If you missed Christopher Horner’s speech in Howell Hall last week, allow me to inform you that global warming, as a political issue, is dying. The poor economy is taking the focus off of the environment, the world has been in a cooling trend for about the last decade, and a series of emails were recently leaked from a leading climate research institute that cast doubt on the scientific evidence for global warming in the first place.
All of this has combined to take the wind out of the sails of those demanding we “do something” about global warming.
In spite of this, if Mr. Horner is correct, eco-alarmism is far from dead. The vested interests that hyped global warming alarmism, from coal companies to former (and current) communists to the town of Carrboro, will not pass silently into the night.
Polar bears may no longer be the poster child of eco-alarmism, but similarly charismatic fauna can readily be found. This time, coral reefs are the ones in danger due to the folly of man—not from global warming, but from ocean acidification, the next big eco-threat.
As CRDaily readers, you are already, generally speaking, among the most well-informed readers around, but a brief explanation of the science would, I think, be helpful (In any case, I hope it will make my Chemical Oceanography teacher happy).
This is basically how it works: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (see figure 1.a), whether it is naturally occurring or emitted from your tail pipe, is in equilibrium with dissolved CO2 in the ocean (fig. 1.b). The more CO2 in the air, the greater the amount dissolved in the ocean (think of a 2-liter bottle of soda—let it equilibrate with the air long enough and it loses its fizz—in this case, the reverse would happen).
Carbon dioxide dissolved in water can combine with a water molecule to form carbonic acid (fig. 1.c). Carbonic acid, being an acid, has a tendency to dissociate with one or more of its hydrogen atoms (fig. 1.d and 1.e), increasing the acidity of the total solution (in this case, the ocean is the solution) and lowering its pH.
Acidity, for the non-science majors, is basically a measure of the concentration of protons (H+ ions) in solution compared to hydroxide ions (OH-). The acidity is usually reported as pH, the negative log of the proton concentration; lower pH means more acidic, and higher means a more basic solution.
If I’ve lost you, let me summarize: CO2 + H2O –> carbonic acid (H2CO3), making the ocean more acidic, making life more difficult for corals, which require a more basic pH to survive.
However, ocean acidification due to carbon emissions may be less of a threat than some alarmists have suggested. As Mr. Horner pointed out, carbon dioxide levels have been much higher in the past (about ten times higher for much of the Mesozoic era), and the fossil evidence suggests that corals were still able to survive.
Also, if you were looking forward to bathing in a fizzy ocean, I’m sorry to disappoint you, but that’s probably not going to happen anytime soon, either. Atmospheric carbon is just not going to reach high enough levels anytime soon, although it is certainly fun to imagine (the fizz part, not the dead corals).