Log in | Jump |


News & Perspective from the Center for Environmental Journalism
This item was posted on April 14, 2010, and it was categorized as Anthropocene, CRU email controversy, Climate Change, Global Warming, ocean acidification.
You can follow comments through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.


Much of the carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans, where it causes the water to become increasingly acidic and therefore corrosive to the materials that form coral reefs. In the images above (based on observations and computer simulations), warmer colors indicate less corrosive conditions, whereas cooler colors show increasingly corrosive conditions. Ocean water in the 1700′s (left) was much less corrosive than what is projected for the year 2100. This is one way that we humans have been leaving a geological mark. (Source: NOAA Science on a Sphere)

Today another inquiry has cleared the scientists of the U.K.’s Climatic  Research Unit of scientific malpractice in the episode that came to be called “Climategate.” It will no doubt consume bloggers climate activists of all stripes for days to come.

On the same day, a much more important report was published about humankind’s overall impact on the planet. But it will receive almost no coverage.

Here’s how the Guardian reported on the Climategate findings:

“The inquiry, the second of three set up in the wake of the controversy, found ‘absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever’, according to Lord Oxburgh, who led the investigation. Instead, Oxburgh said, many of the criticisms and assertions of scientific misconduct were likely made by people ‘who do not like the implications of some the conclusions’ reached by the climate experts.

The hacked emails raised questions about the integrity of scientific research on a matter of great public importance — questions that had to be answered. But in the last few months I’ve come to realize just how much of an unfortunate distraction this episode has been from the much bigger issue: humankind’s undeniable domination of the life support systems of spaceship Earth, and the fact that we’re basically driving the spaceship with blinders on. (Not to mention that we, as the crew, seem wholly oblivious to the fact that our numbers are doubling at a rather rapid clip, and our consumption of limited resources is growing even more rapidly.)

Our impact on the planet is now so profound that it is already leaving unambiguous traces in the geological record.

If there are any paleontologists and geologists around 10 or 20 or 40 million years from now, they will be writing scientific papers about the great mass extinction event that characterized our geologic era, The Anthropocene. And they will no doubt make a temporal connection between the evidence for this mass extinction and the concurrent acidification of the oceans caused by the huge quantities of carbon dioxide that we have been pumping into the atmosphere. A significant portion of that CO2 dissolves in the oceans, lowering the pH of the water and thereby making it more acidic and corrosive to the materials that form coral reefs.

The impact is profound. Carl Zimmer’s reporting for Yale Environment 360 earlier this year, sums it up nicely (and grimly), including this perspective from Andy Ridgwell, an earth scientist at the University of Bristol:

The acidification of the ocean today is bigger and faster than anything geologists can find in the fossil record over the past 65 million years. Indeed, its speed and strength — Ridgwell estimates that current ocean acidification is taking place at ten times the rate that preceded the mass extinction 55 million years ago — may spell doom for many marine species, particularly ones that live in the deep ocean.

“This is an almost unprecedented geological event,” says Ridgwell.

So, was the Medieval Warm Period warmer than it is today? Are there problems with attempts to combine disparate kinds of proxy climate records such as tree ring and ice core data to construct “hockey stick” graphs? These are certainly important scientific questions.

But the political fixation on them keeps us from confronting the bigger truth: We have left a profound geological mark on this planet that should at the very least give us pause. Instead, we’re rushing full speed ahead — with the blinders still clamped tightly over our eyes.

This item was posted by .

You can follow comments through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and trackbacks are closed.

This thing has 3 Comments

  1. Pat Moffitt
    Posted April 15, 2010 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    The hacked CRU emails threatened public trust in climate science and the process. The restoration of trust should have been the most important goal of the UK “climategate” investigation. Lord Oxburgh was chosen to lead the investigation despite the fact he has major financial ownership positions in several renewable energy companies. It should not matter what your belief is with respect to climate change– this was a conflict of interest at best and an abuse of power at worst. We should never condone this behavior.

    The committee’s ruling may be viewed by some as a victory—but the committee’s makeup may have further eroded public trust in both science and government. And the loss of trust within a society may be more dangerous than climate change.

  2. Pat Moffitt
    Posted April 15, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    A couple of points on ocean acidification. The Yale 360 article said seawater typically has a pH of 8.0 to 8.3—which I assume to mean pH can also vary around this range (because it does). So how can anyone claim to be able to measure a drop of 0.1 pH units since the Industrial Revolution? In fact I make the following claim – no-one can measure the average global pH of the oceans –now or 60 MYA- to within +/- 0.1.

    How did they calibrate their models? Lets not start the model so far back- lets use the middle Eocene about 37 million years ago. CO2 was either 8 times higher than it is now (boron-based pH reconstructions) or only a little more than we see now using stromata densities– http://earth.geology.yale.edu/~mp364/index.cgi?page-selection=2 Nothing more needs to be said with respect to a model where the starting condition is +/- 800%.
    The writer of the Yale 360 article should explain how the acid sea ate away calcium carbonate (shells) and produced an aluminum silicate (clay). Seems to require alchemy.

    “This is an almost unprecedented geological event,” says Ridgwell.” If what we are experiencing today was truly an “unprecedented geological event” – the Siberian Traps as an example – we would not need a scientist or a model to tell us. Ridgwell’s claim is an insult to tectonic forces everywhere.

  3. Pat Moffitt
    Posted April 16, 2010 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    The above link calls land use a time bomb.

    Agriculture is the leading cause of water pollution, habitat loss and perhaps species loss. Here are 3 ways the amount of land used in agriculture can be reduced.

    Irradiating the worlds food supply would make a dramatic cut in the amount of storage loss and thus decrease amount of land needed for agriculture and the fertilizer/pesticides used. By some estimates over half of the world’s food supply is lost while in storage (insect, mold etc).(It would also decrease the cost of food to a poor and hungry world)

    Genetically engineered or other improved plant varieties producing higher yields is another means to reduce agriculture’s impacts.

    Eliminate environmentally abusive agriculture subsidies- such as growing rice in California’s semi-desert and the insanity of ethanol. (Would also decrease the cost of food to a poor and hungry world)

    There are no perfect solutions- action and inaction have consequences. The above can immediately reduce the amount of acreage under cultivation. If one believes excessive land use is a “time bomb” at what point- if ever- do the above become acceptable in a risk reward scenario? What other options are available that do not require force?

    We often hear that climate change will strike the 3rd world the hardest. Climate change risk is used to justify bio-fuels. However bio-fuels have already raised the cost of food for many of the worlds poorest people and will continue to ramp up these costs as more acreage is converted to fuel production. Biofuels may be a greater threat to the food security of the 3rd world than climate change. There are always unintended consequences.

This thing has 2 Trackbacks

  1. Posted April 16, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    [...] all this brings me to a news release from earlier this week that Tom Yulsman made me aware of. It’s a commentary on the ecological factors that have led scientists to [...]

  2. Posted April 17, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    [...] than temperature rise April 18, 2010 — Richard Gayle Humans as a geological force[Via CEJournal] Much of the carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere dissolves in the oceans, [...]

Comments are currently closed