organic carbon molecule is a molecule that joined to one or more other carbons,such as carbohydrtes and hydrocarbons. Dissolved CO2 can take 3 forms (or “species”) collectively referred to as Dissolved Inorganic Carbon (henceforth DIC):

      1) Carbonic acid (H2CO3),

      2) Bicarbonate ion (HCO3-) after losing one H+

      3) Carbonate ion (CO3-2) after losing a second H+ .

    • Bob, many skeptics have reacted to the term acidification, when the water is still basic, as if it was used simply as a scare tactic. Indeed the word has a scary connotation, but it is used similarly in many other scientific fields such as medicine. When your arterial blood level falls below 7.35 pH it is considered acidified, and you ave a case of acidosis, even though technically your blood is still alkaline.

      • But, what CO2 concentration is necessary to press sea water below 7.4 ph units? These are completely unrealistic CO2 contents. There fore “skeptics” are perfectly right when they call the slight decline of the basic values of the ocean as such, and not as acidification.

      • I’m aware of the medical terms that incorrectly identify pH when they are talking about CO2 in the blood. 7.45 is alkalosis. So, in between is neutral? Medical terminology is not the same as the purposeful mislabeling of pH for the sake of the AGW scare. It goes the acidic, corrosive oceans when the pH drops from 8.2 to 8.1. You know that is a 30% (rounded) increase in acidity which is really scary. Of course they do not mention that a decrease from 13.9 to 13.8 is the same increase in acidity. No reasonable person would say that that solution is acidic.

        As you so elegantly showed, the ocean pH is quite variable and over a fair range. As one of the skeptics I object to the use of the terms and description of alkaline water as though it was battery acid (~30% H2SO4) with all the corrosivity. I think the mislabeling is purposely misleading and it was one of the things that pushed me along the say to skepticism about climate science.

  15. Those “sea butterflys” look like a busted outboard prop.
    I had one like that after I had met a submerged rock.

  16. Ocean Acidification is a “scientific” Orwellian term and should be struck. Anybody who has studied the environment in situ or even read the literature or studied in a real course should know about pH. Because organic matter usually, as noted, sinks in the ocean the oxygen demand is often highest at the bottom where most of the life is. There are all sorts of things going on there. Although the literature has become badly skewed there is quite of bit of research. This is an interesting one.

    Kristensen, E. 2000. Organic matter diagenesis at the oxic/anoxic interface in coastal marine sediments, with emphasis on the role of burrowing animals. Hydrobiologica 426:1-24.

    In inshore waters that boundary layer can come up into the water column, especially in highly productive areas during calm, warm periods, usually very late at night, and the pH can actually be acid (below 7). I have measured such, but the buffering capacity, even in highly salt water diluted, low salinity estuaries is still so high it is rare. As the article also noted the inert outer organic periostracum contacts the often blackened, sometimes hydrogen sulphide rich sediment. Bivalves, for example, live in abundance buried in such sediment, some surviving with thicker shells. I seem to remember that sulfuric acid is a bit worse than carbonic.

    The so-called dead (hypoxic/anoxic) zones, which are not really dead but azoic at times, the Black Sea permanent at depth, can be hard on shelled animals. However, there are surprising adaptations to a complicated but highly productive and still poorly understood richly diverse (if you like certain cruddy looking organisms) habitat.

  17. From your description this paper is a fine example of how conceited many “climate scientists” are. The author appears to be a “jack of all trades and a master of none!” Where are all the collaborators that are experts about chemistry, marine hydrology, etc. that can keep facts on track and assumptions limited? Far too many climate science papers do not have adequate participation from the necessary specialties. Mann’s paper is a perfect example. Did he include a collaborator that was a biologist and expert in the trees he used. People who could provide the necessary knowledge about exactly what factors affected the tree rings like soil, temperature, rain, etc. Nope, he just assumed he knew enough to make proper factual observations.

  18. In the early eighties it was save the spotted owl stop cutting old growth forests. Scientists claimed among other things that the spotted owl only nested in old growth trees. A good friend of mine was hired to backpack the national forests to count owls. She stated that the owls were nesting in road signs among other places.

    That I beleive thisb example illustrates the dividing line between conservationists and environmentalist. We want to pursue science based common sense policies and enviromentalists have a totally different agenda. AGW is just a hobby horse to ride to nirvana. Silly facts should are not allowed to get in the way.

    • They were probably old growth road signs and/or fake nests planted in the dark of night by the Koch Brothers.

  19. And let’s not forget that increasing temperature increases the saturation state with respect to CaCO3. Increased alkalinity also increases its saturation state, and increased weathering and karstification from higher aCO2 increases the dissolved load of ions delivered to the oceans that contribute to alkalinity. It’s almost as if nature is full of negative feedbacks keeping the system in balance or something /s.

      • It’s a stretch to claim that early life on the earth means that early life on Mars was also probable.
        You could easily say that it makes the possibility of life on early Mars higher. Anything beyond that is wishful thinking.

      • I myself put little to no stock in what someone who speaks in present tense about things imagined to have happened billions of years ago says;

        ““Early Mars and early Earth are very similar places, so we may expect to find life on both planets at this time,” said doctoral student Matthew Dodd, the lead author of the study which was co-funded by Nasa.”

        Seriously, imagining things is not demonstrating things;

        “Space expert Dr Dan Brown of Nottingham Trent University added: “The discovery is exciting since it demonstrates how quickly life can form if the conditions are right on a planet or moon.””

        These are con artists to me, not scientific thinkers. Where’s the even modicum of skepticism here?

        ““We know that life managed to get a foothold and evolve rapidly on Earth. So if we have life evolving in hydrothermal vent systems maybe even 4.2 billion years ago when both planets had liquid water on their surface, then we would expect both planets to develop early life.”

        And no doubt some A-hole is going to demand I accept this crap as “scientific fact”, or I’m “anti-science” . . ’cause the proof is right there set in stone ; )

  20. What is this “acidification” of which we speak? Isn’t it mere “neutralization” until ph is below 7.2?


  21. Jim Steele,
    That was extremely well written.
    I am a college professor (Neuroscience) who has bothered to take the time to learn a new field/discipline of science (for me), AGW. I did this because when I looked a little more closely at the global n US Temp. data acquisition and analysis process, what I found seemed to be, well, biased to say the least. Since then I have endeavored to combat these clear biases. The information you have compiled is more ammo for us to use to show the public that there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark,” …, er, something rotten in the state of CAGW politicization. I look forward to Part 2!, respectfully

  22. It is puzzling why peer-review or the editors at Nature allowed her unsupported anthropogenic conclusion to be published.

    Perhaps the most humorous and understated irony of the entire excellent article. Why, indeed.

    • It’s safer to say that the inclusion of unsupported anthropogenic conclusions is now a requirement for publication.

  23. Ocean acidification, sea level rise, mass extinction, global warming, coral bleaching, climate change, permanent drought, tornadoes; hurricanes….

    See the intent?

  24. “There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.”

    We need a new branch of science to categorise these people- Imagineering or perhaps it should be Fasci-nearing the way they want to ram their fairy dust down everyone’s throat.

    They have a new propaganda pic by the way as polar bears are a bit passe’ this year-
    yada, yada, yada, record temp, yada, yada….then the fine print-
    ‘Wednesday’s WMO report only examined the highs’

  25. Thanks, Dr Steele. Excellent article. It illustrates the primary failing of the “ocean acidification” scare: The scare makes use of junior-high school level inorganic chemistry, while ignoring the complex biochemistry of living organisms which already overcome the hypothesized problems as part of their normal life-cycle. Living cells are also generally more “acidic” internally than is the ocean in which they float.

    Essentially, it the issue boils down to the lexicography of alarmism. Before environmental alarmists discovered the word “radioactive”, the word “acid” was a mainstay of the vocabulary used to frighten the populace with science they might not understand. Of course carbon dioxide can’t be slimed with “nuclear” language, so they have to fall back on traditional fears of chemistry.

  26. I am just so happy to have this website. Many of my friends rely upon me to explain things to them. When we would play Trivial Pursuit they would always give the other team an extra player or two. My friends are hardworking honest individuals who are seeking honest answers. I am smart enough to figure out the language but being able to come up with reliable information was a real challenge before I found this site. The comments which many of you add are also invaluable at times. I simply cannot thank you enough.

  27. whats bugs me most is that the same people who yell about ocean acidification also yell about sea temperatures rising. You cannot have both at the same time. No way. Chemistry forbids it.

      • Solubility does not work that way. The idea is that sea water has a oncentration X of CO2 at a temperature T, while air has a concentration X1 at temperature T1. They say that adding up CO2 , namely increasing X1, also makes T1 increase, and this increases both T and X in the oceans. That cannot happen, Increasing T in the water makes CO2 solubility decrease, so X in water would decrease, not increase. Likewise, increasing X1 in air can increase X in the sea only when T decreases because cold water maintains CO2.

  28. “It is puzzling why peer-review or the editors at Nature allowed her unsupported anthropogenic conclusion to be published.”
    Of course, in a sense it’s not the slightest bit puzzling. We know only too well why this endless corruption of science – and peer review – is occurring.

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