Ocean Acidifying at Faster Rate than in Past 300 Million Years

March 2, 2012

The single-celled organism Stensioeina beccariiformis survived the asteroid impact that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago but went extinct 9 million years later, when the oceans acidified due to a massive CO2 release. It ranged across many depths, in all oceans. (Credit: Ellen Thomas)

Science Daily: 

The world’s oceans may be turning acidic faster today from human carbon emissions than they did during four major extinctions in the last 300 million years, when natural pulses of carbon sent global temperatures soaring, says a new study in Science. The study is the first of its kind to survey the geologic record for evidence of ocean acidification over this vast time period.

“What we’re doing today really stands out,” said lead author Bärbel Hönisch, a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We know that life during past ocean acidification events was not wiped out — new species evolved to replace those that died off. But if industrial carbon emissions continue at the current pace, we may lose organisms we care about — coral reefs, oysters, salmon.”

The oceans act like a sponge to draw down excess carbon dioxide from the air; the gas reacts with seawater to form carbonic acid, which over time is neutralized by fossil carbonate shells on the seafloor. But if CO2 goes into the oceans too quickly, it can deplete the carbonate ions that corals, mollusks and some plankton need for reef and shell-building.


Oceans get more acidic when more carbon gets into the atmosphere. In pre-industrial times, that occurred periodically in natural pulses of carbon that also pushed up global temperatures, the scientists wrote.

Human activities, including the burning of fossil fuels, have increased the level of atmospheric carbon to 392 parts per million from about 280 parts per million at the start of the industrial revolution. Carbon dioxide is one of several heat-trapping gases that contribute to global warming.

To figure out what ocean acidification might have done in the prehistoric past, 21 researchers from the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Germany and Spain reviewed studies of the geological record going back 300 million years, looking for signs of climate disruption.

Those indications of climate change included mass extinction events, where substantial percentages of living things on Earth died off, such as the giant asteroid strike thought to have killed the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.

The events that seemed similar to what is happening now included mass extinctions about 252 million and 201 million years ago, as well as the warming period 56 million years in the past.

The researchers reckoned the 5,000-year hot spell 56 million years ago, likely due to factors like massive volcanism, was the closest parallel to current conditions at any time in the 300 million years.

During the warming period 56 million years ago, known as the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or PETM, and occurring about 9 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs, acidification for each century was about .008 unit on the pH scale, Hoenisch said.

Back then, many corals went extinct, as did many types of single-celled organisms that lived on the sea floor, which suggests other plants and animals higher on the food chain died out too, researchers said.

By contrast, in the 20th century, oceans acidified by .1 unit of pH, and are projected to get more acidic at the rate of .2 or .3 pH by the year 2100, according to the study.

The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects world temperatures could rise by 3.2 to 7 degrees F (1.8 to 4 degrees C) this century.

“Given that the rate of change was an order of magnitude smaller (in the PETM) compared to what we’re doing today, and still there were these big ecosystem changes, that gives us concern for what is going to happen in the future,” Hoenisch said.

49 Responses to “Ocean Acidifying at Faster Rate than in Past 300 Million Years”

  1. g2-b045ae5c7f82d7e9172398e67af2ac85 Says:

    Might, could and may– sounds like the language of serious warnings to me. Not getting vaccinated for measles might lead to illness and even death. Not putting on a seatbelt may lead to your being ejected from your vehicle in a collision, substantially raising the probability of death. Not filing an accurate tax return could lead to fines and imprisonment. Of course you’re not worried, are you Maurizio?

    Bryson Brown

  2. Rather silly arguments Bryson and Sebastian. Are you expected to be worried about the apocalypse on the basis that you’re worried about other kinds of catastrophes? Of course not. The idea that one has to be 100% credulous or 100% unconvinced, well, one has to be very credulous to believe in that.

  3. Pretty sure that’s nothing approaching a complete sentence or a coherent thought, but I gather what you’re saying is the old “we aren’t 100% sure so let’s just do nothing” canard.

    If this were merely an academic issue, that science involves degrees of certainty and not PROOFS as found in math and logic, you might be on to something.

    But it isn’t, it’s a public policy and a public health question. And much like I’m not going to wait for every doctor in the world to agree that HIV causes AIDS before I protect myself from it, and I’m not going to ignore the small percentage of tobacco industry shill scientists who argue a three pack a day habit is no big deal, I’m not going to ignore the overwhelming majority of climate scientists who tell me climate is a serious concern just because a few oil industry shills are telling dupes like you what you want to hear.

  4. Sebastian – am sorry but I can’t fly low enough for you. And I have enough of your strawmen and.exaggerations. either reply to what I write or.be prepared to talk to yourself.

    • I would imagine a lot of folks around here probably wouldn’t mind if you were to quit talking and leave us talking to ourselves, so fair enough. But I digress.

      In any event, this is a curious thing for a denialist to write: “The idea that one has to be 100% credulous or 100% unconvinced, well, one has to be very credulous to believe in that.”

      Indeed, seeing as climate realists recognize that there is in point of fact no requirement that we be 100% credulous to believe the time to act is nigh. Quite the opposite–we recognize that the scientific degree of certainty about climate change is high, and the bar has more than been met in re: justifying further action.

  5. Of course you wouldn’t mind if I kept quiet Sebastian …in fact you keep responding to somebody else, not me. For example all this blathering about “further action” is irrelevant because I’m quite ready for “further action” too.

  6. Greenman,

    You are performing a real service by allowing Morabito to continue posting here.

    After all, every minute he spends here is a minute where he isn’t annoying his family members and neighbors. I’m sure that they would like to thank you for “taking one for the team”.

    • No worries caerbannetcetcetc I’m sure Peter is aware of the antidemocratic feelings among his frustrated activist followers. And I thank you for posting another example of that, I have a long list and it’s useful to show the True Nature of globalwarmism.

      • otter17 Says:

        Frustration arises from interacting with denialists or partial denialists since there is a stark difference in the set of facts on which action plans should be formed. On one side we have the National Academy of Sciences as well as a vast majority of other organizations and climate scientists. On the other side, folks with clear cognitive dissonance between beliefs/values and science.

        Sure, I’ll bet you could find a lot of quotes where people are venting their frustration. I personally don’t condone extremely strong words, since apathetic outsiders may look on the debate and become even more apathetic. Nevertheless, we have to call anti-science what it is if the most cited peer reviewed literature is denied by ideologues who don’t participate in the scientific process.

        Hey, here is a gem of a comment I found a while back that may just show the uncaring true nature of global warming inaction.

        “Humanity’s never been as powerful, resourceful and resilient as today. There’s no past climate we wouldn’t be able to adapt to, even the pre-oxygen eras and iceball Earth.”


        • greenman3610 Says:

          so, even if faced with proof of a 99 percent extinction event, omnologos would be unmoved, and rationalize our ability, (at least some of us, the elite) to “adapt”.
          (perhaps on Newt’s moon base)
          speaks volumes about the respect for and understanding of life on this planet and our connection with it.

      • MorinMoss Says:

        I’ve seen a number of your posts on WUWT and I don’t recall you remarking that any of the many thousands of rather vile comments posted about AGW-proponents showed the “True Nature of globalwarmingdenialism”

    • greenman3610 Says:

      My goal – To Serve Man

  7. Ah, I see it now.

    Annoyance at contrived, poorly worded nonsense spewed in the name of mankind avoiding any responsibility for the consequences of its collective behavior and refusal to pretend that natural resources are by definition finite = “antidemocratic feelings”.


    Let me know when I can be over to sign the paperwork for that bridge you were selling.

  8. I think the general denialist thinking runs something akin to this (and Maurizio seems to fit this bill):

    1) It isn’t happening.
    2) Ok, it is but we’re not causing it.
    3) Even if we causing it it’s no big deal and fixing it will be expensive and I want my cheap gasoline.
    4) The worst effects will be felt in the 3rd world, and those folks don’t really count anyway.
    5) When it finally becomes so undeniable that something needs be done (and it’ll probably be too late at that point anyway) I can spend my twilight years on the planet reminding everyone that I didn’t think the science was any good and maybe we could have done something if the scientists hadn’t been such agenda driven whores, but it’s their fault nothing happened because they were too strident.

    Yup, that’s about right.

    • Sebastian – no need to invent stories about me. It’s all in the “About” page at Omniclimate (google for it – if I put a link here you’ll accuse me of trying to generate traffic as if I cared).

      And your score is 0/5.

      • jasonpettitt Says:

        “google for it…”

        So I did. It seems you aspire to be a commentator who has no concept of how to evaluate information qualitatively or why you’d even want to – while of course retaining the right to pick and choose and embellish on the bits you ‘like’. A sort of not quite so witty James Dellingpole – an interpreter of interpretations.

        What’s interesting from my point of view, is that from the confidence you show in your comments you do appear to believe that constitutes some kind of equivalent apex of rational and intellectual thought. You can simply demand that you’re at least as right as someone who has put the in legwork to show a robust argument. As if science, law, economics, logic, philosophy and human endeavour over centuries and millennia were all for nothing.

        Which is a shame, because it’s also apparent that you’re bright and could be a potent thinker. I don’t often mention the Dunning-Kruger effect, but I think it may be apt.

  9. Thank you Jason. You might want to reconsider the meaning of finding refuge in the Dunning Krüger effect at the end of a remote and passive personality analysis of a total stranger.

  10. Actually I suggested you were a DK victim yourself…the fact you didn’t get the message sort of confirms that.

    But enough of me, I’m OT apart than when I’m in the news (never so far).

    • jasonpettitt Says:

      No, I did get that. And it’s quite plausible that I am. And it’s possible that makes me hypocritical too. But that wouldn’t alter the fact. It may say something about me. It says nothing about you or your ‘about me’ page.

      See, I was going to argue against the charge of ‘denialist think’ as Sebastian puts it. I think it’s easy to make that kind of conclusion, but I think it actually misrepresents people.

      Most people I come across who take it upon themselves to argue the toss over issues of climate science and respective policy seem to me to be motivated by a couple of common things.

      1st, the idea that policy to avoid climate risks isn’t itself risk free. That’s a concern that’s genuine and actually quite rational. But it’s boosted by a false notion that clings to uncertainty as a kind of woobie. Sailing the Titanic full of passengers blind into a sea of ice bergs doesn’t become wise because you don’t know exactly where they are or whether you’ll hit a big one. The uncertainty demands an early change of course. But I’d very much agree with you that we then have to work damn hard to make sure the change of course doesn’t produce its own problems.

      2nd is a deep, mistrust variously of liberals, governments, other governments, Al Gore, science, and whoever and whomever might influence decision and policy. It’s not that I’m not sympathetic – there are some really nasty, sticky issues. But to be paralysed by mistrust or cynicism is, I think, wrong headed.

      Anyway. Then I read your ‘about me’ page and I couldn’t bring myself to defend any of it. But I agree that you should return to being off topic, even though you did invite the assessment.

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