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About six years ago, I pitched an article about ocean acidification to the editors at several environmental magazines. The article was supposed to explain how the oceans’ pH levels were dropping because the seawater was absorbing more carbon dioxide than it had in millions of years. Such chemical changes, the article would point out, could have a significant impact on the organisms that rely on the oceans to survive, including landlubbing organisms like us.

For the most part, the editors showed little interest in the topic, except for one at Orion. He responded to my query with a request that I tweak my proposal and resubmit it. I did, but I never heard back from him.

Since then, I’ve seen several articles about ocean acidification in various publications, but the subject never sticks around for very long, not compared to such buzz-generating topics as global warming and climate change.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m glad when any environmental issue gets at least some coverage, given how the mainstream media, particularly here in the US, like to downplay such issues by wrapping their stories in a cloak of objectivity. (I call it the Emperor’s New Clothes syndrome—media moguls and celebrity journalists get to pat themselves on the back for coverage they claim to be fair and balanced, while raking in loads of cash and playing into the hands of big business and big-pocketed politicians.)

Yet among certain factions, stories about the climate play big, and despite the media’s questionable costumery, there has emerged at least some acknowledgment among mainstream news outlets that climate-related issues are perhaps something worth noting, especially in light of our record temperatures and diminishing fields of ice.


But ocean acidification does not garner nearly as much attention. It’s not as sexy as climate change—not so in your face. The impacts of climate change, after all, can already be observed in the growing heat waves and increasing droughts and shrinking glaciers and rising oceans and spreading deserts. We might pretend that nothing is happening, but even in our myopic condition, we can’t help but admit that something is going on.

Yet the planet’s sister condition, ocean acidification, is much easier to ignore. The ocean is like a cat. She might seem okay on the outside, but an insidious disease eats away at her guts.

That’s exactly what’s happening to our oceans. Because of the enormous amounts of CO2 they’ve been absorbing, the water is chemically changing and becoming more acidic. What’s more, the oceans are sucking up more gas than ever and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), there’s been a 30% increase in acidity since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. At the rate we’re currently pumping CO2 into the atmosphere—much of which the oceans are absorbing—seawater could end up 150% more acidic by the end of the century, a pH level comparable to what the planet saw 20 million years ago, a level that promises to play hell on our seafaring creatures.

When the oceans become more acidic, the shells of calcifying species—such as coral, oysters, and calcareous plankton—start to dissolve. The critters inside those shells, now finding themselves homeless, inevitably start to decline, which can put the ocean’s entire food web at risk.

Consider this. An estimated one million species depend on coral reef habitat. If the reefs start eroding faster than they can be rebuilt, all life that depends on those reefs could be threatened, and so too could all life that depends on those species. That includes the billion or more people worldwide who every day rely on the oceans for their primary source of protein.

Even if we were to stop pumping CO2 into the atmosphere today, the oceans would continue to absorb the excess gas. A good thing in at least one respect. Without seawater doing what seawater does, we’d be living on a planet significantly hotter than it already is. But such a mechanism doesn’t bode well for the oceans themselves.

What we need is a PR firm to take on ocean acidification, professionals who can package the issue in a way that makes it sleek and scintillating enough to catch the media’s attention. We need an advertising blitz that ranges from Superbowl commercials to clever product placements in Hollywood blockbusters—perhaps a futuristic sci-fi about oceans with no coral or fish or penguins. Only plastic.

After all, if we can make Ralph Lauren and Tiger Woods and Lady Gaga media events, why not the destruction of our oceans?

Maybe such a campaign is already underway. This past July, for example, The Huffington Post ran an article about ocean acidification on their illustrious home page. What better place to kick off such a campaign? The Post knows all about making news sweet and sexy.

Perhaps the article marks the beginning of a growing trend. Perhaps ocean acidification will become as common a concern as climate change. Perhaps we’re on our way to T-shirts and bumper stickers and TV shows about oceanographers. Better still, perhaps together, the issues of ocean acidification and climate change will more effectively remind everyone of the critical position we’ve placed ourselves—along with all the other living species on this planet.

I hope so. Without a rapid reduction in our carbon output, the oceans, like the rest of the world’s ecosystems, will take a great fall. And no PR firm or mega-media tabloid will be able to put them back together again.

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Comment Preferences

  •  i've always hated the (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jessical, Brooklyn Jim

    idea that scientific concepts, conclusions, and facts need to be made "sexier" for the general public to accept them. Then again, i'm an atypical human being.

    pseudoscience can kill

    by terrypinder on Mon Aug 06, 2012 at 09:03:47 AM PDT

  •  it has gotten play (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    in the PNW because of the impact on shellfish farming.  Like, no baby shellfish.

    ...j'ai découvert que tout le malheur des hommes vient d'une seule chose, qui est de ne savoir pas demeurer en repos dans une chambre.

    by jessical on Mon Aug 06, 2012 at 09:06:43 AM PDT

  •  Ocean exploration: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    jfromga, jessical

    I think we need, for the 21st century, a commitment to our oceans equivalent to the "man on the moon" project of the 60's.
    We should have a broad-based, cohesive, public-private program to develop the capacity to explore deep ocean environments, to finding new technologies and solutions to climate change, ocean acidification, etc.
    We should start thinking about the consequences of sea level rise and developing new aquaculture, new architecture, new energy strategies, etc that would eventually produce millions of new jobs and help us recover from global warming.

    You can't make this stuff up.

    by David54 on Mon Aug 06, 2012 at 09:13:22 AM PDT

  •  just a side thought, but how did the (0+ / 0-)

    nautilus survive basically unchanged since the Cambrian period 500 million years ago, if the ocean hit comparable levels 20 million years ago?

  •  I can't wait to see how the PR firm will present (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    the carbonate buffer system in terms ordinary people can understand.  I thought the IPCC material was good but beyond the grasp of many.

    "Three main ocean carbon pumps govern the regulation of natural atmospheric CO2 changes by the ocean (Heinze et al., 1991): the solubility pump, the organic carbon pump and the CaCO3 ‘counter pump’. The oceanic uptake of anthropogenic CO2 is dominated by inorganic carbon uptake at the ocean surface and physical transport of anthropogenic carbon from the surface to deeper layers. For a constant ocean circulation, to first order, the biological carbon pumps remain unaffected because nutrient cycling does not change. If the ocean circulation slows down, anthropogenic carbon uptake is dominated by inorganic buffering and physical transport as before, but the marine particle flux can reach greater depths if its sinking speed does not change, leading to a biologically induced negative feedback that is expected to be smaller than the positive feedback associated with a slower physical downward mixing of anthropogenic carbon."

    There are a number of interesting papers that highlight the complexity of the problem:

    The accumulation of anthropogenic CO2 in the ocean has altered carbonate chemistry in surface waters since
    preindustrial times and is expected to continue to do so in the coming centuries. Changes in carbonate chemistry
    can modify the rates and fates of marine primary production and calcification. These modifications can in turn
    lead to feedback on increasing atmospheric CO2. We show, using a numerical model, that in highly productive
    nearshore coastal marine environments, the effect of eutrophication on carbon cycling can counter the effect of
    ocean acidification on the carbonate chemistry of surface waters. Also, changes in river nutrient delivery due to
    management regulation policies can lead to stronger changes in carbonate chemistry than ocean acidification.
    Whether antagonistic or synergistic, the response of carbonate chemistry to changes of nutrient delivery to the
    coastal zone (increase or decrease, respectively) is stronger than ocean acidification."

    Where are we, now that we need us most?

    by Frank Knarf on Mon Aug 06, 2012 at 09:57:38 AM PDT

    •  I'd expect it to be pretty easy really (0+ / 0-)

      If someone put their mind to it.  The oceans becoming more acidic sounds a lot worse than the planet warming.

      There revolution will not be televised. But it will be blogged, a lot. Probably more so than is necessary.

      by AoT on Mon Aug 06, 2012 at 10:33:02 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Good luck with this. (0+ / 0-)

    Sometimes it gets pretty discouraging.  We can hope that addressing greenhouse gasses, will help with ocean acidification, but then there's depletion and contamination of major aquifers, deforestation, pollution of the land, extinction of species, exhaustion of natural resources, and myriad other problems related to overpopulation.  And no one in the U.S. is doing much about any of it except making it worse.  

  •  paralyzing terror IS a problem (0+ / 0-)

    But there's nothing "sexy" about the kind of ecological breakdown that will result from a global plankton dieoff.

    To those who say the New Deal didn't work: WWII was also government spending

    by Visceral on Mon Aug 06, 2012 at 12:20:58 PM PDT

  •  Anyone (0+ / 0-)

    who has ever had a saltwater aquarium knows how important pH is. This is an important subject that needs to be addressed more often. Good diary.

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