While most pundits are focusing on the campaign, New York Times columnist Kristof has taken the time to write a thoughtful op-ed (subs. req’d) on a story that will be with us long, long after congressional pages or macaca or botched jokes about Iraq.
He deserves special credit for devoting considerable ink to an area that has not gotten sufficient attention in the media (although it has been well-studied in the scientific community): ocean acidification:
If you think of the earth’s surface as a great beaker, then it’s filled mostly with ocean water. It is slightly alkaline, and that’s what creates a hospitable home for fish, coral reefs and plankton — and indirectly, higher up the food chain, for us.
But scientists have discovered that the carbon dioxide we’re spewing into the air doesn’t just heat up the atmosphere and lead to rising seas. Much of that carbon is absorbed by the oceans, and there it produces carbonic acid — the same stuff found in soda pop.
That makes oceans a bit more acidic, impairing the ability of certain shellfish to produce shells, which, like coral reefs, are made of calcium carbonate. A recent article in Scientific American explained the indignity of being a dissolving mollusk in an acidic ocean: “Drop a piece of chalk (calcium carbonate) into a glass of vinegar (a mild acid) if you need a demonstration of the general worry: the chalk will begin dissolving immediately.”
The more acidic waters may spell the end, at least in higher latitudes, of some of the tiniest variations of shellfish — certain plankton and tiny snails called pteropods. This would disrupt the food chain, possibly killing off many whales and fish, and rippling up all the way to humans.
We stand, so to speak, on the shoulders of plankton.
“There have been a couple of very big events in geological history where the carbon cycle changed dramatically,” said Scott Doney, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. One was an abrupt warming that took place 55 million years ago in conjunction with acidification of the oceans and mass extinctions. Most scientists don’t believe we’re headed toward a man-made variant on that episode — not yet, at any rate. But many worry that we’re hurtling into unknown dangers.
“Whether in 20 years or 100 years, I think marine ecosystems are going to be dramatically different by the end of this century, and that’ll lead to extinction events,” Mr. Doney added.
“This is the only habitable planet we have,” he said. “The damage we do is going to be felt by all the generations to come.”
So that should be one of the great political issues for this century — the vandalism we’re committing to our planet because of our refusal to curb greenhouse gases. Yet the subject is barely debated in this campaign.
Kudos to Kristof for being a voice crying in the political wilderness.