Thursday, April 17, 2008

Oceans love CO2, coccolithophores say

Via Andrew Revkin. Thanks to Marc Morano.

Some time ago, we discussed topics related to the ocean chemistry, including its pH. Recall that the oceans' pH was around 8.17 in 1800, now it is around 8.10. The figure is decreasing as we are adding carbon dioxide (or carbonic acid, if you allow me to combine it with water) to the system. It will stay above 7.8 at least until 2100.
Related commercial break: Prof Roy Spencer: More CO2, please
The neutral value of pH is 7.0 and it is the average optimal pH for living creatures. While Coke has around 2.5 :-), fish tend to tolerate pH between 5.0 and 9.0. The readers with an aquarium know much more. Some of the fish prefer the lower values and some of them prefer the higher values. You should not be surprised that I think that 7.0 might be the optimal "democratic" value of pH. We are helping the oceans to get closer to the optimal value but we are still extremely far from it.

However, the environmentalist conclusion is very different. The pH is changing and everything that is changing is always changing in the bad direction. By definition, a change is bad. That's the main reason why the tautology known as "climate change" should also become a reason for concern, according to some people. But is the decrease of the pH a bad thing?

230 million years ago, when the land was dominated by dinosaurs, the oceans were controlled by coccolithophores, one-celled marine plants (a kind of phytoplankton). Tomorrow, a peer-reviewed paper in Science
M. Debora Iglesias-Rodriguez, Paul R. Halloran & their 11 disciples: Phytoplankton Calcification in a High-CO2 World
will argue that according to lab tests as well as direct observations of the sea bed, coccolithophores thrive. Over the past 220 years, their volume has increased by 40% or so. They are a cornerstone of the ecosystem. For example, they help to remove carbon and lock it in rocks as they die and sink.

The detailed biological character of the processes helping to remove carbon from the upper ocean may sound amusing but at a macroscopic level, the effect they demonstrate is nothing else than another example of Le Chatelier's principle.

A stable physical system always responds to the external changes in the direction that reduces their effect. If you add additional CO2, those who consume carbon or those who take it away will inevitably thrive a little bit more than before while those who produce CO2 automatically thrive a little bit less. Nature self-regulates in this fashion. You know the same thing from the economy. If a new person starts to import a lot of gold, new people become jewelers while the competing importers of gold may be in trouble.

Decreasing pH of the oceans was called the "other problem with CO2". We are finally beginning to learn that it is not really a problem. CO2 is life. Other alarms are being proven unjustified, too. For example, Kerry Emanuel who used to promote the link between warming and hurricanes is reconsidering his stand.

And some corals are again flourishing on Bikini Atoll where the largest atomic bomb ever exploded (1,000 times the Hiroshima bomb). We usually visualize the Hiroshima bomb to be the ultimate catastrophe for life. But as you can see, even if you multiply it by one thousand, it is still a pretty good thing for many organisms, at least those who live 50 years later. I guess that this relative harmlessness - to say the least - of the greatest atomic bombs must be an inconvenient truth for those obsessed people - the so-called environmentalists - who try to present 1,000,000 times smaller events as unacceptable tragedies.

The Earth is amazingly resilient. Charlton Heston who died less than two weeks ago says it very nicely in the video above. Fine, Michael Crichton helped him with the wording ;-) but Heston really wanted to read it!

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