Ask the real experts about ocean acidification, not climate science deniers

coral bleaching

Powered by article titled “Ask the real experts about ocean acidification, not climate science deniers” was written by , for on Thursday 16th April 2015 05.37 UTC

If you try hard enough – and sometimes you don’t have to try hard at all – you can find all sorts of crazyballs evidence-free misleading gumph out there on the intertubes.

Many of the proponents are so blinded by their own ideology and beliefs that they can perform all manner of logical gymnastics to tell themselves that they’re right and the experts are wrong.

Some are utterly convinced that dude absolutely was abducted by a single-toed space alien, Elvis totally used to work at the local chip shop, humans didn’t evolve but were “designed” and there’s no evidence that extra carbon dioxide causes climate change.

But none of this should mean those views deserve to get a run in a national newspaper.

Occasionally though, they do.

So here are a few things you could have learned from the opinion page of the Australian newspaper this week about the Great Barrier Reef and ocean acidification – the phenomenon where extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels makes the oceans more acidic.

  • Ocean acidification was “invented” in 2005 by climate scientists because global warming wasn’t bad enough.
  • Because corals and shellfish have been around for millions of years they’ll be fine if the ocean keeps soaking up all the extra CO2.
  • The oceans have a built-in natural “buffer” that stops the water from swinging around the pH scale (the scale used to measure acid and alkaline states).
  • People who keep saltwater aquariums at home sometimes add CO2 to the water to make plants grow – therefore, CO2 is great for the oceans.

There are two things to know about these points.

The first is that they were all made by Canadian climate science denier Patrick Moore, who has not written a single peer-reviewed scientific paper on the subject of ocean acidification (or on anything else in the recent past, as far as I can tell. He got his ecology Ph.D in 1974).

The second thing to know (not surprising when you know the first thing) is that all Moore’s statements are wrong, irrelevant or misleading.

How do I know?

Because I asked some actual experts to review Moore’s column – well respected scientists at universities who have researched and published papers on ocean acidification in the world’s leading journals.

Professor Malcolm McCulloch, of the University of Western Australia, said Moore’s column was “ill-informed and highly misleading”.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland, said it was “all very wrong”.

Other scientists told me Moore’s article was “nonsense”, “BS” and displayed “ignorance and misunderstanding”.

Patrick Moore. Who he?

The Australian described Patrick Moore as a “co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace” and “chair of ecology, energy and prosperity with Canada’s Frontier Centre for Public Policy”.

Moore left Greenpeace almost 30 years ago. Greenpeace says he wasn’t a founder, but he was around in the early days. Moore took his job at the Frontier Centre – a Canadian “free market” think tank that doesn’t reveal its funders – in late 2014.

In the substantial gap between, Moore has spent his time as an adviser or advocate for industries including mining, forestry and pulp and paper. He has been a vocal supporter of the nuclear energy and GM foods industries.

In an interview earlier this year, Moore defended the herbicide glyphosate, a “probable carcinogen” according to the World Heath Organisation. Moore claimed that you could “drink a whole quart” and it would not harm you. When the interviewer offered a glass of it to drink, Moore refused, saying “I’m not an idiot”.

In recent years, Moore has continually claimed that carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels will be good for the planet.

With support from a climate science denial group, Moore toured Australia last year telling people climate science was largely a scam.

Moore’s dodgy ‘science’

Just because Moore has no genuine expertise in ocean acidification, that doesn’t necessarily make him wrong.

So let’s dive in to the murky waters of Moore’s unique and twisted take on the science of ocean acidification.

Moore tells the Australian’s readers that around the year 2005 “ocean acidification was invented to provide yet another apocalyptic scenario” because, according to Moore, global warming had stopped (it hasn’t).

It’s a conspiracy, you see.

Professor Christopher Langdon, of the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami, has been working on ocean acidification and its impacts on marine life since the late 1990s. Was the science he was working on in the late 90s really invented half a decade later?

The research on the effects of Ocean Acidification on corals and coral reefs began much earlier (than 2005). Kleypas et al 1999 Science, Langdon et al 2000 Global Biogeochem Cycles, Marubini et al 2001 Marine Ecol Prog Ser.

There was an explosion of research in 2005 because the US funding agencies NSF and NOAA won approval from Congress (Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act) to increase funding into this important issue because it was threatening commercial aquaculture operations on the west coast. No big conspiracy, just clearly considered decisions by a lot of very conservative policy makers and scientists.

That’s one myth dissolved then. Next?

Extinction threat

Moore told readers that because CO2 levels had been higher during periods hundreds of millions of years ago and that corals and shellfish had “evolved early and obviously managed to survive through eras of much higher CO2” that this disproved predictions that species would become extinct.

Dr Matthew Clarkson, of Otago University in New Zealand, was the lead author of a paper published in Science earlier this month finding that acidifying oceans were to blame for a mass extinction event 250m years ago that killed 90% of all marine species. Clarkson told me:

Moore’s point represents a common misunderstanding of a very complex subject.

Moore is referring to equilibrium steady states that represent a balanced and stable world on million year timescales. In geological history it is only when the system is perturbed rapidly that life on Earth is detrimentally affected, and pushed to a mass extinction. This happens when the rate of change exceeds the evolutionary ability to cope.

The high CO2 levels we see today (and will see in the future form anthropogenic emissions) are extreme compared to the equilibrium state of the modern climate system; thus represent a large and rapid perturbation. Even in past states of high steady-state CO2, such as the Late Permian that might have had two to three times present atmospheric levels of CO2, a rapid input of more CO2 caused a perturbation to the system that manifested as acidification and mass extinction. Eventually the system will balance and equilibrium is restored, but this is can take tens of thousands of years.

Clarkson added that it took five million years after the mass extinction around 250m years ago for modern corals to appear, which only happened “when the ocean conditions were perfect”.

Professor Philip Munday, of James Cook Univeristy in Queensland, told me:

All life on Earth can trace its origins back through periods of deep geological time when the environmental conditions were very different from today. That does not mean that modern species, living in the present-day, must also be tolerant to those ancient conditions – that premise is clearly absurd. A tropical reef fish could no more survive in the southern ocean as an Antarctic ice fish could survive on a coral reef, yet both have evolved from a common ancestor in their evolutionary past. Importantly, species alive today have adapted to the environmental conditions experienced in their recent evolutionary history. Yet, in a period of just a few hundred years, humans have pushed atmospheric CO2 levels beyond levels seen in at least 800,000 years, and we are on a trajectory to CO2 levels not seen for tens of millions of years by the end of this century. This extraordinarily rapid rate of change will challenge the ability of many species to adapt.


Buffer that

Moore claimed that because oceans had a “high concentration of basic elements such as calcium and magnesium” that this acted to buffer any large swings in pH and so corals would be fine.

Professor Malcolm McCulloch’s response was, erm, “no”.

He said measurements made off Hawaii and Bermuda “show the pH of the open ocean is declining – this is real and the cause is rising levels of atmospheric CO2. As a whole the oceans have limited buffering especially on short-time scales – tens to hundreds of years.”


It’s all a clam

Moore states in his column, which by now has already amassed an impressive array of wrongness, that there are clams and mussels that grow their own shells in freshwater that’s acidic, and that this somehow means that species producing their own shells in oceans will be fine if things get worse.

Munday says:

The vast majority of mollusc species, such as clams and mussels, live in the ocean. A few have adapted to freshwater, and some have even adapted to live on land (e.g. garden snails), but this evolution took millions of years and special adaptations. The fact that some molluscs have adapted to low-pH freshwater environments over millions of years is not evidence that molluscs currently living in the ocean will be able to tolerate acidification occurring over a few decades.


Glass empty of relevance

Moore makes an entirely misleading point that when water gets warmer “the gases dissolved tend to outgas” meaning that if the oceans are warming, which they are, this will mean they’ll expel more CO2 and all will be good in the world.

He even provides a nifty kitchen test, when he writes: “It’s the same phenomenon that happens in a glass of cold water taken from the fridge and placed on a counter at room temperature. The bubbles that form on the ­inside of the glass as it warms are the gases that were dissolved in the colder water.”

This is right, but is it even relevant?

McCulloch said:

The increased uptake of CO2 from higher atmospheric concentrations is more than compensated by the reduced solubility of CO2 in seawater due to ocean warming. Because the oceans are cooler at the poles this is where the greatest uptake of CO2 generally occurs.

Atmospheric concentrations of CO2 have gone up by about 120 parts per million since the start of the industrial revolution.

McCulloch said the warmer ocean waters “roughly speaking” had effectively reduced this ocean uptake to 100 ppm, rather than 120ppm.


Slime time

Moore tries to concoct another household example for readers, by saying that “people who have saltwater aquariums sometimes add CO2 to the water in order to increase coral growth and to increase plant growth” and that this means that CO2 is therefore great for marine life.

McCulloch says: “Wrong again”.

Aquarists only rarely add CO2 – generally calcium carbonate is added to increase alkalinity as well as calcium, or for alkalinity alone sodium bicarbonate is often added.

The chemical reality is that addition of CO2 reduces carbonate ion concentrations essential for calcification – so if you want the oceans to be algae dominated continue adding CO2 and nutrients. Corals however generally prefer low CO2, low nutrient waters.

Munday adds:

Additional CO2 can increase the competitive ability of algae, potentially allowing the fast growing algae to overgrow and smother corals. Coral reefs under stress can shift into algal dominated states, especially in places where herbivores are overfished.

So in other words, if you want a Great Barrier Reef that’s covered in slime, then follow Patrick Moore’s advice (tourism operators should consider how to market slime tours to the international tourism market).


Coral bleaching

Finally (because this is getting tedious, or has been tedious for a few hundred words already … but I’ve started so I’ll finish), Moore moves on to coral bleaching – a phenomenon where corals loose their vivid colours as a stress reaction to high ocean temperatures.

The fact that incidents of coral bleaching have nothing to do with ocean acidification seems, in Moore’s mind, to be irrelevant.

Moore cherry-picks the case of the remote Scott Reef, off the northwest of Australia, which was heavily bleached in 1998 but recovered after about 15 years.

One study into what the future might hold for coral reefs if emissions continue to rise was published in the journal Nature Climate Change in 2013.

The study found that even if emissions were cut drastically, it was likely that reefs around the world would experience coral bleaching annually from about the year 2047. Some areas, including the location of Scott Reef, would likely experience annual bleaching between five and 15 years earlier than this.

When you are a reef that needs 15 years to recover from bleaching, how do you recover when the conditions are ripe for you to bleach every year?

Probably the world’s leading expert on coral bleaching is Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, of the University of Queensland. He said Moore was guilty of “cherry-picking” the case of Scott Reef in order to make a point.

Moore has got this all very wrong. Yes there are examples where reefs recovered after that 1998 bleaching event. But a large number of reefs have not. Moore is not giving the full story.

Acidifying oceans means that corals put down calcium carbonate at lower rates. This affects the ability of corals to grow back. We are weakening the ability of reefs to recover and tipping the balance between construction and destruction. This is no really about mortality – it’s about the failure of the whole system.


Spin doctoring

What really surprised Hoegh-Guldberg was how Moore “feels experienced enough to comment on these matters” when he had no record of studying them in the academic literature. He said:

If I wanted to know about matters of medicine then I’d go to a medical doctor, not a spin doctor. This is exactly what’s happening here.

The Australian newspaper, owned by climate science “sceptic” Rupert Murdoch, has a track record of providing a forum to non-experts on climate science.

Moore’s effort was an embarrassing and barely plausible mix of half-truths, misinterpretations and errors from a non-expert.

Perfect, it seems, for the Australian’s opinion pages. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010

Published via the Guardian News Feed plugin for WordPress.