Jane Lubchenco interview on NPR: “Ocean acidity has increased by 30%” thanks to human emissions

Global warming is a major threat to life in the oceans — and humans who depend on that life (see Ocean dead zones to expand, “remain for thousands of years”).  As one recent study found:

Global warming may create “dead zones” in the ocean that would be devoid of fish and seafood and endure for up to two millennia”¦.

Its authors say deep cuts in the world’s carbon emissions are needed to brake a trend capable of wrecking the marine ecosystem and depriving future generations of the harvest of the seas.

Jane Lubchenco — Obama’s terrific choice for administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) — discussed the threat to the ocean from global warming in a long interview on NPR’s Diane Rehm show yesterday (mostly in the second 20 minute segment).  You can catch it here.

If you want to understand ocean acidification better, see this BBC story, which explains:

Man-made pollution is raising ocean acidity at least 10 times faster than previously thought, a study says.

Or see this Science magazine study, “Evidence for Upwelling of Corrosive “Acidified” Water onto the Continental Shelf” (subs. req’), which found

Our results show for the first time that a large section of the North American continental shelf is impacted by ocean acidification. Other continental shelf regions may also be impacted where anthropogenic CO2-enriched water is being upwelled onto the shelf.

Or listen to the Australia’s ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, which warns:

The world’s oceans are becoming more acid, with potentially devastating consequences for corals and the marine organisms that build reefs and provide much of the Earth’s breathable oxygen.

The acidity is caused by the gradual buildup of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, dissolving into the oceans. Scientists fear it could be lethal for animals with chalky skeletons which make up more than a third of the planet’s marine life”¦.

Corals and plankton with chalky skeletons are at the base of the marine food web. They rely on sea water saturated with calcium carbonate to form their skeletons. However, as acidity intensifies, the saturation declines, making it harder for the animals to form their skeletal structures (calcify).

Analysis of coral cores shows a steady drop in calcification over the last 20 years,” says Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of CoECRS and the University of Queensland. “There’s not much debate about how it happens: put more CO2 into the air above and it dissolves into the oceans.

When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.” (Atmospheric CO2 levels are presently 385 ppm, up from 305 in 1960.)

If we want to save life in the oceans — and save ourselves, since we depend on that life — the time to start slashing carbon dioxide emissions is now.

35 Responses to Jane Lubchenco interview on NPR: “Ocean acidity has increased by 30%” thanks to human emissions

  1. paulm says:

    Shut down those coal plants!

  2. Will says:

    I am still interested in how corals were abundant during the Cretaceous when there was 3000-4000 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere. Could someone who is knowledgable on the subject address this? I’m guessing it has to do with evolution, ie; the corals were well adapted to much higher acidity.

  3. A Siegel says:


    Ocean acidification is a truly terrifying part of our impact on the global system that is under-discussed and not understood by the vast part of the ‘chattering classes’ of policy making in the US and elsewhere. Having a voice like Lubchenco’s on top of this is important. Thank you for calling attention to it.

    Sort of surprised that you don’t have linked the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues recent statement on ocean acidification.

    “The implications of ocean acidification cannot be overstated. Unless we cut our global CO2 emissions by at least 50 percent by 2050 and thereafter, we could be looking at fundamental and immutable changes in the makeup of our marine biodiversity. The effects will be seen worldwide, threatening food security, reducing coastal protection and damaging the local economies that may be least able to tolerate it.”


  4. during the Cretaceous when there was 3000-4000 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.

    I’d like to see your reference in the modern peer reviewed scientific literature demonstrating that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration was 3000 to 4000 ppm in the Cretaceous period, because honestly, I just don’t see it.

  5. K L Reddington says:

    The ocean PH is 8.1.

    7.0 ph is neutral and below 7 is acidic.

    The Royal Society has just issued a summary report

    CaCO3 tends to dissolve in the deep ocean, both because of the high pressure and because the waters have been acidified by CO2 from rotting dead plankton.

    The natural pH of the ocean is determined by a need to balance the deposition and burial of CaCO3 on the sea floor against the influx of Ca2+ and CO32- into the ocean from dissolving rocks on land, called weathering. These processes stabilize the pH of the ocean, by a mechanism called CaCO3 compensation. CaCO3 compensation works on time scales of thousands of years or so.

    It is hard to isolate the sources of acidity.

  6. ecostew says:

    And Siegel, as I recall 50% of 1990 levels.

  7. gmo says:


    Yeah, I have been meaning to investigate that “ancient coral” point since it seems to be growing more common as a supposed refutation against ocean acidification being a major concern. I figure you are along the right lines with particular organisms being adapted to the environment in which they emerged/existed.

    Though “coral” have thrived at times going back millions of years, it does not mean coral just like modern have always thrived that entire period. It seems certain there have been massive die-offs like projected for this century in response to shocks to the climate system. Modern coral (and other species) may survive in smaller numbers then rebound at least thousands of years down the line, but if their ecosystems collapse so that humans cannot be supported by them that is what matters to us.

    As opposed to the absolute value of [CO2] I think the key for organisms like coral and shellfish is the pace at which the acidification is occurring. You are fine in your car going 0mph or going 60mph, and you may go to and from each of those speeds multiple times a day. But if you went from 60mph to 0mph in 0.1 second, you are probably not going to “adapt” to that change very well since its rate is so rapid. What we are doing is like that. We are putting a geological timescale stress on systems over a human timescale.

  8. ecostew says:

    Search Sciencedaily:

    using: ocean acidification algae coral shellfish

  9. Susan says:

    Before the contrarians get really going, I’d like to point out that acidification means more acid on a relative scale. The scientifically underinformed will be quite taken with this falsity, so a reminder. pH is a continuum from 0 to 14, and a lowering of the number means it is more acid, even at the “alkaline” levels of 8 to 14. Like all scientific measurements, this is a reality-based metric based on observation rather than absolutes. Science does that, one of the reasons it works and has value.

  10. gmo says:

    *sigh* Then there is K L Reddington who seemingly tries to simply throw out a bunch of stuff hoping something will stick and sow doubt somewhere about anthropogenic CO2 emissions leading to acidification of the oceans.

    Is there really a belief that since the ocean pH is above 7 and is thus not “acidic” is cannot be “acidifying”? Why not say 32F (0C) is the warm/cool dividing line and say that regardless of the local temperature trend nowhere with average temperature below 32F (0C) can be considered “warming”? Quibbling with the wording here is as bad as trying to make a point saying “they” do not call it “global warming” but rather “climate change”.

    Does “[t]he Royal Society has just issued a summary report” refer to the 2005 report that says the below?
    “Carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted to the atmosphere by human activities is being absorbed by the oceans, making them more acidic (lowering the pH the measure of acidity).
    Evidence indicates that emissions of carbon dioxide from human activities over the past 200 years have already led to a reduction in the average pH of surface seawater of 0.1 units and could fall by 0.5 units by the year 2100. This pH is probably lower than has been experienced for hundreds of millennia and, critically, at a rate of change probably 100 times greater than at any time over this period.

    We recommend that action needs to be taken now to reduce global emissions of CO2 from human activities to the atmosphere to avoid the risk of irreversible damage from ocean acidification.”

  11. K L Reddington says:

    Jane Lubchenco interview on NPR: “Ocean acidity has increased by 30%” thanks to human emissions

    I can’t find the dates in the thread of the beginning value for ph or acidity for that matter and the data on the current amount or value for ph or acidity.

    Where are the measurements and how did they calculate and exclude other causes. Thanks.

    She says human emissions. Is a coal plant human? Is a forrest fire a non human emission?

    [JR: Seriously? As every other reader but you figured out, I used “Human emissions” as a shorthand for human-caused emissions. Yes, a coal plant is a human caused emissions. Forest fires are increasingly driven by humans and climate change, particularly the climate-driven pest infestations like bark beetles.]

  12. paulm says:

    You can tell just by looking at it – it seems to be acquiring an orange hue.

  13. Brewster says:

    “I am still interested in how corals were abundant during the Cretaceous when there was 3000-4000 ppm CO2 in the atmosphere.”

    I have just done a study on several papers on that subject, and the results were very interesting:

    First off, the CO2 levels were much lower than that during the Cretaceous. CO2 had not been at 3-4000ppm for several hundred million years before that. When it WAS that high, the corals were a very different lot, not nearly as dependant on Calcium Carbonate. (For our new friends on board, the CO2 was largely from a very much more active volcanic era.)

    However, there is no doubt that CO2 levels WERE much higher in the Cretaceous – 750-1000ppm, occasionally higher. When it went over 1000ppm, there were significant dieoffs – not total extinction obviously, but major reductions.

    So how did the coral survive at 750+ppm when it is now dying at 385?

    One paper seemed to get to the root of the problem – It suggested that CO2, and therefore AGW, is only one aspect, and probably not even the most important. The real culprit is Dust – containing chemicals, disease carrying spores and fungus, phosphorus and other fertilizers, residue from wildfires, and most importantly, iron, which apparently has a very negative effect on coral.

    As I said, the authors wanted to dismiss CO2 acidification almost entirely, claiming it was, at most, “The straw that broke the camel’s back.”

    However, since I’m sure most of that dust was due to desertification from AGW, I find it difficult to let us off the hook…

  14. Brewster says:

    K L Reddington;

    A few PH Values:

    In 1751, accepted values for Ph was 8.179.

    In 1994, accepted values for Ph was 8.104.

    Today, it varies a lot geographically, but the best # I can come up with is 8.079.

    The present rapid rise in CO2 very closely matches the present rapid rise in acid. If any other cause could be found, it would have to also follow that curve. Very unlikely.

    I’ll accept your last paragraph as your attempt at humour.

  15. Stuart says:

    I recently read a paper on this subject concerning corals and gaps in reef formation over geologic time and the correlation with mass extinctions. I don’t have a link but it is: Vernon, J.E.N. (2008) “Mass Extinctions and Ocean Acidification: Biological Constraints on Geological Dilemmas” Coral Reefs 27:459-472.

  16. gmo says:

    The claim that I have seen made at least twice had commonality of specifics in details that make me think some single source has fed it out. That claim was that the Ordovician is when coral initially developed and CO2 then was 3000-4000ppm, thus no need to worry about mere 560ppm killing off coral.

    It would not be too hard for someone to invent that line of thinking if one was so inclined, but the repeating of those details I have seen suggests a blog post spreading the idea. Anyone know if some site is specifically pushing that claim? My research on debunking the no-need-to-worry has not yet gone much past an initial check of Wikipedia.

  17. Susan says:

    Ordovician was hardly human friendly: roughly 400 million years ago. I didn’t find the contrarian talking point link, but a quick search found my own post on DotEarth, which contained some links to other stuff. I’m hampered by being moderately scientifically literate but not adequately trained, but collect this kind of stuff.

    I’m going to go a little off topic because for once I think I got it pretty much right; given the link between CO2 data and acidification, it’s not so big a leap.

    “Those who don’t understand how it works think saying the science is gobbledygook and faith-based, disproven by short-term local weather, and trumped by economics, is a reasonable option.

    “Global warming is caused by “heat trapping” gases, also known as greenhouse gases (GHGs), which do what their name says. When the sun warms the earth, the heat is reflected back. On the most basic level, gases like carbon dioxide (CO2) prevent the heat from leaving the atmosphere. CO2 takes at least a century to disappear, while its quantity is building up, now at the rate of 2-3 ppm per year. It’s at about 386 at the moment, which is higher than it has been since about 400 million years ago.

    “Global warming was first hypothesized and researched by scientists starting in the late 1800s, and began to be prominent about mid 20th century. Clarity began to appear in the 1960s, increasing to a level of real understanding by the late 1980s, and consensus by the 1990s. Bush managed to roll back much of the progress made to that point, with the power to replace expertise with loyalists and editing/suppressing/etc. the facts. Dr. Hansen is demonized because his status allowed him to break out of the bubble and publicize what was going on. Al Gore is demonized because he made all this clear and understandable; some minor errors and exaggerations are used to disprove the whole. His travel and home have been targeted as “evidence” that he is phony. But how else could he have a staff and disseminate knowledge?”

  18. jcwinnie says:

    It bears repeating: Shut down those coal plants!

  19. paulm says:

    Theres an excellent book online at Google. Chapter 5 has the pretty graph…

    A reef in time
    By John Edward Norwood Veron
    Big Link

  20. David B. Benson says:

    What jcwinnie wrote.

  21. Steve H says:

    Unfortunately there exists a deep misunderstanding amongst the deniers and delayers that if life can exist in certain conditions, than humans can exist. No matter what happens to the climate, humans will still exist. The risk is that our society will collapse. That’s why the GDP graph from the earlier post is misleading, as GDP will not be going up if there is significant disruption to our systems that support us. Humans are a generalist species; we can adapt to many different climates, but we do so slowly. Light a fire under us, and we move faster but probably not fast enough for the majority of people to make it to the next ESS.

  22. Aaron says:

    Stuart you beat me to posting that paper. Here’s the link to it at coral reefs. Unfortunately for those without access only the abstract is available. Still worth a read though.

  23. Steve Bloom says:

    The acidification threat from CO2 is a result of the speed of the build-up. Over many thousands of years, a natural chemical compensation mechanism will cancel out the acidification. The problem for ocean life is to survive until levels drop again. Most of the great extinctions have been associated with too-rapid CO2 increases, noting that those increases appear to have been slower than what we are presently experiencing.

    This paper is a good summary of the science, and includes discussion of changes in ocean chemistry over the course of the Phanerozoic.

  24. Steve Bloom says:

    See also this paper focusing on the early Cenozoic (which includes the last great extinction event). This one and the one I linked above are public access.

  25. Will says:

    Thank you so much for all who addressed my question. My question stemmed from Newt’s testimony a few weeks ago where he mentions ocean acidification at the end.

    I’ll fourth the call to shut down those coal plants!

  26. Lewis says:

    For more information on Ocean acidification from one of Australias top scientists you should view this web seminar.
    It really helps to explain things. It is also mostly in language that is easily understandable.

    Cheers Lewis

  27. Gail says:

    The Walrus and the Carpenter

    The sun was shining on the sea,
    Shining with all his might:
    He did his very best to make
    The billows smooth and bright—
    And this was odd, because it was
    The middle of the night.

    The moon was shining sulkily,
    Because she thought the sun
    Had got no business to be there
    After the day was done—
    “It’s very rude of him,” she said,
    “To come and spoil the fun!”

    The sea was wet as wet could be,
    The sands were dry as dry.
    You could not see a cloud, because
    No cloud was in the sky:
    No birds were flying overhead—
    There were no birds to fly

    The Walrus and the Carpenter
    Were walking close at hand;
    They wept like anything to see
    Such quantities of sand:
    “If this were only cleared away,”
    They said, “It would be grand!”

    “If seven maids with seven mops
    Swept for half a year,
    Do you suppose,” the walrus said,
    “That they could get it clear?”
    “I doubt it,” said the Carpenter,
    And shed a bitter tear.

    “O, Oysters, come and walk with us!”
    The Walrus did beseech.
    “A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
    Along the briny beach:
    We cannot do with more than four,
    To give a hand to each.”

    The eldest Oyster looked at him,
    But never a word he said:
    The eldest Oyster winked his eye,
    And shook his heavy head—
    Meaning to say he did not choose
    To leave the oyster-bed.

    But four young Oysters hurried up,
    All eager for the treat:
    Their coats were brushed, their faces washed,
    Their shoes were clean and neat-
    And this was odd, because, you know,
    They hadn’t any feet.

    Four other Oysters followed them,
    And yet another four;
    And thick and fast they came at last,
    And more, and more, and more-
    All hopping through the frothy waves,
    And scrambling to the shore.

    The Walrus and the Carpenter
    Walked on a mile or so,
    And then they rested on a rock
    Conveniently low:
    And all the little Oysters stood
    And waited in a row.

    “The time has come,” the Walrus said,
    “To talk of many things:
    Of shoes—and ships—and sealing wax—
    Of cabbages—and kings—
    And why the sea is boiling hot—
    And whether pigs have wings.”

    “But wait a bit,” the Oysters cried,
    “Before we have our chat;
    For some of us are out of breath,
    And all of us are fat!”
    “No hurry!” said the Carpenter.
    They thanked him much for that.

    “A loaf of bread,” the Walrus said,
    “Is what we chiefly need:
    Pepper and vinegar besides
    Are very good indeed—
    Now if you’re ready, Oysters dear,
    We can begin to feed.”

    “But not on us!” the Oysters cried,
    Turning a little blue,
    “After such kindness, that would be
    A dismal thing to do!”
    “The night is fine,” the Walrus said.
    “Do you admire the view?”

    “It was so kind of you to come!
    And you are very nice!”
    The Carpenter said nothing but
    “Cut us another slice:
    I wish you were not quite so deaf—
    I’ve had to ask you twice!”

    “It seems a shame,” the Walrus said,
    “To play them such a trick,
    After we’ve brought them out so far,
    And made them trot so quick!”
    The Carpenter said nothing but
    “The butter’s spread too thick!”

    “I weep for you,” the Walrus said:
    “I deeply sympathize.”
    With sobs and tears he sorted out
    Those of the largest size,
    Holding his pocket-handkerchief
    Before his streaming eyes.

    “O Oysters,” said the Carpenter,
    “You had a pleasant run!
    Shall we be trotting home again?”
    But answer came there none—
    And this was scarcely odd, because
    They’d eaten every one.

  28. Gail says:

    And this was scarcely odd, because
    They’d eaten every one.

    Oh Lordy shame on me! I just realized this could be interpreted as yet another depraved threat of violence!? Please don’t say anything Rog Tallbloke in reply – I have been admonished not to respond to you here at CP. You have to look to my own blog for those thoughts.

  29. paulm says:

    Good link Lewis.

  30. Stuart says:

    paulm – Thanks for the link to the book. Another one for my list. We really need to spread the word that CO2 is not just an atmospheric problem but one that imperils the entire planetary ecosystem.

  31. Gail says:

    I just read the BBC article that is linked to in the post. The scientists seem puzzled that the impacts on the ecosystem are greater than they expected.

    My question is this: If you accept Darwinian evolution, AND you accept climate change, wouldn’t you expect ecosystems to collapse, since they evolved in a different climate? Isn’t it inevitable that species that are selected to survive in a particular environment aren’t going to survive when that environment is altered?

    Just askin’.

  32. Will says:

    Newt, the political opportunist.