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Imagine a World without Fish: Deadly ocean acidification — hard to deny, harder to geo-engineer, but not hard to stop — is subject of documentary

By Joe Romm on September 2, 2009 at 3:46 pm

"Imagine a World without Fish: Deadly ocean acidification — hard to deny, harder to geo-engineer, but not hard to stop — is subject of documentary"


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Global warming is “capable of wrecking the marine ecosystem and depriving future generations of the harvest of the seas” (see Ocean dead zones to expand, “remain for thousands of years”).

A post on ocean acidification from the new Conservation Law Foundation blog has brought to my attention that the first documentary on the subject, A Sea Change: Imagine a World without Fish, is coming out.

Ocean acidification must be a core climate message, since it is hard to deny and impervious to the delusion that geoengineering is the silver bullet.  Indeed, a major 2009 study GRL study, “Sensitivity of ocean acidification to geoengineered climate stabilization” (subs. req’d), concluded:

The results of this paper support the view that climate engineering will not resolve the problem of ocean acidification, and that therefore deep and rapid cuts in CO2 emissions are likely to be the most effective strategy to avoid environmental damage from future ocean acidification.

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.)

I’d like to see an analysis of what happens when you get to 850 to 1000+ ppm because that is where we’re headed (see U.S. media largely ignores latest warning from climate scientists: “Recent observations confirm “¦ the worst-case IPCC scenario trajectories (or even worse) are being realised” “” 1000 ppm).

The CLF post notes:

Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) warns that an acidic ocean is the “equally evil twin” of climate change. Scott Doney, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution noted in a public presentation that “New England is the most vulnerable region in the country to ocean acidification.”

In June, dozens of Academies of Science, including ours and China’s, issued a joint statement on ocean acidification, warned “Marine food supplies are likely to be reduced with significant implications for food production and security in regions dependent on fish protein, and human health and wellbeing” and “Ocean acidification is irreversible on timescales of at least tens of thousands of years.”  They conclude:

Ocean acidification is a direct consequence of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations. To avoid substantial damage to ocean ecosystems, deep and rapid reductions of global CO2 emissions by at least 50% by 2050, and much more thereafter are needed.

We, the academies of science working through the InterAcademy Panel on International Issues (IAP), call on world leaders to:

“¢ Acknowledge that ocean acidification is a direct and real consequence of increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, is already having an effect at current concentrations, and is likely to cause grave harm to important marine ecosystems as CO2 concentrations reach 450 ppm and above;

“¢ Recognise that reducing the build up of CO2 in the atmosphere is the only practicable solution to mitigating ocean acidification;

“¢ Within the context of the UNFCCC negotiations in the run up to Copenhagen 2009, recognise the direct threats posed by increasing atmospheric CO2 emissions to the oceans and therefore society, and take action to mitigate this threat;

“¢ Implement action to reduce global CO2 emissions by at least 50% of 1990 levels by 2050 and continue to reduce them thereafter.

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.


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30 Responses to Imagine a World without Fish: Deadly ocean acidification — hard to deny, harder to geo-engineer, but not hard to stop — is subject of documentary

  1. Erik Schimek says:

    “I’d like to see an analysis of what happens when you get to 850 to 1000+ ppm”

    At around 1000 PPM, we precipitate an anoxic event. See also: Scientific American.

  2. Ken Johnson says:

    In what sense is ocean acidification “not hard to stop”?

    [JR: In the sense that we know precisely what needs to be done and the net cost is quite low -- unlike so many other problems. I usually say it is not easy, but straightforward.]

  3. Bob Wright says:

    Geoengineering solutions might be fertilizing plankton blooms to sequester CO2, increasing CaCO3 supersaturation by actually dumping pulverized limestone into the sea, or adding “weathering” minerals that react with CO2. Quantites required? Someone has tested tubular “pumps” to bring nutrient rich water from the deep to the surface.

    About 25 years ago a couple yahoos from Wildwood, NJ got caught dumping pool chlorine into the Atlantic because the water off their beaches failed the bacteria count. Geoengineering might be about as fruitless.

  4. paulm says:

    Well 500ppm is pretty much a nightmare….


    “Are we screwed?” someone asks from the audience.

    At the podium is Dr. Edward Miles of the University of Washington, in one of the most disturbing sequences in the film, shot at a scientific conference. The attendees have dispensed with the niceties of polite academic disocurse. Dr. Miles pauses, and responds.

    “Are we screwed? Ya, to a considerable extent. A world of 500 parts per million is a world of enormous environmental destruction. We ought to recognize that and say it.”

  5. Angela says:

    As the topic of A Sea Change has been raised–our thanks–I’d like to let you know that you’ll be able to see the film on the Planet Green network Sept. 26 at 8 pm. A Sea Change has been programmed as part of their “Reel Impact” series, and we’re sharing billing with “Who Killed the Electric Car?”, “An Inconvenient Truth” and “No Impact Man.”

    Really hoping that A Sea Change can help raise awareness about the ocean and climate change in time to get oceans on the table in Copenhagen.

  6. Abeles says:

    To see what the world will look like at 1000ppm, see Stephen Schneider’s essay in Nature (April 30, 2009): The Worst Case Scenario.
    “Stephen Schneider explores what a world with 1,000 parts per million of CO2 in its atmosphere might look like.”

    [JR: Well, actually he doesn't. I've explained what the world probably looks like at 1000 ppm -- see this post. I'm interested in acidification impacts at 1000 ppm.]

  7. Ken Johnson says:

    Joe: Following up on your response to my previous comment, if “the net cost is quite low” (for CO2 stabilization sufficient to avert ocean acidification), then why is it that we have only a “10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe“? Are we confusing “meeting the 2020 Waxman-Markey target” (easy and cheap) with “averting catastrophe” (more difficult)?

    [JR: Your question answers itself or, rather, it doesn't make much sense. What does that fact that "the net cost is quite low" have to do with my assertion we probably have only a "10% to 20% chance of averting catastrophe" if we pass Waxman-Markey? The former is a statement of what the economic/energy literature says. The second is a judgment of the bill, the nature of the energy and climate situation, and human nature.

    UPDATE: I'm going to revise upwards the "10% to 20%" figure shortly, based on encouraging trends.]

  8. ecostew says:

    1000 ppm – not oceans we exploit today, total ecosystem collapse/ecosystem evolution.

  9. Gail says:

    350 dot org

    It seems sort of idealistic, but actually, it is what we must achieve.


  10. Ken Johnson says:

    Joe: What is is about the bill, the nature of the energy and climate situation, and human nature that deters us from averting catastrophe, with better than 10% or 20% odds, if we know precisely what needs to be done and the net cost is quite low?

  11. lgcarey says:

    Ken – perhaps an increasingly shrill minority with an intense ideological pre-commitment which shapes their (mis)perception of the issue, prevents them from even acknowledging the existence of a climate problem that requires governmental action, and leads them to inject enormous amounts of FUD into the discussion?

  12. HighTest says:

    Who was it who said (to paraphrase):

    “Why do we call our planet “Earth”? More than 75% of the surface is covered with oceans.
    We should be called “Water.”

  13. Ken Johnson says:

    lgcarey — But the 10-20% probability estimate is premised on governmental action, shrill minorities notwithstanding.

  14. saltator says:

    Erik Schimek says:
    September 2, 2009 at 4:54 pm
    “I’d like to see an analysis of what happens when you get to 850 to 1000+ ppm”

    At around 1000 PPM, we precipitate an anoxic event. See also: Scientific American

    No. We don’t. I think people have to remember that corals evolved in the Ordivician era when CO2 levels exceeded 2000ppm. Anoxia is not caused by high pH but by low oxygen content of the water column usually as a result of eutrophication. High pH may be a symptom of Anoxia and not the cause. The cause of anoxic and hypoxic events is the degree of nutrient load to the water body.

    It is almost to impossible to have ocean acidification from atmospheric co2 in tropical oceanic waters because the solubility of free atmospheric co2 is inversely proportional to water temperature. The higher the water temperature, the lower the ability of the water body to absorb atmospheric co2. Most likely any pH change of tropical coral reefs will be a result of anthropogenic land runoff causing eutrophication and therefore higher pH of fringing coral reefs.

  15. Leland Palmer says:

    I wonder if the faster than predicted increase in acidification has something to do with hydrate plumes like these:


    he warming of an Arctic current over the last 30 years has triggered the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from methane hydrate stored in the sediment beneath the seabed.
    Warming Ocean Contributes to Global Warming – 14/08/09

    The warming of an Arctic current over the last 30 years has triggered the release of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, from methane hydrate stored in the sediment beneath the seabed.

    Scientists at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton working in collaboration with researchers from the University of Birmingham, Royal Holloway London and IFM-Geomar in Germany have found that more than 250 plumes of bubbles of methane gas are rising from the seabed of the West Spitsbergen continental margin in the Arctic, in a depth range of 150 to 400 metres.

    The BBC story that Joe links to above that says that ocean acidification is increasing ten times faster than previously estimated gets its data from the Pacific Northwest, off the Washington coast.


    It seems possible that this might be Arctic water, with increased CO2 levels from methanotroph bacteria feeding off of these hydrate plumes.

    It might be possible to remediate some (but not all) of the impact from these hydrate plumes in a carbon neutral way, by capturing the methane from them, burning the methane using carbon capture technologies to generate electricity, and deep injecting the CO2 into basalt strata below the ocean floor.

  16. Leland Palmer says:

    Oh, on edit-

    I wasn’t talking about the specific hydrate plumes found off West Spitsbergen, but was talking generically about other hydrate plumes in the Arctic, which might be bubbling away without our knowledge in the Arctic region.

    This would be consistent with the warming of waters in the Arctic, sad to say.

  17. Cynodont says:

    Good post.
    Yes, the oceans are in big trouble if we don’t reduce CO2 emissions and lower atmospheric CO2 levels.

    What scares me is that we have already passed the tipping point of runaway CO2 emissions from NATURAL sources. Melting Arctic, burning Amazon rainforest, reduced ocean circulation, etc… So very soon, it won’t matter when humans cut emissions or not, because these natural sources are two orders of magnitude greater than human emissions.

    Frankly, we are going to need geoengineering to prevent these runaway feedbacks from saying “game over”.

    There are two types of geoengineering that reduce both atmospheric CO2 and ocean acidifcation. Ocean Iron Fertilization, and the Accelerated Weathering of Limestone. Even though there are significant risks associated with both, I think the risk of not doing them is very likely much greater. We must accelerate scientific research many fold to find out definitively which carries greater risk.

  18. Leland Palmer says:

    This might actually be good news.

    Or, maybe not.

    The site where the 10X higher rate of acidification was measured, Tatoosh Island off Washington state, is close to the middle of a big deposit of methane hydrates, designated P9 on this USGS poster:


    The bad news is that this pH measurement might indicate significant hydrate dissociation.

    The good news might be that this is an atypical result, and that a significant amount of acidification is coming from the hydrates. So, it might be a localized phenomenon.

    Darn straight, we need to find out ASAP.

    These deposits are located on the Juan de Fuca plate, mentioned as a possible extremely secure and huge reservoir for deep injection of CO2, in this paper:


    If there are methane hydrate plumes bubbling up off Washington State, we need to capture the methane, burn it with CCS while generating electricity, and deep inject the resulting CO2 down into the Juan de Fuca plate, ASAP, and do whatever we can to limit this ocean acidification, if this hypothesis to explain the low pH readings is correct.

    Just an idea.

    Don’t know what to hope, whether it’s right or wrong.

    This global warming is like a nightmare, like a slow motion train wreck.

    And, it’s going to get a lot worse, under any reasonable set of assumptions, before it gets better.

  19. Christopher S. Johnson says:

    And lets not forget that, even if we drop our emissions to zero, the CO2 will plateau for close to a millennium before going down. So we are locked into that very level of damage. The WORSENING can be stopped by ceasing emissions, but the relative damage cannot, except by species adaptation or a crazy CO2 sucking machine.

  20. Leland Palmer says:

    One final thought-

    Carbon from methane hydrates is depleted in carbon 13, an isotope of carbon. This is one of the main fossil signatures (a shift in C12 to C13 isotope ratios) from past apparent methane catastrophes, such as the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum and the Permian-Triassic extinction event.

    So, it should be possible to estimate and monitor the rate of dissociation of the methane hydrates by real time monitoring of the carbon 12 to carbon 13 isotope ratios.

    I think there are a few projects to do this, using mass spectrometers, but we need to do this on a much larger scale, and track down and remediate methane hydrate plumes whenever we can, IMO.

  21. Paul Roth says:

    Oops sorry mixed up the movies – the one I was referring to in the last comment was “Acid Test” narrated by Sigourney Weaver and not “A Sea Change”. My apologies for any inconvenience.