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.