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Bad Acid Trip: USGS Study Finds Humans Are Acidifying ‘The Air, Oceans, Freshwaters And Soils’

By Joe Romm  

"Bad Acid Trip: USGS Study Finds Humans Are Acidifying ‘The Air, Oceans, Freshwaters And Soils’"

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Call it the reverse Midas touch. Everything homo sapiens touches turns to acid.

A study led by the U.S. Geological Survey finds, “Human use of Earth’s natural resources is making the air, oceans, freshwaters, and soils more acidic.”  The USGS news release explains:

This comprehensive review, the first on this topic to date, found the mining and burning of coal, the mining and smelting of metal ores, and the use of nitrogen fertilizer are the major causes of chemical oxidation processes that generate acid in the Earth-surface environment.

These widespread activities have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing the acidity of oceans; produced acid rain that has increased the acidity of freshwater bodies and soils; produced drainage from mines that has increased the acidity of freshwater streams and groundwater; and added nitrogen to crop lands that has increased the acidity of soils.

Previous studies have linked increased acidity in oceans to damage to ocean food webs, while increased acidity in soils has the potential to affect their ability to sustain crop growth.

In short, global acidification is one more threat to global food security, which is already under grave threat by climate change, our idiotic biofuels policies, population growth and demographic changes (see Oxfam Predicts Climate Change will Help Double Food Prices by 2030: “We Are Turning Abundance into Scarcity”).

Here’s more background on the study and its findings:

“We believe that this study is the first attempt to assess all of the major human activities that are making Earth more acidic,” said USGS scientist Karen Rice, who led the study. “We hope others will use this as a starting point for making scientific and management progress to preserve the atmosphere, waters, and soils that support human life.”

… “The low pH levels of streams in coal regions of the eastern United States were a major environmental concern 50 years ago,” said University of Virginia geochemist Janet Herman. “Changes in mining practices as well as shifting location of production brought about improvements in water quality in Appalachia. In contrast, exploitation of coal has grown in China where the same environmental protections are not in place.”

To examine the global impact of acidification, the researchers developed a series of world maps to show current coal use, nutrient consumption, and copper production and smelting by country. By combining this information with the anticipated population growth through 2050 and the impact of changing technology, regulations and other factors, the researchers address shifting trends in acidification.

“Looking at these maps can help identify where the current hotspots are for producing acidity,” said Rice. “The population increase map can help guide policymakers on possible future trends and areas to watch for the development of new hotspots.”

For example, the populations of some countries in Africa are projected to increase in the near future. To support the growing populations, these countries likely will be forced to apply more nitrogen fertilizer to their crops than they currently use, increasing the acidification of soils and freshwater resources in a region that had not previously been affected.

To look at the impact of the acid producing activities, the researchers characterized the scale of environmental damage from major activities and their components as local, regional, global, or some combination of the three. Generating power by burning coal, for instance, can have local, regional and global impacts. Locally, it can cause acid mine drainage where the coal is mined; regionally, burning it can cause acid rain; globally, the increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the acidity of the ocean.

The full study in the journal Applied Geochemistry, “Acidification of Earth: An Assessment across Mechanisms and Scales,” is available online. It concludes:

… currently low-consuming regions in Africaand the Middle East are predicted to experience a tremendous population growth with its attendant demand for energy, mineral, andfood resources. It may be that regions of Earth not currently burdened with environmental acidification soon will be contributing significantly to Earth’s acid load. Now might be the time of opportunity to anticipate the coming shifts in population and resource consumption and plan for amelioration of acidifying processes from the outset.

That would be the understatement of the year.

The fact is ocean acidification by itself ought to be reason enough to act now (see Geological Society: Acidifying oceans spell marine biological meltdown “by end of century”). But the disinformers, delayers, inactivists, and smoke-detector-battery-removers currently have the upper hand.

So we will get to see what happens when you acidify everything. What a long, strange trip it’s going to be.

Image via Tadbot

 

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12 Responses to Bad Acid Trip: USGS Study Finds Humans Are Acidifying ‘The Air, Oceans, Freshwaters And Soils’

  1. Peter says:

    - C02 at Mauna Loa- From the NOAA last week reached 394.75ppm- anyone by mid spring seeing 398ppm?

  2. Dick Smith says:

    Re: “So we will get to see what happens when you acidify everything. What a long, strange trip it’s going to be.”

    Talk about “understatement.”

    NOAA’s Jane Lubchenko called ocean acidification the “evil twin” of global warming. Hard to improve on that message, but this was a great post on an even broader acidification problems. Thanks.

  3. clays says:

    “The low pH levels of streams in coal regions of the eastern United States were a major environmental concern 50 years ago,” said University of Virginia geochemist Janet Herman. “Changes in mining practices as well as shifting location of production brought about improvements in water quality in Appalachia. In contrast, exploitation of coal has grown in China where the same environmental protections are not in place.”

    Your republished your blog and this study in Chinese right?

  4. John Tucker says:

    In the press some other stuff was mentioned in the last week here are the articles – ill try to track down the studies:

    Marine species at risk as oceans acidify

    British scientists say the current level of carbon dioxide emissions will wipe out about 30 per cent of the world’s marine species by the end of the century.

    The new research was presented at a meeting in Vancouver. ( http://www.abc.net.au/news/2012-02-20/marine-species-at-risk-as-oceans-acidify/3840854?section=world )

    Dr Jason Hall Spencer – presenting in Vancouver

    And this one that corrects some previous studies:

    Ocean acidification modifies climate change impact on fisheries: study

    Previous projections suggested that the effects of warmer water temperature would lead to fish moving toward the poles and cooler waters, resulting in an increase of fish catch potential of as much as 30 per cent in the North Atlantic by 2050.

    But new projections that add in the impact of de-oxygenation and ocean acidification show that some regions may see a 20-35 per cent cut in maximum catch potential by 2050 (relative to 2005) depending on the individual species’ sensitivity to ocean acidification.

    ( http://www.fis.com/fis/worldnews/worldnews.asp?l=e&country=0&special=&monthyear=&day=&id=50185&ndb=1&df=0 )

    William Cheung, an assistant professor in UBC’s Fisheries Centre – Also presenting at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Vancouver.

    • John Tucker says:

      Dr Hall-Spencer’s work is not published yet – here is a more in depth story, with some very good rate comparisons:

      ‘Jacuzzi vents’ model CO2 future

      These are changes that are occurring far too fast for the oceans to correct naturally, said Dr Richard Feely with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (Noaa)

      “Fifty-five million years ago when we had an event like this (and that took over 10,000 years to occur), it took the oceans over 125,000 years to recover, just to get the chemistry back to normal,” he told BBC News.

      “It took two to 10 million years for the organisms to re-evolve, to get back into a normal situation. ( http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17088154 )

    • John Tucker says:

      Professor Cheung’s work is detailed here :

      Ocean acidification turns climate change winners into losers: UBC Research

      Climate change and the associated physical and chemical changes in the ocean decrease oxygen in the water in some region. Meanwhile, approximately one-third of the carbon dioxide that humans produce by burning fossil fuels is being absorbed by the ocean, gradually causing the oceans to become more acidic and affecting biological processes of various marine organisms.

      Cheung says that rebuilding global fisheries may increase the capacity of marine species to handle the impacts of climate change and ocean acidification.

      “This will require efforts on various fronts, including curbing overfishing and reducing carbon dioxide levels,” says Cheung.

      ( http://www.publicaffairs.ubc.ca/2012/02/18/ocean-acidification-turns-climate-change-winners-into-losers-ubc-research/ )

      And speaking of potential acid trips – his work feeds into this :

      The Nereus Program ( http://www.nereusprogram.org/ )

      Future ocean visualization – NF-UBC Oracle project : ( http://www.aaas.ubc.ca/media-resources/videos/ )

  5. Rob Jones says:

    Soil acidification is a sleeping giant in Australia also. Much of this occurs not through direct application of nitrogenous fertilisers but through the sustained growth of nitrogen fixing plants such as clover. Again the effects are insidious and this attracts far less attention here than does the far less important problem of salinity. That is because salinity results in scalds that are far more obvious than the results of acidification.
    In the end much of the process of human activity is detrimental to the sustainability of our biosphere to support humans. The true sleeping giant is human population numbers. This is the no 1 problem facing the sustainability of our race and yet, even here on this excellent site is it almost never discussed. The argument that I see when ever this issue is discussed is that greenies hate humans. The reality for me is that I do not hate humans at all, just too many of them. Populations everywhere need to be limited by choice because we can do it humanly, alternatively nature will resolve this problem for us in a far less humane manner. Who would chose the later option?
    We must change the nature of human greed or watch it annihilate our quality of life.

    • Gordon Graham says:

      Even if it once was possible, say 40 years ago when Limits To Growth was first published, it is obvious we have poisoned our children’s future.

      I have yet to see anyone include in their predictions of the global collapse of all life support systems, the probabilities of global pandemics or global warfare over what few remaining sources of potable water there will be by mid-century.

  6. Gail Zawacki says:

    Quotes at the top of the webpage
    http://www.deadtrees-dyingforests.com/

    “…there is a ‘wave’ of acidic atmospheric deposition-induced acidification moving across the landscape, leaving behind a ‘wake’ of ecological damage…” – Dr. Karen Rice, University of Virginia, “Acidification of the the World” September, 2011

    “It’s been said that nitrogen pollution is the biggest environmental disaster that nobody’s ever heard of.” – Dr. Alan Townsend, University of Colorado, August, 2011

    “Fumifugium: Or the Inconvenience of the Aer and Smoake…” – John Evelyn, 1661

  7. prokaryotes says:

    After all it will rain Acid… the irony.

  8. Sailesh Rao says:

    “In short, global acidification is one more threat to global food security, which is already under grave threat by climate change, our idiotic biofuels policies, population growth and demographic changes”

    AND our insistence on eating animals. If we keep ignoring our diet, we are also in denial…

  9. Solar Jim says:

    Hell and high waters, the entire western economic paradigm (which is theoretically for promoting beneficial behavior) is built precisely on the mining of fossil minerals and setting them on fire. That is, extracting (sometimes from miles underground) and oxidizing them into fossil carbonic acid.

    This is poisoned economics of acid, a perverse culture of “energy” by explosives is exploding global ecologic and cultural stability. So obviously, we need to continue the half-trillion dollar global financial subsidies, plus war and illness expenditures associated with mining-for-fuels, in order to keep this process of global collapse entrenched for the status of the few.

    We seem to be an Easter Island of a planet with inhabitants dumber than dirt.