May I Have A Little Acid In My Salt Water, Please?

"The oceans, despite their appearance, are not inexhaustible, vast, and infinitely forgiving."
So said Sigourney Weaver of "Alien" fame prior to a press conference in the Capitol on Tuesday. The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) had just released its video "Acid Test: The Global Challenge of Ocean Acidification," narrated by Weaver. (Click the link to watch the full video.)
Sigourney Weaver discussing ocean acidification prior to the screening of NRDC's film, "Acid Test."

Sigourney Weaver discussing ocean acidification prior to the screening of NRDC's film, "Acid Test."

Ocean acidification is one of the big side effects of ever-increasing atmospheric CO2 levels. "There has been a lot of focus on climate change, but a lot of people don't know about ocean acidification," I overheard Weaver--who stood only feet away from me in a 20- by 20-foot room full of chairs, people, and cameras--saying prior to the screening of "Acid Test." The CO2 we pump out doesn't all just stay in the air; about 20-plus million tons per day of it goes into the water, too, forming carbonic acid, which alters the ocean's pH and makes living difficult for some marine critters. The acidic ocean's effects on every marine creature (a lot of which aren't yet known) can't yet be exactly determined, but there is still a lot that is known. "Ocean acidification has a lot of the world's leading scientists freaked out," Weaver said. Although the average pH of the world's oceans has dropped by only about 0.2 pH units since the Industrial Revolution (when we started burning lots of stuff for energy, thus jettisoning CO2 into the atmosphere), that is a bigger change than has occurred since the time of the dinosaurs' extinction, said Lisa Suatoni, a senior scientist at NRDC who was in the film and was a panel member who answered questions after the video screening. Ocean organisms alive today are not used to handling such rapid (in an evolutionary timescale) environmental change, and we land-bound animals rely heavily on the bounty of the seas to survive. Suatoni emphasized, "You don't have to live on the coast to have ocean acidification affect your food supply."
"If the smallest things in the ocean are affected by ocean acidification, then it ripples all the way up the food web, making the largest things in the ocean even more in danger," said marine ecologist Stephen R. Palumbi of Stanford University in the video. And predictions estimate that will happen in just a few decades--the "tipping point" of atmospheric CO2 concentrations that will lead to a world-average ocean acidity high enough to basically melt sea life is only 450 to 550 ppm, Suatoni said, answering a question from the audience. Current levels are around 375 ppm and increasing. To put ocean acidification in perspective, Suatoni noted in the video, "It is not necessarily a problem we're passing off to future generations; it's a problem that we're generating for ourselves."
Lisa Suatoni answering questions at the ocean acidification press conference.

Lisa Suatoni answering questions at the ocean acidification press conference.

But what I found impressive about this short video (it is a bit more than 20 minutes long) is that it actually offered solutions to the problem, in stark contrast to a similarly focused movie released in 2007, "Crude: The Incredible Journey of Oil," which I watched at the recent ACS national meeting here in Washington, D.C. (Click to watch the full movie.) The directors' intended audiences were clearly different for these films, despite the topics being so similar. "Crude" was a bit of a doomsday flick, covering oil's hundreds of millions of years of history, science, and economics, with the final message of "if we don't do anything about CO2 emissions, we're toast." The focus of "Acid Test" was more narrow (ocean acidification, of course), but the film went beyond "Crude"'s "too little, too late" and challenged legislators and individuals to support a clean-energy society with technology that already exists. "Acid Test" holds out hope--it does, in fact, end the credits with commercial fisherman Bruce Steele saying, almost sheepishly, "I have hope. You can't fish and not have hope," to which the legislative and press audience chuckled. Maybe it is because I am watching videos targeted to an audience that I don't belong to, but there seems to be so much of a focus on legislators and companies carrying the burden of changing the world and less focus on how we as individuals can change it ourselves by acting as the examples we wish to legislate others into being. We need both because legislation works only if people adhere to it and if it's enforced. If Weaver ever gets back to me about what she does on a personal level to decrease her own carbon emissions (beyond supporting such outreach efforts), I'll update this post, because I know that I, at least, am curious about that. Legislation to research and monitor ocean acidification passed the House of Representatives in the 110th Congress, but it did not pass the Senate before the session ended. The bill has been introduced in both the House and the Senate in the current Congress session. Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who sponsors the House version of the bill, sat next to me during the press conference and asked the panel questions such as "How well-established is carbonic acid chemistry?" Suatoni seemed taken aback at such a simple question--it was as if both she and I were wondering the same thing: "Who is this guy?" That is, until we realized that he asked the leading question so the audience could understand how basic the chemistry is behind carbonic acid formation and the subsequent acidification of the ocean. At the science museum where I volunteer, we mix sodium bicarbonate and acetic acid (baking soda and vinegar) to get CO2, which we pump into water using a balloon and a gas valve. It shows kids the effects of increased atmospheric CO2 levels on aquatic life--calcium carbonate "shells" representing sea life dissolve in front of their eyes. The process is simple. The solution to the problem that that process introduces is a bit more tricky, but if you follow the message in "Acid Test," we have the answers and the technology. We just have to choose to use them. Photos by me.

Author: Kenneth Moore

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