Now that climate change has become a forbidden discussion in Washington and the rising temperature of the ocean is off limits, what are they saying about carbon dioxide changing the chemistry of the world's oceans?
For an organism that lives in the water the two most important factors are temperature and acidity. Before the industrial revolution the ocean pH was approximately 8.179. By the first decade of the 21st century humans had pumped over a hundred and twenty billion tons of CO2 into the oceans, producing a reduction of -0.11 in ocean pH levels. As a logarithmic measure, a .11 drop represents an increase of about 30% in "acidity."
Republicans can't even claim that ocean acidity is being made up by scientist on an agenda because going back as far as the Texas oil boom it was thought that 30 percent of the the carbon emissions would be adsorbed by the oceans and anyone who went to high school learned that dissolving CO2 in water produces carbonic acid.
So as we are facing the biggest food chain crash in the planet's history and the possibility that there might not be enough oxygen in the atmosphere to sustain life on earth in the near future Washington's answer seems to be "If we don't talk about it than it is not happening."
This weekend at a New York Botanical Garden screening of their documentary A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish I got to meet and shake the hands of Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby. The screening was set up for school children so they will be educated about coming events and it was followed by a Q & A. After the screening it was heartbreaking when the first child raised his hand to ask "What can I do?" Heartbreaking because it seems like we will need to wait for that child to grow up before the issue is addressed in this nation.
Neither the documentary nor "Ocean acidification" as a topic are new and even if the United States government joined the many growing green economies and began setting an example for the other still brown economies, scientist have already documented a best case scenario that is very grim.
Because of the slow pace of deep-ocean circulation and the long life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, it is impossible to reverse the acidification that has already taken place. Nor is it possible to prevent still more from occurring. Even if there were some way to halt the emission of CO2 tomorrow, the oceans would continue to take up carbon until they reached a new equilibrium with the air. As Britain’s Royal Society noted in a recent report, it will take "tens of thousands of years for ocean chemistry to return to a condition similar to that occurring at pre-industrial times."
If you are an avid reader of DailyKos "ocean acidification" is not a new topic to you either. You might recall when Laurence Lewis wrote "National Academies of Sciences: Unprecedented Rate of Ocean Acidification" or the DK Greenroots piece "Oceans Acidifying 10x Faster than last Major Die Off 55M Years ago." We have botanist telling us that twenty-five percent of the plant species will die off in the near future possibly ending biodiversity on land, zoologist explaining that half the animal species are endangered and the oceans are dying too!
In addition to the over a hundred and twenty billion tons of CO2 we have already pumped into the ocean, this year the seas will absorb an additional two billion tons of carbon, and next year it is expected that they will absorb another two billion tons. Will these CO2 deposits go up or down in coming years? A December 2009 National Geographic report quoted Thomas Lovejoy, former chief biodiversity adviser to the World Bank;
"the acidity of the oceans will more than double in the next 40 years. This rate is 100 times faster than any changes in ocean acidity in the last 20 million years, making it unlikely that marine life can somehow adapt to the changes."
The movie A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish also came out in 2009 but it was born back in 2006. Back when Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby read a piece in The New Yorker. The Darkening Sea (pdf.) where Elizabeth Kolbert describes the work of Victoria Fabry, an oceanographer who studies tiny marine organisms called pterapods and how the increased carbon dioxide in the water is causing these pterapod shells to dissolve.
Of course this piece did not create a stir in Washington with Republicans standing up to tell Americans how the scientist of the world are not that bright and on some global warming liberal agenda. But Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby thought it to be world ending important so they made the first documentary about ocean acidification.
It’s a frightening premise, and it’s happening right now. A Sea Change follows the journey of retired history teacher Sven Huseby on his quest to discover what is happening to the world’s oceans. After reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s "The Darkening Sea," Sven becomes obsessed with the rising acidity of the oceans and what this "sea change" bodes for mankind. His quest takes him to Alaska, California, Washington, and Norway as he uncovers a worldwide crisis that most people are unaware of. Speaking with oceanographers, marine biologists, climatologists, and artists, Sven discovers that global warming is only half the story of the environmental catastrophe that awaits us. Excess carbon dioxide is dissolving in our oceans, changing sea water chemistry. The more acidic water makes it difficult for tiny creatures at the bottom of the food web to form their shells. The effects could work their way up to the fish 1 billion people depend upon for their source of protein.
Now there is some economic news, politicians are not worried about taking away both the work and food of 1 billion people worldwide? This threat to the beautiful pterapods, these creatures that look like tiny water butterflies, threatens the fish that eat pterapods and then the fish that eat fish that eat pterapods, straight up to the top of the ocean food chain. In addition to that acidification is taking a toll on the world's coral reefs, which are home to an estimated 25% of all fish species. The visit to Alaska in the movie was to discuss the depression that followed the spill from the Exxon Valdez. The movie was made before New Orleans but neither of those fossil fuel disasters do the story justice because this isn't about a few years without fish, it's about a million years without fish.
It is actually a really good movie. The film is not a hard hitting Michael Moore type documentary or an information bombardment like "Food Inc." It was a movie that flowed more like an episode of Nature on PBS. The story of Sven Huseby taking his five-year-old grandson Elias for a tour of the world's oceans while there is still time can be lighthearted at times. They meet real scientist that tell them the real story. Here is one of the trailers;
It seemed a bit more hard hitting when they start talking about acidification effecting the oxygen creating ocean plantlife and when one scientist tells them "We are screwed either way." As scary as a planet without oxygen sounds the movie is not all negative. There is also an exploration of the green economy growing in nations like Norway and an explanation of how we could be capitalizing on green here in the United States.
Actually the hardest hitting line in the movie was while interviewing one green technology expert when he said "I just read in Scientific American that if the United States was on a total green economy it would cost an additional $240 billion per year." I assumed that the price did not include building a green infrastructure but later when someone said "America will not turn to sustainable energy until a green BTU cost less than a brown BTU," considering the cost of that sort of venture capitalism it sounded like the definition of moral bankruptcy.
On the other hand it was such a pleasure meeting Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby. They were not at the Botanical Garden for monetary gain but to educate children. Their movie has already been translated to eight languages and been seen worldwide to varying levels of acceptance. They mentioned it is having great impact in Brazil and it has been on the Discovery Channel here. Instead of moving on to the next project they are still touring and talking about this grim outcome while maintaining the movie webpage as an informative blog. Since the movie came out the efforts of the past two years have included getting a copy of the DVD into every elected official they could approach, screenings for Congress and regular seminars in the D.C.area.
It is just so sad thinking about what passes for leadership in this country now. Tonight on American Experience they are showing Panama Canal, a fine example of what American can do to solve a problem. Instead now with the green economy not yet having the lobbyist power of the oil economy it seems like we will die waiting for them to do something.
What is it that elected officials are saying about a green economy now? I think it needs to be a free market venture now. We can't get involved with even half measures like the Kyoto Protocol while Cap And Trade is out of the question. With the scientific data that Republicans and business groups are denying and Democrats are doing little to nothing to defend the outlook is very grim. In a reality based economy by now every car on the road would be electric and our air travel would be biofuel until a greener alternative comes up. If people were making the decisions there would be massive solar collectors in the western desert and instead of our oceans dying we would be collecting massive amounts wind power off the shores in the northeast and northwest. But the oil economy lives on, we are told about "clean coal" and hydrofracking is the newest version of national security.
In the question and answer that followed A Sea Change: Imagine a World Without Fish you could hear the utter hopelessness in both the adults and children asking the questions. Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby still have plenty of hope in their answers. Besides the standard advise about saving electricity at home Sven Huseby suggested hand written letters to Congress and gave advise on how to write it.
I think the best political advise they gave was for people living in coastal states to contact state officials. Since there have already been positive actions, they suggested pleading for the coastal communities, asking your state representatives to lobby Washington to get the ocean protected under The Clean Water Act.
I have one more piece of advise. If you can buy the DVD, show it to your friends and neighbors or get it played at community groups. Perhaps just buy it because you know that Barbara Ettinger and Sven Huseby will put the $19.99 to very good use.